If you’re a keen sports fan like I am, there is no doubt you’ve noticed that stadiums and teams are working hard to improve and enhance the match day experience for fans.

The reason for this change over the past few years is obvious to me.  With so much competition for our time and money from other leisure activities, as well as the cultural movement of sports fans converting their spare rooms into sports caves, venues and clubs have been prompted to look at the best ways to engage fans and get bums back in seats.  To do that, stadiums are quickly incorporating creative and interesting elements into the game day equation, from craft beers and gourmet grub to fan party zones and cabana pools that overlook an NFL field.  Some stadiums even have an app that lets you see which toilet line is the least busy.

Improving the digital experience for fans at these venues is one of the key things that forward thinking stadiums are doing to bring fans closer to the action.  Free high-speed Internet access, for example, is enabling fans to engage on their second screens and connect to a world of exclusive perks, prizes and benefits.  In some venues, those benefits include controllable instant replays, rewards like seat upgrades, and in-seat food ordering through beacon technology.

I live and breathe fan engagement.  My background in the field comes from my days working in the music industry, touring with bands around the world.  Back then, I would regularly meet people in the music business that inspired me and I was lucky enough to learn from them while I was in their territory.  Years later, I found myself using that experience to teach event management, social media marketing and fan engagement to passionate high schoolers. Today, I’m lucky to be in a line of work that allows me to network on a daily basis with stadiums and clubs throughout Australia.  As someone with a passion for learning, I regularly travel to stadiums far and wide in order to capture and showcase unique and creative fan engagement ideas.  These ideas help inspire the digital fan experience at our venues back in Australia so we can continue putting fans first and help create lasting memories.

I’ve attended just over 100 live sporting events in 2014 across the EPL, NFL, NRL, AFL, A-League, MLS and NHL, from London to Melbourne and New York to Wellington.  Those events have exposed me to some absolutely brilliant digital fan engagement activations. They’ve also shown me that some stadiums and teams haven’t caught on to this trend yet, or perhaps they just haven’t had the resources to pull them off.

In October I took a trip to the United States so I could learn about what U.S. stadiums and teams are doing on the digital front to engage their supporters.  My stops included Dallas, Columbus, Chicago and New York, where I took in 14 NFL, NBA, MLS, NCAA and NHL games in a little over three weeks.  By the time I got back to Australia, it was these 8 game day experiences that really left a lasting memory.  

Here’s what happened:  


My 2014 USA fan engagement journey started off with a New York Red Bulls Major League Soccer game on a glorious blue-sky day at Red Bull Arena in Harrison, New Jersey.

The NYRB fan engagement was extremely impressive due to the BULLevard fan zone area that sees fans of all ages enter a closed off street with multiple partner activations, autograph sessions, cage games and activities for kids, as well as the fact that everyone attending this match got a free NYRB bobblehead and flag.

Bullevard New York Red Bulls

The impressive digital part of this sees each fan that enters the BULLevard area either sign up or check in with their personalized BULLevard card, which gives them a range of sponsor and club benefits, along with incentives for participating in fan area activities.  I have seen some fantastic fan zones in 2014 but the NYRB BULLevard is really on another level and deserves a lot of credit, not least due to the amount of kids running around with massive smiles on their faces collecting points in the BULLevard.

On Monday, October 20th, I headed over to Brooklyn and the Barclays Centre to take in an NBA preseason Brooklyn Nets game against the Philadelphia 76ers.  Walking through TSA type security and metal detectors, I was immediately impressed with the DJ in his upper court DJ booth area using social media to ask fans to tweet in song requests over the course of the night.

Brooklyn Nets DJ Fan Engagement Free WiFi

I was able to quickly log on to the venues free WiFi without any password, forced viewing of ads or gated access, and found the Barclays Center app quite impressive as it delivered live enhanced video viewing to my phone.  Through the in-seat ordering function, it enabled me to order a tasty gourmet ‘Brooklyn Burger’ and Brooklyn Brewery Brown Ale craft beer, which were both ready for me to collect at the end of the first quarter, meaning I didn’t need to line up in a queue.


The use of social media within the venue was also first class, with the in-game app featuring the ability to send photos and messages to the scoreboard and report incidents to arena security.

Next up was another NBA pre season game, with the New York Knicks up against the Philadelphia 76ers at Madison Square Garden.  I found the ‘Oblivious Cam’ impressive, where they shine a camera on an unsuspecting fan and time their reaction to being caught out.  The tic tac toe fan shoot off and t-shirt gun were good too, but two two stand out initiatives had to be the easy to use FreeMSG WIFI in the venue and the Virtual Venue application.  Virtual Venue let me choose my seats and then order some merch and food to pick up at half time.

MSG Oblivious Cam

On Sunday, I went back to New Jersey again for my first NFL experience, with the New York Jets up against the Buffalo Bills at MetLife Stadium.

I was instantly impressed with the high speed WiFi and constant digital fan engagement activations offered. The NFL Fan Style Truck included a virtual dressing room to try on merch and live Madden 15 NFL gaming.  I was also able to register my Twitter account, which then collated my digital movements at the stadium that day. Plus, I got a cool NFL wristband as a keepsake!

From the moment I walked into the Jets game I was blown away by the fan engagement and customer service. 80,000 free flags were given away to fans, complemented by digital activations like the Jets Instagram board, fun film and music trivia on the big screens.  On top of all that, skills tests around the ground took place, where fans could earn points via the Jets Rewards program and redeem them for unique experiences and memorabilia.

NY Jets Engagement


The Jets Rewards program is also used to grant fans access to MetLife Stadium WiFi on game day.

Blair Hughes at the New York Jets Game

Once inside, I made my way up to my seats, turned around and felt like I was in sports heaven.

Jets Metlife Stadium Inside


Then I logged on to the NY Jets app on the free MetLife Stadium WiFi.  The NY Jets app let me watch extra live video content from different angles of play, which definitely added to my in-stadium experience…even if they ended up being flogged by the Bills and most fans left at the end of the third quarter.  The Jets Pocket Pass also let me enter prize draws for interacting with the team and the app enabled me to report any “unsportsmanlike conduct” between rival fans.   Even though Bills and Jets fans were sitting next to each other, everyone got along pretty well (to my surprise) considering what I had read took place at NFL games earlier in the season.

After the Jets game I took a quick nap before leaving for a 4am flight from La Guardia Airport to Dallas, Texas. Despite two stop overs in Detroit and Atlanta, I made it to Arlington, Texas just in time for my second NFL game in 48 hours.  It was Monday Night Football, and the Dallas Cowboys were going against the Washington Redskins at AT&T Stadium.


Dallas Cowboys Stadium Fan Engagement and WiFi


I encountered another impressive digital fan engagement sight at the Cowboys game.  The AT&T Stadium app has a cool augmented reality function that enabled me to point my phone’s camera at certain parts of the stadium and unlock unique content.  As I moved the camera around, I heard a beep from my phone speaker when I hovered over certain sections. If I held my phone there, it unlocked interesting content related to the team and what I was looking at.  The app also has interactive fan functionality for Cowboys home games, such as Unite This House, Cowboys IQ, Fan-Cam and Post-A-Pic digital capabilities.  I was even able to use the app to find my seat location and then order a beer to pick up in the first quarter.


The free WiFi was a breeze to access and tweeting out pics seemed faster than on my normal cellular network. The huge video screen that hangs above the field displays all manner of digital fan engagement fun, from the fan cam to the noise reader, which encourages fans to scream as loud as they can to break the sound record inside the stadium.  The AT&T Stadium is really a fantastic fan-powered digital experience. During the game, huge screens at either end of the field displayed game stats and fan photos.  Around the stadium concourse, giant high resolution touch screens, flashing videos and still images of players and cheerleaders exist for fans to interact with while walking around.  My Dallas Cowboys game experience showed that they were really leading the way with state-of-the-art technology when it came to creating memorable experiences that engaged their network of fans through digital media.

Next up, I spent two consecutive nights at Dallas’ American Airlines Centre for a Dallas Stars NHL game and then a Dallas Mavericks NBA game.

Dallas Mavericks Fan Engagement and free WiFi

On both occasions, the fan engagement on the digital and non-digital level was exceptional. Apart from the ease of the free WiFi, which let me tweet pics and interact with both teams, the Stars game featured fans tweets and pics on the big screen, the chance to win a seat downgrade, as well as performance based food incentives.

Dallas Stars Seat Downgrade

I got free tacos because the Stars scored more than 2 goals that night.  I also thought the fact that they play Pantera – Puck Off (Dallas Stars Fight Song) throughout the game was also a pretty awesome way to pump fans up as well.

I was fortunate enough to be at the Dallas Mavericks game for their NBA season home opener.  They gave all 20,000 fans free shirts and the venue also featured a kiss cam and fan-o-meter (to measure fans screams). Other digital engagement activations let fans win seat upgrades, while special fan zones like the Slam Dunk Zone kept people active between quarters.  The Mavs ManiAACs dance crew of fat old dudes was also pretty hilarious for fans to engage with.  The Dallas American Airlines venue has a few brilliant things going for it in terms of what fans want.  There are Texas craft beer stations and a multitude of diverse food stands, not to mention a variety of unique bars which cater for all types of hard-core sports fans, including a Jack Daniels bar and another area that looked like a nightclub within the venue.


On November 1st, I left Dallas Fort-Worth at 2am for my next destination…a high stakes NCAA college football night game between THE Ohio State University and Illinois in Columbus, Ohio.

Once I made it to the 107,000 capacity stadium, also known as ‘The Shoe’, I walked around the ground for an hour or so to explore.  Despite the freezing temperatures, tens of thousands of Ohio State (OSU) fans were participating in various fan activities and tailgate distractions. Diverse food trucks and sponsor stalls lined the fan zone, giving out OSU branded merch like lanyard and pens as fans made their way into the massive stadium.

The coolest digital activation I witnessed was the sponsor led AT&T ‘FlatBrutus– Make him, Take him, Tag him’ campaign, which encouraged fans to pick up a Brutus (OSU mascot) cut out, have it personalized with their name and then take a selfie with it.  In turn, those pics would be shared on the stadium’s screens throughout the game.  The stadium experience for fans was enhanced with the use of the Twitter hashtags, #TheShoe and #GoBucks, which showcased fans tweets on the big screens.  Furthermore, the ‘BBQ Cam’ showcased fans enjoying the various BBQ food delights of the stadium as well.  The BUCKEYESConnect app also allows fans to have a personalized FanID, which means fans get rewarded with behind the scenes access, exclusive perks, prizes and benefits on match days just by checking into the stadium or posting photos and using the hash tag at the game.  The way OSU honored it’s fans who were military, Ohio State Guard and police at nearly every break was interesting to see.  The OSU screens would show a BUCKEYES FOREVER pic, with a picture and fact file of a past serviceman or woman showing their years of service in the defense forces as well as years as an OSU member.

From a college perspective, OSU certainly put on an impressive digital fan experience.

With digital consumption always on the rise amongst fans and the problem of stadium seats not always being filled, it’s clear that improving the stadium experience and rewarding fan loyalty is important for a number of reasons.  The stadium experience needs to be memorable, and personalized, with a focus on digital engagement that actually excites fans while on-site.

As I witnessed first hand from this brief trip, stadiums and teams in the United States are doing just that.

Blair Hughes is a fan engagement specialist from Brisbane, Australia currently working at AudioBoom.  To stay up to date with his sports stadium adventures, follow him on Twitter or visit his website.