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Welcome to the era of the 5G fan experience for sporting events

Jason Caralon, Flexential.
(Image credit: Future)

The pandemic has fundamentally changed the fan experience, as professional sports teams have adapted their technology infrastructure to improve how fans engage with their teams digitally. As we look towards the MLB’s Opening Day and the NBA playoffs beginning in May, it’s important for both major leagues to take note and adapt their infrastructure to meet fans as they reopen and re-enter parks and arenas. 

Stadium infrastructure

"For this year’s Super Bowl, telecom providers, including Verizon, began work on Tampa Bay’s infrastructure two years before the game."

Jason Caralon, Flexential.

In 2020, Miami hosted 60,000 fans in Hard Rock Stadium for what was touted as the first Super Bowl featuring 5G. As a result of the Super Bowl and surrounding events, Miami-Dade County, which had never previously seen any 5G rollouts, saw 125 permit requests for 5G facilities, with Verizon, the official sponsor of the NFL, bringing 5G capabilities to the city and stadium in anticipation of the game. For this year’s Super Bowl, telecom providers, including Verizon, began work on Tampa Bay’s infrastructure two years before the game, investing millions and expanding permanent 5G deployments into the city and Raymond James Stadium. Beyond onsite infrastructure, Verizon also focused on its NFL app experience, delivering fans an immersive and interactive in-stadium experience while at home via “5G SuperStadium.” 

We are starting to see the tremendous impact that 5G technology has, and will continue to have, on viewership in-stadium and at-home. Let’s take a closer look at how infrastructure has evolved to drive digital efficiencies and interactive experiences for fans. 

In-stadium fan experience 

Fans inside Raymond James Stadium using 5G-enabled devices noticed better and consistent connectivity as they texted friends and family photos and videos – a direct result of limited audience numbers and less LTE density. While streaming itself would not have been overly impactful on the in-stadium experience, given that folks were watching live versus on mobile applications, the significant upgrades made to stadium infrastructure drove stronger connectivity options. 

Such a self-directed fan experience is the next level of service of the future. Ultimately, fans in stands  interacting with and sending rich multimedia content, should be able to do so seamlessly and quickly. As such, facilities must consider how they strengthen bandwidth capabilities on-site to drive these options. 

Streaming of the future

For viewers at home, cord-cutting hit record highs in 2020, with live access sports streaming coming to the forefront.  

The number of fans viewing a sports game online has evolved over the last year. As the spring and summer sports come up, it’s likely that the majority of fans will still be tuning in virtually. As such, these organizations, in collaboration with network providers, must consider how they are reaching fans at home. This all comes down to edge computing via decentralized architecture. Taking note from Super Bowl streaming, where CBS All Access had issues and viewers needed to pay for the app to watch, it’s important for providers to meet individuals with stronger options.

"5G and OTT services can drive strong connections for fans, no matter where they are located."

Jason Caralon, Flexential.

Over-the-top (OTT) levels have recently seen a significant jump from previous broadcast levels. But, currently, payment, authentication, and access to rights via cable subscriptions have made it very hard to sign users up to streaming apps quickly. Fans are often left confused and frustrated when trying to quickly stream content. Not to mention, a centralized infrastructure doesn’t work when millions of individuals are trying to access the same platform at the same time. That’s why low latency and 5G infrastructure are so important. 5G and OTT services can drive strong connections for fans, no matter where they are located. Device-based applications driven by OTT subs, combined with more bandwidth and density driven by 5G can ultimately enable a strong experience.

Looking ahead

The pandemic has forever changed how fans interact with their favorite teams. We’ll not only begin to see more fans in stands, but more options available for fans to get the content they want at-home in real time. With so many stadiums and arenas being built with 5G infrastructure (like LA’s SoFi Stadium, where next year’s Super Bowl is being held), nationwide 5G rollouts continuing, and 6G already on the minds of many professionals, the future looks strong. 

Jason Carolan, Chief Innovation Officer at Flexential, a leading data center and hybrid IT provider with customers that include the MLB and PGA Tour. Flexentail provides partners with  an interconnected portfolio of capabilities – colocation, cloud, disaster recovery, managed and professional services – that can support business requirements as they evolve.