May 30 2023

Upgrading Stadium Wi-Fi Connects Fans to Their Universities

Higher education institutions are investing in stadium and arena networks to shorten wait times, analyze behavior patterns, engage fans and more.

More than 37 million people attended college football games in 2022. That’s a full rebound from pre-pandemic levels and a reminder to university administrators and IT leaders that the ecosystems that develop on game days can be as challenging to manage as the campus itself.

The largest venues in higher education can fit more than 100,000 fans, and the capacity even medium-sized football stadiums can dwarf entire campus enrollments. The same goes for major basketball areas, baseball stadiums and other venues, particularly at large public universities.

As universities continue to wisely invest in network upgrades on campus to support remote and hybrid learning, it’s worth looking at these large venues and their Wi-Fi capabilities, because demand for bandwidth is enormous.

According to Extreme Networks, more than 56,000 unique devices connected to the Wi-Fi network at the University of Florida’s Ben Hill Griffin Stadium during a game last year, and those devices transferred a whopping 13.6 terabytes of data.

That data is consumed by more than just those tens of thousands of fans posting selfies or browsing the web. Stadium operations teams are increasingly reliant on Wi-Fi as part of their jobs, and university staff can extract useful data to make the fan experience even better.

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Better Stadium Wi-Fi Improves the College Sports Fan Experience

Most fan devices entering a stadium or arena can stay connected through cellular networks. But even in 2023, large numbers of devices can overwhelm those networks, especially on campuses in more rural areas. So, first and foremost, providing a reliable, free in-stadium Wi-Fi connection keeps fans connected before, during and after the game, something nearly everyone demands in every setting in today’s world. Not being connected can leave fans with a poor impression regardless of the game’s outcome.

Beyond that connection, though, robust Wi-Fi networks can help colleges and universities take the fan experience to the next level. Modern stadiums use giant video boards to give fans a chance to interact, among other things. Some universities will allow fans to share photos that can be displayed on the big board, answer trivia questions or even vote in polls to determine what song gets played next, all in the spirit of fan engagement.

Network connectivity also can give fans more time to spend in their seats. Mobile ticketing gets fans in the gates more quickly, mobile food ordering eliminates long wait times at concession stands and cashless payment at those stands and in stadium gift shops keeps fans from missing any of the action.

Fans connecting to in-stadium Wi-Fi networks also give university officials an opportunity to track and understand their behavior. If long lines are forming at one concession stand and not another, for example, stadium operations staff can promote areas with shorter wait times or adjust staffing levels. Likewise, contextual data can show where fans congregate during games and what they purchase, giving marketing and operations staff insights that could help them make smarter decisions.

READ MORE: Learn how mobile technology impacts the college sports fan experience.

What Technology Is Needed to Improve Stadium Wi-Fi?

Stadiums can be complex and challenging areas to equip with up-to-date networking equipment. The significant amount of concrete and metal can cause problems for wireless signals, and the sheer amount of space that must be covered — including parking lots, upper-level suites and field-level seating — requires some creative solutions.

The CDW higher education team has helped a number of universities with these types of projects, and our experience has taught us some valuable lessons.

There’s having a wish list for stadium improvements, and then there’s the reality of the work that must be done. As with any major project, the flashy, fan-facing elements are exciting, but with every upgrade comes a potential infrastructure project that could involve getting into the walls of sometimes very old stadiums. In addition, multiple access points may need to be added throughout the stadium to ensure coverage in every seat, something that can be challenging closer to the playing surface and farther from walls and ceilings of the concourse.

Beyond infrastructure, security is a concern anytime new access points and new networking power come in. An assessment from the CDW higher education team can reveal potential vulnerabilities in a stadium’s network, something that’s especially important if it is to be connected to the broader campus network, where more consequential student and research data could be housed.

Storage shouldn’t be ignored either, whether that means more cloud space or additional on-premises solutions. Every animated scoreboard flourish, highlight package and instant replay must be housed somewhere, and it must run lag-free on the video board.

This article is part of EdTech: Focus on Higher Education’s UniversITy blog series.

Dmytro Aksonov/Getty Images

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