Sunday's AFC Championship game between the New England Patriots and visiting Baltimore Ravens will be the fourth at Gillette Stadium since 2001, so the host's IT department knows the drill just as well as the players and coaches.
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"When it comes to the playoffs, there's no substitute for experience, and we've been fortunate enough to where we know that, at each level, 'OK if we win this game, boom, this is what we need to do.' Without the IT infrastructure, a lot of it wouldn't be possible," Fred Kirsch, publisher and vice president of content for the Kraft Group, told an audience of IT execs and media Tuesday night at the stadium.
Kirsch wasn't the only sports IT pro at the event - he was joined by representatives from the Celtics, Bruins and Red Sox, who emphasized the unique challenges posed by the playoffs. Increased media attention, new promotional considerations and a host of other factors come into play.
"There's more people, more signs, you just have to keep rolling with it. In the case of basketball, we play a lot of games if we go all the way to the finals, and each game - and certainly each series - adds more and more layers on top," said Jay Wessel, Boston Celtics vice president of technology. "It's probably at least an order of magnitude more than Monday night against Charlotte that we had yesterday."
Lorraine Spadaro, vice president of technology and eBusiness for the Boston Bruins, said that the NHL even imposes a 100-page set of mandates on facilities for playoff games.
"That [document is] basically, 'Here's what's required of you to host to the Stanley Cup championships' ... and it's got a very significant IT requirement," she said.
The worlds of professional sports and IT, on the surface, don't appear to have much to do with each other. Behind the scenes, however, the two fields are coming together just as quickly as they can - and to hear New England Patriots President Jonathan Kraft tell it, his team is leading the way.
Kraft detailed the extensive investment that the Patriots have made in their fan-facing IT presence, including mobile apps to help make getting concessions and even monitoring the lines for stadium bathrooms easier, and exclusive access to in-stadium video and audio content - shepherded every step of the way by Kirsch and backed by a robust Wi-Fi network provided by the evening's sponsor, Enterasys Networks.
"They believed, after listening to us and working with us for a year, that we could have a system where 70,000 people could have a Wi-Fi experience simultaneously, on the rare occasion that might happen, and that - most importantly - a very significant percentage of them could have a rich streaming Wi-Fi experience with video or audio," he said.
Kraft is co-chair of the NFL's digital media committee. On that panel, Kraft is looking to use his team's experience to help the rest of the league reap the same benefits.
"I think [the league] originally thought that the cell companies could be the solution, and they have installed a lot of [distributed antenna] systems. DAS is good for ... traditional telephony, but I don't think these DAS systems are what's going to allow 70,000 people to do what we're talking about," he said.
At a time when the convenience, comfort and sharply reduced price of watching live sporting events on HDTV is putting ever-increasing pressure on teams to offer a more valuable in-stadium experience, the Boston sports IT brain-trust at the event was quick to distance itself from any question of trying to "monetize" its digital offerings to fans at the game.
"People have paid too much money, they don't want to get nickeled and dimed," Kraft said.
"[Digital content] would be a revenue enhancer only in the rare cases where, if there's an app that might let us sell something additional like a seat upgrade, but in general, no, these are services we feel that need to be provided to keep the fans engaged," said Wessel.
Email Jon Gold at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter at @NWWJonGold.
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