Wired Stadiums Offer Sneak Peek at Future

S A N   F R A N C I S C O, Sept. 27, 2000 -- Scoring tickets to a big game is a major coup — it sure beats watching on TV or listening in on the radio.

But for fantasy sports fanatics and other information junkies, a free chair near an Internet-connected computer might be almost as attractive as a top-dollar seat on the 50-yard line.

With those sports fans in mind, 3Com Inc. has started an adventurous experiment at the home of football’s San Francisco 49ers that it thinks might catch on nationwide.

3Com, which just renewed its naming rights to the former Candlestick Park through next season, has set up about 50 transmitters in the stadium in recent weeks.

First in the luxury boxes and eventually in regular seats, those transmitters will let fans use handheld computers to get statistics, discuss the game with other watchers and people at home, and possibly even order food for delivery.

High-Tech Sneak Peek

High-tech amenities have been popping up in other stadiums across the country, but 3Com is believed to be the first to install what is known as a wireless local area network. The company hopes to show potential customers — other sport arenas, airports and convention centers, for example — that such a network offers more convenience and faster response times than a hard-wired system.

At 3Com Park, a fan will able to celebrate a touchdown by exchanging high-fives with the stranger in the next seat and then firing off an Internet message to a friend at home.

3Com, based in Santa Clara, Calif., thinks there will be demand for the service, and is even trying to figure out whether it’s something people would be willing to pay for.

“Very clearly, entertainment has changed,” said David Katz, the company’s vice president of strategic alliances. “People expect more in the form of information and multiple video communication.”

While NFL attendance hit a record high last season, the league fully supports giving fans more to do at games — despite the implicit suggestion that the action on the field may no longer be enough to keep people entertained.

“Going to the game is the still the ultimate experience,” said Chris Russo, the league’s senior vice president for new media. “But if there’s some enhancement in terms of accessing statistics, or ordering food in the stadium or ordering merchandise, it’s just taking advantage of new technology to make the experience better for fans.”

High-Tech Coming Attractions

The high-tech world not only has been stamping company names on stadiums, but also forming partnerships with teams to host their Web sites or handle their communications services.

For example, there are computers in luxury boxes and lounges throughout PSINet Stadium, new home of the Baltimore Ravens. The stadium also features two scoreboards that essentially are giant computer screens, with layers of statistics and video updates on out-of-town games.

“There are going to be times when the game and the team cannot sell itself,” Ravens spokesman Kevin Byrne said. “So we look for a total package.”

Internet entrepreneur Mark Cuban, who owns pro basketball’s Dallas Mavericks, plans to have wireless Internet services in the team’s new arena when it opens next year. He envisions their use in ways that don’t distract fans’ attention from the court.

“I think the worst possible use of technology is to use it as a reason to present more TV. Other games, other events, unless it’s a newsworthy event, we won’t be presenting those during playing time. We want the focus on the event,” said Cuban, billionaire co-founder of Broadcast.com, in an e-mail interview.

“Want to take home a highlight video of the game, just plug in your [personal digital assistant] and take it home with you. Same with a concert or song you heard at the game. … Want to create your own stats that are pulled from the official system? Great. Games are digital content that can be interacted with, distributed, discussed, whatever, before or after a game.”

An Unproven Technology

3Com’s system in San Francisco might not need to be popular to be effective. It just has to work.

“Wireless LAN technology for sporting events is totally unproven,” said Erik Suppiger, a networking analyst at Chase H&Q. “I would imagine this is more a demonstration of technology than addressing a targeted market.”

3Com hopes to officially launch the system in the luxury boxes Sunday at the next 49ers home game, and then gradually expand it to the other seats over the rest of the season.

At first, fans will have to borrow a Hitachi handheld device, but eventually they will be able to bring their own Palms (Palm Inc. is being spun off by 3Com) or other PDAs, and have them activated for the service.

Exactly what applications will be available are still being tested. Streaming video and polls — for instance, what play to call on third down and 2 — are among the possibilities.

Some fans found in a football chat room on the Internet were unsure whether they’d like to be able to do the same thing at a game. One person said a game is the “only time in my mundane life I don’t open a PC.”

“In the stands, I don’t know — it gets too emotional, and you’re jumping around and screaming and yelling. It seems like it would be kind of strange to stop and chat,” said Johanna Johnston, 28, an Oakland Raiders fan in Napa, Calif. “But on the other hand, I would like to look at my fantasy football stats.”