What sports stadiums and European restaurants have in common

This past May, my wife and I spent a few weeks traveling in Europe, where we toured Paris, France for a few days before venturing down to Florence, Italy. As an American in Europe, I had very minimal awareness of the restaurant scene in either city apart from a bit of research on Trip Advisor and Yelp before flying across the pond. This seemed to be fairly common. On our first night or two in Paris, my wife and I saw tourists from all countries wandering the streets aimlessly at dinner time looking perplexed at menus written in a foreign language as restaurant employees stood in doorways making sales pitches in broken English.

People Love Us On YelpWhen we arrived in Florence, we were confronted by a different sales pitch. Restaurant upon restaurant with signs in the windows boasting about social network ratings. Signs that read “Check us out on Trip Advisor” or “People love us on Yelp.” In principle, I found this to be a much better sales pitch. The restaurants were allowing their customers, past and present, to do the selling for them.

The problem? Finding these reviews and ratings required an Internet connection, and as a tourist traveling on the budget, I had zero 3G coverage, and thus no access to the Internet outside of my apartment building. The result? Unable to check on recent reviews, my wife and I typically moved on from the restaurant.

At the restaurants we did walk into, we typically had great experiences. This was, after all, Italy. Again though, we were unable to take part in the social conversation about the restaurant by boasting about the restaurant on Yelp or posting pictures of our dishes to Trip Advisor.

These European restaurants had the right idea. They encouraged tourists to use social networks to find out more about them or document their own experiences. They just didn’t consider the necessary steps to facilitate such sharing. The restaurants could have remedied the situation by offering free Wi-Fi for customers to access their ratings. By not doing so, they created missed opportunities and frustrating moments for the me and other customers who wanted to take part in the online conversation featured by the restaurant but was unable to.

What does this long-winded story have to do with sports? Much like food experiences, sports are inherently social. You’ve probably read that phrase countless times if you’re interested in this sports/social media subculture, but it’s only repeated so frequently because it’s true. There’s a reason roughly half of the top 15 most tweeted-per-second events are sports related, including the Super Bowl, NBA Finals, and FIFA soccer matches. There’s a reason Instagram photos posted by stadiums in Major League Baseball stadiums are up 400% from last season, according to VenueSeen. There’s a reason Perform sports media group found that twenty-six percept of sports fans were using social media to follow leagues, teams and players in 2012, a number up from 15% in 2011.

The 2nd Screen Viewing ExperienceWith all the social sharing and publishing happening during sporting events, it’s no longer satisfying for a fan to just watch the game. More and more, fans are consuming sporting events accompanied by a smartphone or tablet on which to join the online conversation on Twitter and Facebook or check a fantasy team to see how the latest touchdown or home run has impacted their weekly matchup.

So how does this relate to Wi-Fi? Fans want to watch the game and take advantage of the 2nd screen experience too. Too often though, stadiums are filled with tens of thousands of other fans wanting the same experience, which leads to congested 3G networks that get bogged down and offer unreliable service. As a New England Patriots fan, I can attest to this personally. I’ve attended multiple games at Gillette Stadium in the past year, and can specifically remember failed tweets, Facebook status updates, and Instagram postings that failed at every one of them. I know I’m not alone. Similar reports have surfaced from Citi Field in New York and Amway Arena in Orlando.

The effect of this is that, for the first time since I became a sports fan, the viewing experience is now arguably better for fans at home than at the stadium. This is obviously a problem for teams, who need fans in the stands to create a home-field advantage for the players. The stadiums, in effect, are like the European restaurants I encountered in May. They want patrons to be social and record their experiences, but lack the back-end support system to make it possible or reliable.

NFL Commissioner Roger GoodellSome leagues are jumping aboard the Wi-Fi bandwagon quicker than others. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell recently said he wanted wireless Internet for all mobile devices in every NFL stadium, saying “We want to make sure that our fans, when they come into our stadiums, don’t have to shut down.” One thing specifically not mentioned in his remarks? The price of that Wi-Fi.

As the sports social landscape continues to evolve, it’s up to professional teams to ensure their stadiums offer free access to reliable Internet service, enabling fans to publish their in-game experiences. If they don’t, word will spread, and fans will slowly stop attending games in person. After all, sports are inherently social, especially in a fan’s living room.