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Back to the arena: Sports venues tap tech to welcome returning fans

Stadiums and teams adapt to the new fan experience, providing safety precautions and enhanced mobile support to meet changing needs.


By Mitch Wagner | May 2021

Fans are returning to live sporting events and concerts, but it’s a gradual, cautious return, with people feeling varying levels of comfort around COVID-19. For example, 60% of fans want social distancing to continue even when large events are deemed safe to attend, a survey of 3,000 United States, UK, and Australian fans in January found.

Graph

Data: Oracle Food and Beverage survey of 1,000 US consumers

Such concerns will only accelerate the importance of mobile apps to make sure fans have a great time. The survey, by Oracle Food and Beverage, found 38% of fans would prefer to order food and drinks from mobile apps, compared with 22% from traditional staffed concessions, 20% from a mobile website, and 19% from a self-service screen. And 46% of fans want food delivered to their seats.

“The biggest vehicle for fan engagement, especially when it comes to our in-game experience, is going to be our mobile app,” says Heidi Dettmer, VP of marketing and broadcast for the Seattle Kraken, a new National Hockey League franchise that debuts with the 2021-2022 season.

The Kraken team built the app in-house in parallel with building the new Climate Pledge Arena itself, to make the mobile and physical experiences complementary.

Venues can find the critical features for app development by listening to fans and observing their behavior. The Kraken team has done extensive research, asking fans how their behavior has changed since the pandemic began, Dettmer says.

“Once we get the app in their hands and start to connect with fans by these touchpoints, we can see how they’re behaving, what they’re engaging with the most, what they’re not engaging with, and what points we can optimize,” she says.

Dettmer spoke at an Oracle-sponsored panel on March 24, “Designing and Executing the Ultimate 360 Fan Experience, Powered by Oracle,” at the SportTechie 2021 State of the Industry conference. Oracle speakers continued the discussion at a follow-up panel the following day with more on the essential technology decisions.

 

“We’re getting to know our fans, and there’s a lot to learn about their preferences and comfort levels. We’re going to continue to learn more and more as we return to live events.”

Heidi Dettmer, VP of Marketing and Broadcast, Seattle Kraken

Eager to return

Some 82% of fans miss the experience of watching live events, according to the Oracle Food and Beverage survey conducted by Untold Insights in January. A big group of fans are ready to return, and that number is growing. Some 28% of US and UK consumers said they plan to go back to stadiums as soon as they’re deemed safe, up from 16% in July 2020. However, another big group was hanging back, with 26% having no plans to return this year.

Heidi Dettmer

The new Seattle Kraken hockey team sees its mobile app as its best tool for engagement with fans, says Heidi Dettmer, team VP of marketing and broadcast.

During the pandemic, people have expanded how they use mobile applications—many ordered online groceries and did curbside restaurant pickup for the first time—and as fans they’ll expect new digital experiences when they’re back in the stands.

Arenas and teams will need to merge physical and digital channels to provide a complete experience for fans that starts before game day. The mobile application should provide assistance with transportation, parking, help fans get food, and facilitate friend gatherings, says Joe Rembold, director of technical innovation for Delaware North, whose Sportservice division provides catering, concessions, and premium dining in more than 50 stadiums, ballparks, and arenas in the US, UK, Australia, and Asia.

“You want to make sure you’re staying engaged with that fan the entire time,” Bret Hartley, Oracle senior solutions engineer, says. “Reach out to fans pre-event, post-event, during the event, on nonevent days. Really make the fan feel part of the organization.”

Nate Liberman, director, sales, global partnerships, for OVG, agrees. OVG is a global advisory, development, and investment company for the sports and live entertainment industries.

“The more ways you can authentically engage with the consumer, the more opportunities there are from a business standpoint,” Liberman says. Benefits accrue to the arena operators, teams, and partners.

For the Kraken team in Seattle, understanding fans’ post-pandemic expectations is just one more element that they’re learning about this brand-new fan base.

“We’re getting to know our fans, and there’s a lot to learn about their preferences and comfort levels. We’re going to continue to learn more and more as we return to live events,” says Dettmer.

Illustration: Wes Rowell; Photo courtesy of the Seattle Kraken

Mitch Wagner

Mitch Wagner

Mitch Wagner is a senior writer at Oracle. He was previously executive editor at Light Reading and at InformationWeek.