2020 vision: Networking the NFL’s gridirons

Jed York faces quite a task.

As president of the San Francisco 49ers, the franchise his family owns, York has the challenge of coming up with a state-of-the-art stadium design for perhaps the world’s most technologically discerning fan base — in the heart of the Silicon Valley.

Set aside for a moment the difficulty of actually getting a stadium constructed in California, and consider the approach of York, 29, who envisions a venue that satisfies the old-line fans and those from his plugged-in generation.

For that, he has to think outside the box … and inside the tablet, pad and hand-held device.


While heaping praise on Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and his palatial new stadium — one that features a colossal high-definition video screen — York said that’s not his vision for a 49ers stadium.

“Everything for us is micro, not macro,” York said in a telephone interview. “In the Silicon Valley, we want to know: What you can do on your smartphone? Our approach is, why build a $50-million scoreboard as opposed to enabling 65,000 people to have scoreboards in their hands that are interactive?

“How do I have something that’s a connector between 65,000 people and the football game, and the concessions, and buying a jersey for themselves or their buddy? How do you, if you’re sitting in the upper deck, ‘high-five’ somebody who’s sitting at the 50-yard line?

“How do you have that type of experience where you’re really interacting not just with the people around you in the stadium, but the entire 49ers nation?”

And York will be the first to admit he doesn’t know the answers to those questions. Yet. That’s why he plans to wait as long as possible before committing to any in-stadium hardware, for the best chance of creating an environment that is as cutting-edge as possible when the stadium is finally built. The best-case scenario calls for a new venue by 2015.

What York does know is that his stadium will need as much bandwidth as possible, and a very flexible software program to build upon. For that, he’s put some of the region’s best minds to work.

He uses the example of tight end Vernon Davis catching a touchdown pass to exemplify what fans of the future might have at their fingertips.

“As soon as he catches the touchdown,” York said, “you might want to see where Vernon grew up, or hear the story of him being raised by his grandmother. Maybe you want to see his highlight reel from high school. What types of things are people going to want to see? It’s not a one-size-fits-all.”


The thrust of all of this is making the in-stadium experience as comfortable, convenient and entertaining as it is watching football at home on your couch. The live-game experience has to be even better, in fact, to continue to draw people into stadiums.

Here are some innovations the future will bring:

• Sufficient wireless bandwidth so everyone in the stadium can stream video of the game.

• In-stadium cameras allowing fans to pick their desired feeds to watch three-dimensional video of the action, including replays from virtually every angle.


• Self-contained entertainment centers at your seat, allowing you to watch any games or the Red Zone Channel while the live game is taking place.

• A “cashless” stadium in which fans pay for food, drink and merchandise with smart cards that are topped off like phone cards.

• A loyalty system with those cards, allowing stadium personnel to recognize individual patrons by catering the experience to them. For instance, if you always get a soda in the second quarter, you can have it routinely delivered to you without having to order it.

• Privileges to leave and reenter the stadium at your leisure, which can happen only if you can be identified by, for instance, your smart card.


• Entertainment centers linked with stadiums so that families can take advantage of other activities. For example, San Francisco plans to build its stadium next to an amusement park. If a downtown Los Angeles stadium comes to fruition, fans could utilize facilities at LA Live.

• The opportunity for fans in the club and suite levels to watch the home team’s postgame news conference, something they already are able to do at the new stadiums of the Cowboys, Giants and Jets.

• Live updates from the stadium’s crowd- and traffic-control nerve center, so fans will have up-to-the-minute information on traffic, street closures and parking availability.

“Our model works when the stadiums are packed full of fans enjoying the thrill of the game,” said Mark Waller, the NFL’s chief marketing officer. “It’s only when you’ve got that that it can look fantastic at home.


“If you look at the history of the league, it’s always been a league that has constantly reviewed itself with a goal to improve and raise the bar. I term it restless dissatisfaction. We’re always asking ourselves — and no one more so than the commissioner himself — ‘What can we do better for fans? What can we do better for the game? What would make this a better experience?’ That leads you to constantly innovate.”

In many ways, it’s survival. The league needs to continually enhance its in-stadium experience because football has become such a phenomenal TV game, one in which the viewing audience is often more aware of what’s happened than the people who passed through the turnstiles.

The popularity of fantasy football has only increased that challenge. Now, fans who are at games are less likely to be informed about what’s happening with their fantasy teams than they would be were they watching from home. That’s why teams have begun experimenting with hand-held devices on which fans can follow every game, complete with highlights and statistics.

And there’s the Red Zone Channel — one version produced by DirecTV and another by the NFL — that hops from situation to crucial situation in games and is now shown on video boards in various stadiums.


“We’re still in a challenging environment,” Commissioner Roger Goodell said before the season. “We obviously see what our fans are going through. There is still a lot of uncertainty out there in our fans’ minds. That’s reflected in their willingness to commit to season tickets. We’re having to work harder and spend more resources to get our fans to engage.”

For York’s purposes, that means thinking big while thinking smaller.

“The way we’ve approached it is we’ve said we’re not going to be the biggest stadium and we’re not going to be the most expensive stadium,” he said. “But we’re going to be the smartest stadium.”