Few things inspire, unite and divide the American public quite like football. When the Philadelphia Eagles and New England Patriots take to the turf Sunday night, the field is not the only place a battle is being waged.
The U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis will fit 73,000 fans and scores of team members and game day workers. On every person will be some form of technology, from RFID tags in player equipment to personal tablets and cell phones.
Imagine having to support continuous access for tens of thousands of fans clamoring for bandwidth to use social media to rub in their attendance at the biggest sporting event in the country.
Michelle McKenna-Doyle, CIO of the National Football League, and John Brams, director of Hospitality, Sports and Entertainment at Extreme Networks, the official Wi-Fi and Wi-Fi analytics provider of the Super Bowl, spoke with CIO Dive about what their teams have been working on for over a year to make Super Bowl LII run smoothly.
Breaking more than a sweat
Super Bowl LI was memorable for more than the Patriots' fourth quarter comeback. Extreme Networks logged 11.8 terabytes of data transferred across Wi-Fi networks at the event, shattering the previous 10.12 terabyte record set by the 2016.
Both tech leaders expect higher data usage this year. "I wouldn't be surprised if it will be over 12TB," said McKenna-Doyle.
Playoff games generally offer a sneak peak of what is in store for the Super Bowl, and the AFC Championship at Gillette Stadium already saw almost nine terabytes of data transferred, according to Brams.
But what is all this data going toward?
Social media takes the crown for network traffic. In NFL stadiums in the 2017-2018 season, Facebook garnered 6.4 million hits — nearly double that of No. 2 Snapchat and more than six times that of Twitter, according to data from Extreme Networks, which runs its Wi-Fi analytics solution in 22 stadiums.
"No matter how much bandwidth you give to fans, they will consume it. It's about making sure you give enough but you don't get so focused on it that you take away from the in-venue experience as well," said McKenna-Doyle.
Attendees are also tied to phones for stadium convenience. They can go on the Super Bowl app to find the closest bathroom, see how long lines and waits are and order concessions. While these features are becoming increasingly commonplace, they serve an important reminder of how technology can be integrated into every aspect of game day operations.
Despite having done this for years, Brams is always impressed by the amount of data that takes place during these events. Social media has become an integral part of how fans watch and experience the action on the field, and they consistently stay on a network throughout the game, especially during halftime.
Yards and downs and bits and bytes
Behind the scenes, the sports and technology spheres are beginning to intersect beyond Big Data applications. With analytics operations in place in stadiums across the country, Extreme Networks has now turned to a cloud solution so the NFL can have visibility into every location.
The NFL made AWS an Official Technology Provider in November and has worked with the league on its Next Gen Stats platform, which uses RFID tags on players and equipment to collect more real-time data on games. The cloud provider will also be helping the NFL apply artificial intelligence and machine learning to this data.
At the intersection of all the cloud, AI, ML and Big Data technology has the potential to transform NFL operations.
"I think there's a lot of potential to learn from the types of impact or the types of injuries that we might record via sensors that could help us track that injury data and correlate it to weather, all types of other factors, that a machine could do that a person could not," said McKenna-Doyle.
As the first CIO of the NFL, McKenna-Doyle has had the opportunity to spearhead such technology efforts that were much harder to get off the ground without an IT head. "Good sponsorship from the top makes a big difference. We are very, very committed to technologically evolving the game while maintaining the traditions that got us here," she said.
It takes a village — and a lot of time and money
Preparing for the big day can be a years-long experience and extends beyond the stadium.
"As soon as the Super Bowl ends, we'll begin preparation on the next Super Bowl," said Brams. "That's really how long it takes to, from a technology perspective, make sure things are aligned."
McKenna-Doyle and her team typically prepare for the event for more than a year, working with events teams, host cities and host committees to make sure everything from airports and hotels to the stadium and outdoor fan activities are taken care of.
When the event concludes and the crowds leave, the host cities benefit from improved connectivity from the thousands of access points that were added, according to McKenna-Doyle.
Improvements to LTE networks in the area also lay the groundwork for 5G. The four major carriers have spent years upgrading their infrastructure in the city, reports ZDNet. These efforts include but are not limited to:
Verizon adding 24 cell sites, more than 200 small cell sites, installing 48% more DAS antennas and improving capacity in public areas.
T-Mobile adding 120 small cell sites, increasing capacity by about 35 times and doubling LTE spectrum.
Sprint installing 800 new DAS antennas, 200 new small cell sites and setting up "three-channel carrier aggregation" through 400 cell sites.
AT&T spending more than $40 million on measures including 1000 DAS antennas — including two "giant eyeball antennas" — stadium LTE capacity boosted 220% and cells on wheels units.
The stadium in Minneapolis is new and state-of-the-art, so the NFL and its partners benefited from having more technology infrastructure already built into it. In 2017, the NRG Stadium in Houston had a limited Wi-Fi network and required more effort to build out digital capabilities, according to Brams.
During the game, Extreme Networks will be running analytics to measure network performance and response in real time and gain visibility into how attendees are using the networks, according to Brams. The team will also include 20 Wi-Fi coaches throughout the stadium to help attendees connect to the wireless network and utilize game day apps.
Protect the quarterback and the Wi-Fi users
For the security professional, an event like the Super Bowl can be a logistical nightmare. But the NFL and its partners, aided by the federal government, are working to protect attendees from malicious actors.
"I have a info security team that works here for the NFL and then we have resources from all the federal, state and local agencies that provide cyber resources," said McKenna-Doyle. "[Security is] top of mind for all of us. We watch social media, we put in keyword searchers for certain things, and law enforcement works with us to track down anything that is of interest or concern."
Extreme Networks' real time analytics will monitor network health throughout the game and spot anomalies that could be indicative of a security threat, according to Brams.
But the NFL and its partners can only do so much. Fans in the stadium would be the wiser to be careful on game day. (Because if general password hygiene trends are any indicator, personal cybersecurity practices often fall to the back burner.)