The NFL turns to mobile to revolutionize the stadium experience


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The National Football League is at a crossroads. Although professional football remains America's most popular sport, its future is clouded by mounting concern over the staggering physical toll the game takes on its players. Some critics maintain the NFL must overhaul its rulebook to improve player safety, outlawing the punishing collisions that can end careers and jeopardize long-term health and stability. Others argue that football's allure hinges on eruptions of controlled violence and brute force, and eliminating those elements will spell the sport's ultimate demise.

There are no simple solutions, so the NFL is tackling a problem it can handle: Enhancing the fan experience at games. The NFL's television ratings have never been higher: Pro football accounted for nine of 2011's top 10 most-watched network broadcasts. But because football plays so well on TV, where viewers can flip channels to check out multiple games--and avoid the astronomic ticket prices, myriad clock stoppages, traffic nightmares, epic restroom lines and other headaches associated with watching games live and in person--the NFL is finding it tougher and tougher to attract fans to the stadium. The league's response: Make the stadium more like the living room. And that means bringing mobile into the equation.  

This week, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said he wants to install Wi-Fi networks across the league's 31 stadium sites, guaranteeing fans improved access to the mobile Web and social networking sites from their seats. "We want to make sure that our fans, when they come into our stadiums, don't have to shut down," Goodell said. "We believe that it is important to get technology into our stadiums. We have made the point repeatedly that the experience at home is outstanding, and we have to compete with that in some fashion by making sure that we create the same kind of environment in our stadiums."

Watching football was already better than anything else ever before smartphones and tablets became commonplace, but mobile devices have elevated home viewing to even greater heights. If you watch football on TV, chances are you do so with your remote control in one hand and your phone in the other: Texting back and forth with friends, tweeting to celebrate your team's victory, tracking your fantasy league, checking ESPN for news updates--all are now as much a part of the viewing experience as pizza and beer. Installing Wi-Fi in NFL stadiums means fans can do everything they would on the couch, without regard for overloaded wireless networks. It also means they can do stuff there's no reason to do at home, like sharing tailgate photos to Facebook or streaming live video via Viddy.

Mobile access is now so essential to football fandom that the only thing surprising about the NFL's commitment to in-stadium Wi-Fi is that it didn't happen sooner. If only all the challenges facing the league were this easy to solve.--Jason