Never mind that the Brooklyn Nets are circling the Milwaukee Bucks down on the floor of the new Barclays Center.
In a suite overlooking the home-side backboard, Chip Foley is watching the basketball game via live video feeds on his iPhone and iPad.
Foley is the director of building technology at the Forest City Ratner Cos., the real estate firm that developed the Barclays Center in downtown Brooklyn and is a minority owner of the Nets. Last month, the center introduced the latest thing in virtual spectatorship: an app that streams three different high-definition video feeds for stadium visitors who want to use their smartphones and tablets to follow the games they have come to see in person.
The goal, arena executives say, is to reproduce the experience that many fans have already adopted in man caves. Fans like Foley, for instance, whose home setup includes a 60-inch, flat-screen TV augmented by two laptops (one to follow the coaches, another for the overhead view), not to mention the iPad on which he monitors game-related Twitter posts. To compete with couch multitasking, Barclays Center has installed a high-density Wi-Fi network and multicast video technology from Cisco Systems, called Stadium- Vision Mobile.
From instant replay technology to microphones that transmit players’ and coaches’ live comments, broadcasters have spent decades developing techniques to make fans at home feel as if they are part of the game. Now, some arenas like Barclays are adding a complementary strategy: “You are trying to replicate that experience you would have on your couch," Foley said. Fans at Nets games, for example, can activate instant replays on the mobile feeds they are watching, a pause-and-rewind technique that mimics a remote control.
Live spectator sports involve a kind of communion — otherwise, why bother leaving the house? — that personal devices have the potential to dilute. Still, the professional sports industry may just be playing catch-up with screen-centric consumers.
After all, many fans already prefer watching magnified views on a Jumbotron to the miniature-seeming live play somewhere down below them. Likewise, some football fans now tailgate next to college bowls, bringing their own satellite dishes and TVs so they can watch the game from the parking lot instead of the stadium, says John Nauright, a professor of sports studies at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va.
And it’s not just sports. Many colleges now promote online courses over in-person lectures.
Over the last several years, Cisco has tapped into this trend of audiences accustomed more to simulcast than to live spectacle; it has outfitted more than 100 arenas in 20 countries with its networks. One product, StadiumVision, is a video distribution system that allows the display of customized digital signs and videos on hundreds of monitors throughout an arena; the installation cost varies, depending on the site and the number of monitors, but it can cost several million dollars per stadium.
Sitting in the suite in the Barclays Center, Michael Caponigro, Cisco’s leader of global solutions marketing for sports and entertainment, says the idea is to keep fans continuously connected to the game via video monitors whether they are sitting in skyboxes, wandering concourses or standing in line at concession booths. Teams, sponsors and advertisers use the same video monitors to blanket stadiums with digital marketing.
The advanced system that Cisco installed in the Barclays Center extends that idea of continuous connectivity to individual seats, Caponigro says. It will also allow teams and brands to tailor mobile marketing to specific fans.
“We have placed two big bets with our customers, with video and mobility at the intersection of sport," he said. Above and below the suite in the darkened stadium, smartphones glow and flicker out like fireflies. “We believe this is the new frontier of fan experience," he added.
To try out the new feeds, Foley, the director of building technology, clicks on the main video stream for the game on his iPad app, watching as Joe Johnson, the Nets shooting guard, disentangles himself from the pack, leaps, shoots and scores. During that play, Foley simultaneously watches on his iPhone a second, live video stream called the Slam Cam — a camera positioned directly behind the basket; a ball rockets into close-up view, hovers for a moment and then sinks through the net. A third device, an iPod Touch, displays a rawer video stream, from a handheld sideline camera following the Bucks as they dribble back down the court.
One advantage to these feeds is that they allow fans sitting in nosebleed seats on the upper concourse to watch the game — on their own small screens, at least — from the same perspective as fans in more expensive courtside seats. It’s too soon to tell, however, whether ubiquitous digital monitors and video feeds are a great equalizer or a fragmenter of fans.