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How the NFL and NBA are Scoring Big in the Fan Experience Game

Whatever your opinion on #DeflateGate, Tom Brady, Beast Mode, or Katy Perry, if you’re a football fan, you’re likely pumped for Super Bowl XLIX.

And this year, if you’re lucky enough to be one of the 63,000 inside University of Phoenix Stadium, you’ll get something extra: access to a first-ever Super Bowl app designed only for in-stadium use on game day. The app, which lets fans access multi-angle replays, watch the highly anticipated commercials, and more, “is a part of a larger effort by the league to incorporate technology into the fan experience and other parts of the game,” says the NFL’s CIO Michelle McKenna-Doyle. “We’re not doing technology for technology’s sake; we want things that either enhance the fan’s experience or helps keep it the best professional sport to watch.”

For example, at Levi’s Stadium, the high-speed, WiFi- and iBeacon-enabled home of the San Francisco 49ers, fans can order and receive food and drinks from their seats and track the shortest wait times at the closest restrooms when nature calls. And, proving that everything’s bigger in Texas, an app at the Dallas Cowboys AT&T Stadium lets fans upload stadium selfies to a 130-foot interactive LED “fan experience board” and set off a coordinated strobe-ified lightshow when the app goes into “Unite This House” mode.

But some pro sports leagues are thinking about fan experience innovations outside the stadium too. At this year’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES), Samsung announced a partnership with the NBA to give fans access to virtual hoops. Starting in February, Samsung Gear VR owners can get a 360-degree, fully-immersive virtual view of on-the-court action, behind-the-scenes footage like interviews, team practices, and more. This move signals that the league has its sights clearly set on bigger virtual reality aspirations — and more profitable opportunities to engage with millions of fans worldwide. “When the day comes that 100 million or a billion people from mainland China can feel like they’re attending a Houston Rockets game courtside, that’s the dream,” Jeff Marsilio, associate vice president of global media distribution for the NBA, recently told FastCompany. “That’s the holy grail. That’s what we’re working toward.”

Technological advancements can only help teams improve the fan experience if used correctly. Ultimately, gaining a deep understanding of changes in fans’ attitudes, behaviors, and values will drive new innovations in experience, loyalty, and engagement. As the Celtics Vice President of Technology Jay Wessland stressed at last summer’s Experience Economy CIO Summit, “We don’t want to just know the fans. We want to know what they’re thinking.”

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