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Apps Are Bringing Fans Closer to the NFL Than Ever Before

We haven’t seen it yet, but here’s a scene that could play out soon: During halftime at an NFL game, the stadium floodlights dim and tens of thousands of fans hold their phones aloft. The devices’ screens begin to sputter with colors. Seconds later, a choreographed light show begins to play out around the whole stadium as everyone’s phones work as one big screen, creating a giant, stadium-sized animation.

Such an experience is possible with so-called gameday apps, the category of mobile apps designed to be used by fans inside their hometown stadiums and arenas. When they first showed up a few years ago, these apps were only capable of novel things like providing seat maps or letting you order a plate of nachos without leaving your seat. Now, gameday apps are branching out to incorporate an array of new services—particularly those by NFL teams, who are working to grow engagement with fans.

They’re Ready for Some Football

VenueNext is the company behind the gameday apps for the NFL’s two newest venues for the San Francisco 49ers and Minnesota Vikings, and for the league’s largest stadium where the Dallas Cowboys play. The company is trying new features, from in-app deals to coordinated light shows, that it hopes will help teams improve the fan experience while also gaining information about who the fans are.

John Paul, CEO and founder of VenueNext, says the top use for gameday apps among the teams in its client base is mobile ticketing.

“They want to know who is in the stadium, how many games did you come to and if we should sell you a ticket package,” Paul says. “The problem with a paper ticket is it is an anonymizer. If we get you to use the gameday app (we can learn).”

To encourage the mobile ticketing use in Santa Clara’s Levi’s Stadium, all of this year’s 49ers season ticket holders received a QR code and badge giving them 10 percent of all services in the stadium. They can redeem it at the concession counter or by ordering from within the app. Another new feature, smart notifications, allows teams to target specific ticket holders or even seating sections with information, whether a commerce deal (a sale on jerseys in the team store behind their section, for example) or updates on new videos.

But with only about half of all fans using the app on any given Sunday in Levi’s Stadium, the 49ers developed a new way to create awareness of it by tying the app into the big screen. Now twice during the game fans can use the app to dictate entertainment, with a trivia question in the second quarter—in-app voting appears in real-time on the big board. Then, in the third quarter, fans can vote on which song will lead them into the fourth quarter. The 49ers received 60,000 in-app votes in the first 12 seconds the first time they rolled out the fresh feature.

“It is fun to feel like you have control over the experience of the game,” Paul says.

Then there’s the light show, built into the app for the 49ers and Vikings. “I can’t tell you an immediate plan to use it, but during the season it will get used for the fans to hold up their phones and we can program all the phones in the stadium to do something,” Paul says. “Let’s make this purple, white, random, flash on the camera for half a quarter of a second. We can have a pre-recorded light show. We try to make it fun to be at the game and create an awareness the app does more than just two things.”

Instant Replay

Other 2016 upgrades include the app tying with the concession screens for real-time updating of available items at each stand, changing both the menu boards behind the stand and within the app. Beyond ticketing, using the app to order food from seats stands as the next most common app usage, so keeping information in real-time staves off frustration and wasted time. From there, wayfinding helps fans explore the stadium, find express food pickup locations, or simply navigate the best way in or out of the venue.

“The app is the key that unlocks the enhanced fan experience that we want to provide every guest we welcome to Levi’s Stadium,” says 49ers team president Al Guido. “Fans have demands for consistent Wi-Fi connectivity and access to amenities like they have at home that they didn’t have 10 years ago. In another decade, those demands will be far greater, putting the responsibility on us to keep the app dynamic and responsive to the features our guests will be demanding in the future.”

Video, while still not has heavily used as the ticketing, food, and wayfinding components, provides fans four different camera angles for replays of every play within four seconds of the play ending.

“The fan has the ability to go in and decide which angles they want to look at,” Paul says. As VenueNext works to make video more compelling, expect more exclusive content coming to each venue. Of course, the option to watch the NFL’s RedZone within the app remains a compelling draw.

“This is a digital experience when they come in,” says Vikings executive vice president Steve LaCroix. “It is a bit of a cultural change in behavior, but it is more of just how we all like to get into a game.”

Follow Tim Newcomb on Twitter at @tdnewcomb.

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