The last year in sports saw more disruption than anyone could have predicted, marked by the impact of COVID-19.
Looking back to March 2020, in a matter of days, the NBA suspended its season, the National Hockey League paused its season and March Madness action, like the Big East Tournament game between St. John’s and Creighton, was canceled at halftime.
Mike Finley, CEO of Boingo Wireless and a member of the Creighton Athletics Hall of Fame, was there that evening at Madison Square Garden. “Reality hit pretty quickly,” Finley said. “It was unlike anything I’ve seen in sports.”
Since that time, sports has proven its resiliency, finding a way to bring much-needed entertainment back into our lives in a scaled-back, socially distanced way. Major league and NCAA teams have returned, engaging with fans over broadcast, livestreams and cardboard cutouts. This weekend, football fans will celebrate the perseverance of sports as the Big Game takes place in Tampa Bay.
Wireless has played a key role in allowing sports to continue through unprecedented disruption, and will continue to help pave the way forward to when games and events can once again take place before sellout crowds.
Boingo’s Finley sat down with WIA to talk about the important role wireless will play in bringing people back together through sports. Boingo’s connectivity solutions support sports and entertainment venues across the NBA, NFL, MLS, NCAA and other leagues to help teams connect fans and hit digital transformation goals. You’ll find Boingo connecting fans with cellular and Wi-Fi at iconic locations like Soldier Field in Chicago, State Farm Arena in Atlanta and the new MLS stadium for Austin FC. The company’s approach is neutral, making use of licensed, unlicensed and shared spectrum, to provide the capabilities teams need and the experience fans want.
How long has Boingo been a player in the live sports market?
We started 20 years ago in airports, but that evolved quickly. Boingo was ahead of the game in identifying the importance of enabling people to connect in sports venues. It started with people wanting to highlight that they were at the event by posting from their phone, which we supported with Wi-Fi and cellular. Now with 5G and the proliferation of IoT, Boingo is helping teams realize new gameday experiences.
How will wireless play a role in bringing people back together via sports?
With the exception of being in stadiums, wireless has already brought us back together. If you look back at last March or April, there were no sports available at all. But the PGA returned, the NBA did an incredible job of finishing its season, baseball played, the NFL came back. Across the board, to a large degree, wireless enabled those to happen. The NFL is a perfect example. During summer camps, they were doing meetings via Zoom, and wireless technology enabled that and has continued to enable that as the season has continued.
How will wireless play a role in allowing fans to return for live sporting events?
Wireless will be a key factor for the safe return of fans. Prior to COVID, we already had contactless or wireless ticketing through phones or devices to get into events, but now it’s really going to accelerate as teams roll out more touchless experiences. You might have health screenings or temperature checks that are enabled by wireless technology. Stadiums need to be cleaned on a regular basis, and to do that via robotics or autonomous devices requires a lot of connectivity. Cameras and sensors can help create social distancing.
Everyone we are working with, from airports to military bases, to student housing to sports stadiums, has the same goal, which is first and foremost the health and safety of their customers, employees, players and fans.
Has COVID-19 accelerated the demand for wireless-enabled applications within venues?
The targets and the goals are always very lofty for wireless-enabled services, but the industry has always met them. Offering health screenings from your device or remote monitoring has been part of the promise of wireless for years, but if you go back 12 months ago, people were not prioritizing those capabilities. The people we are working with — airports, sports leagues, team owners — they are now pushing forward, and it’s really going to require a converged network that’s going to pull together all of these capabilities and technologies. Contactless concessions is a great example. The ability to order food from your seat at a game and have it delivered or go pick it up is not a new capability. But now it is really coming into play and in fact may be required. Having very strong, always-on, high-speed and low-latency connectivity in place allows these new capabilities to emerge. When we started deploying 4G back in the 2010s, everybody kept asking what the applications were, and I can tell you, nobody brought up Uber and Lyft and Netflix streaming because they didn’t exist at that time – certainly not like they do today. But as the network capabilities came into play, the great application developers we have in this country really drove these new mobile experiences. As new wireless technologies are enabled in venues, you are going to see more and more innovation come to light. Another factor is that since stadiums are emptier during COVID, we’re able to get these networks built out more quickly in some cases.
How will wireless enhance the fan experience?
Microbetting is one application that is relatively new. You could be sitting at a Clippers game and make a bet via your wireless device on whether Kawhi Leonard’s next shot will be a three- or a two-point shot, or will he be fouled, or what the score will be at half time. Sports betting, where it is legal, is a nascent industry, and those are all things that can start happening as we return to the game because new wireless capabilities are in place. Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality — where you can be anywhere in the stadium but feel like you’re courtside or on the field — will become popular. More information will be available to fans at their fingertips, whether they want to zero in on a particular player or a particular team stat. There’s a lot of activity that’s available today with wearables that allow fans to be much more immersed in the game, have more views of instant replay, participate in activities during time outs, and access more information on players. The fan experience is only going to continue to grow — with companies, technologies, leagues and owners, and players supporting new engaging applications.
How has wireless in stadiums and arenas changed the way teams and players communicate, especially during COVID?
All the sports leagues, even at the college level and to a large degree high school as well, have a lot of information available via tablets and computers. Technology has enabled players to have that information readily available and easily updatable. Specific to COVID, the team rooms have become socially distanced locations, which could be their houses or another room in the facility. The NFL uses tablets, and players and coaches are able to communicate in ways that don’t require them to be huddled up or right next to each other on the sideline. Wearables track biometrics that are important to teams. The ability now to know players’ temperature or whether their heart rate is at the right level, it’s all for the safety of the players and we’re seeing a lot of our partners outfitting not just their stadiums but also their practice facilities with wireless networks to enable these capabilities. You just expect connectivity, you expect things to work, and you expect things to be high speed. And you should expect that because that’s what the wireless industry delivers. I think every one of the carriers and everyone in the industry should really feel very proud of what they’ve done over these past 10 months because they’ve all done incredible things with connectivity.
What wireless technologies are making all of this happen?
It’s a story of convergence. The stadium connectivity requirements and use cases are only increasing, so it’s not going to be a matter of this technology or that technology. We’re going to need all of it — cellular, DAS, Wi-Fi, CBRS. We work to bring all these technologies together because wireless is becoming more complex and that can be very daunting especially for a team that is already up against a lot of hurdles given the pandemic. We follow this converged approach with a neutral-host model, so we can get all the carriers involved and no one is left behind. If a team wants Wi-Fi, we make sure they are connected. If they want CBRS for IoT robotics, we make sure they are connected. We can cover stadiums corner to corner with this network approach. So our message is, yes the venues do require connectivity but it’s not one size fits all. At the end of the day, fans want a seamless experience. In the ideal world, if you could walk in, have your ticket on your device, have a health screening done wirelessly and then go enjoy the game in a safe way, that’s what everyone is preparing for. I think we’ll be prepared to do that once we come back.
Mike Finley is CEO of Boingo and serves on the company’s board of directors. He is responsible for the company’s strategic direction and leading the business into the 5G future. Prior to Boingo, Finley served as President of North America and Australia at Qualcomm. He has over three decades of experience in senior management roles in the telecommunications industry with Nextel, Sprint, Verizon Wireless, AirTouch Cellular, Cellular One and McCaw Cellular. He currently serves on the board of the CTIA; the board of the Los Angeles Sports and Entertainment Commission; and is a member of the Creighton University Hall of Fame. Finley received a B.S. and B.A. in marketing from Creighton University and attended the General Manager Program in Executive Education at Harvard Business School.