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How to architect the world's most connected sports venues

With such a proliferation of new technologies today, building a connected space that will continue to be state of the art 25 years from now seems daunting. But by equipping venues with technology that can adapt and improve with each future technological advancement, it’s a reality that venues will be some of the smartest buildings in cities all over the world. When teams spend more than half a billion dollars on a new building, they need to do the project correctly to ensure it works as promised, exceeds expectations and impresses every day, all while future-proofing it to ensure the technology doesn’t soon become obsolete. Twenty-five years ago, in 1992, do you think teams building arenas ever imagined that soon enough every fan would have an internet-connected device in their pocket?

The question is, how do you plan for your technology needs a quarter of a century from now? In this article, I will walk through the key steps sports venues need to take to become connected spaces with built-in innovation and the ability to infuse new technology on the fly.

A recipe for success

To build a connected venue that will support future iterations without breaking the bank, consider this step-by-step guide:

Step 1: Begin at the end
By starting with visualizing the end result and then working backward, you can better anticipate potential obstacles. The first thing to do is select your target launch date. Remember, it’s great to push boundaries and shoot for the stars, but with a hard deadline you have to be realistic. In the case of an NBA basketball arena, for example, even if you don’t finish the venue’s app by the start of the season, you’ll still have tens of thousands of fans in the building on opening night. So prioritize the components that are most crucial for fan satisfaction — like Wi-Fi. It’s inevitable to see regular setbacks in development timelines, but there are many more factors to take into account with the technology required for connected venues.

Step 2: Define your top goals
Once the visualization process is complete, you can really get started with development. First, define the top three goals for your venue. When defining these, involvement from all decision-makers on a sports team is crucial. This includes team owners, project managers and the CTO to collectively create the core goals of the new venue. While completing this exercise, it’s just as important to define things that are not important to avoid feature creep over time.

Step 3: Hire people who are smarter than you
It’s important to remember that you’re connecting many specific game-time components like in-seat ordering, player stats and on-demand, post-game car rides into a smart, connected venue and there isn’t a hard and fast blueprint. A connected venue project involves trying new things and experimenting, so you need to accept that you’ll hit roadblocks and problems that have not been resolved before. How do you solve the problems you don’t yet know about, don’t understand and don’t have anyone to turn to for help? Hire people who smarter than you — outsourcing talent is critical.

During this hiring process, make sure to hire experts in infrastructure, connectivity, hardware, software, integrations and more. If you don’t have budget for internal headcount, find partners with a proven track record and an understanding of your vision. Everyone needs to understand the core goals of your connected sports venue because they will individually make trade-offs and decisions that you trust align with your core goals. Additionally, determine what the questions are that you need answered, so that once you resolve them, you can start building.

Step 4: Invest in an iPaaS
People generally agree that building a smart, connected venue isn’t easy, but they’re especially mistaken when they think all the required technology is readily available. Most of the individual elements of a connected venue do exist today, but they usually aren’t ready to be instantly integrated. This is the reality when you’re building for the future — integration of everything is critical. So to achieve a truly integrated venue, don’t waste unnecessary time, money and resources trying to build the connected infrastructure yourself. Instead invest in a good, enterprise-grade integration platform as a service (iPaaS) so you can easily and immediately connect all of your microservices, IoT devices and products your team will leverage.

Unfortunately, most of the systems you’ll try to connect are going to be buggy and lack the proper connection endpoints (or APIs). So expertise of all kinds of hardware, software and programming interfaces is required. While whiteboarding your game plan, one of the phases will be “connect system.” That sounds easy, and you may even allot a whole quarter for the integration, thinking that’s plenty of time, but don’t kid yourself. Integrations almost always take three times as long as planned, and cost five times the expected cost. When you’re doing something that’s never been done before, remember to not rush.

Step 5: Make sure you’re vetting your vendors with due diligence
It’s absolutely critical that you pick the right vendors early in the process. Since there are so many hard deadlines and firm budgets associated with building a connected venue, you won’t have the luxury of changing your mind at the last second. Even if you’re partnering with a billion-dollar tier-1 provider who’s been around for a decade, there’s absolutely no guarantee that its technology will do everything you want it to or that it’s 100% dependable in all circumstances. This vendor may have a strong sales presence and a stellar professional services group, but even a 15-second delay is an eternity when today the NBA outputs game stats every 5 seconds. Who knows, in 10 years venues may be able to track a player’s heartbeat every 10-milliseconds. At that point, a 15-second delay will be laughable.

Step 6: Choose your core technology
When selecting the technologies the connected venue will use, there are a few core components you absolutely have to get right from the get-go. First, plan for as much bandwidth as feasibly possible. There’s a reason every new connected venue you hear about is planning for twice as much bandwidth as it previously had. It’s because data created doubles in size every 2 years, as reported by IDC. That means data created will be 5,000 times greater in size in 25 years than it is today.

Second, Wi-Fi needs to be available everywhere, in addition to being fast, reliable and easy to connect to and use. If a game attendee is required to agree to terms every time he or she tries to connect to the internet, by the fifth time their iMessage will fail to send and they’ll become disconnected. This poor cellular connection not only leads to the inability to join the Wi-Fi network, but fans will also be unable to do things like share photos and posts on Facebook and Snapchat (for example), and that’s not a good thing for the reputation of the venue.

Step 7: Build-in data harvesting to make agile decisions
You need to invest heavily in the tools that will help you succeed. Promote collaboration across teams, vendors and partners through real-time data integration. Once you have the data you need, learn how to analyze it and act on it quickly. This allows you to invest in quick bets alongside your long-term project. If you’re trying something new, launch it in a single section of the venue and see how it performs. By not performing test runs and waiting until a technology implementation is absolutely perfect, you’ll waste cycles, budget and time. It’s better to launch something with a few bugs that you can iterate and fix than spin cycles on something that you thought was revolutionary, but in the end, there is ultimately no need for it.

Step 8: Build-in the “wow” factor
It’s important to remember that you’re building a connected venue for consumers who are excited to be exposed to the latest features on their favorite sports team’s app. But remember that even after high initial adoption, fans will lose interest if there isn’t the constant “wow” factor. So when a feature isn’t exciting anymore, venue app developers need to be ready to roll out the next coolest thing. With a proper iPaaS, venues can take advantage of this add-on approach and continue offering compelling fan experiences; you can quickly build in or swap out technology to test, iterate or incorporate on the fly.

Step 9: Build-in a continuous, microservices approach to avoid technical debt
The biggest takeaway is to remember that everything you build now will be obsolete within 10 years of launch. Many would argue that the best way to plan for this reality would be to plan a remodel every 10 years to patch up the cracks and set yourself up for 10 more years of a great connected venue. But I disagree. To make a remodel successful you’ll spend two years defining the vision, two years planning for the remodel and then two more years before it’s finally completed. At this point you’re spending 70% of your time just to improve it.

Instead, think of your connected venue like code because in reality, it is only as smart and successful as the cloud-based microservices and hardware connecting it. Facebook recently shifted to a continuous deployment model with great success. Rather than have monolithic releases, every minute of the day Facebook releases new code. You can apply this same principle to a connected venue by constantly looking at every piece of the puzzle to rethink and rebuild it. A venue is never complete or fully “connected” because there will always be something more you can do to improve.

Building for the Future

By continuously reassessing your venue’s goals, needs and technologies, and by striving to “one-up” yourself, you can embrace the continuous development process more easily to constantly renew your arena.

In 25 years, development of connected venues will be expected for sports teams of all types, however the term “connected” won’t be as revolutionary as it is today since implemented integrated technology will be the standard practice. The use of connected technology will be expected in new construction.

The emergence of connected sports venues is a stepping stone towards building a future where connected cities exist all over the world.

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