During the second intermission of last Friday's Rangers-Sabres
game, Madison Square Garden went pitch black, while down on the
ice a lone, spotlighted fan began flicking pucks at a target,
trying to win a new Mercedes. Pitch black, that is, except for
several sections of $130-a-pop seats near center ice, from which
emitted the electronic blue glow of hundreds of computer monitors
(right). People in oversized Messier jerseys hunched over in
their seats, as oblivious to their surroundings as slot players,
index fingers jabbing at the 10-inch screens.
The objects of their undivided attention? Touch-screen consoles
that offer everything from live video feeds from eight cameras
flanking the ice to real-time NHL statistics to food delivery.
The consoles, made by interactive entertainment company
ChoiceSeat, are the most aggressive examples of the rapid
infiltration of high-tech amenities that are making stadiums and
arenas look like video arcades. "People expect more than live
action," says ChoiceSeat CEO Mary Frost. "They don't just want to
see Shaquille O'Neal play--they want to know how much he weighs
and what his free throw percentage is. It's inevitable that this
technology be integrated into the game environment to satisfy our
insatiable need for information."
Over the last two years Madison Square Garden, Boston's
FleetCenter and Tampa Bay's Tropicana Field have installed
ChoiceSeat monitors. San Francisco's 3Com Park, home of the
49ers, this year equipped 94 luxury boxes with Hitachi ePlates,
handheld computers that provide Internet access and allow
instant-messaging to other connected fans in the park.
"It's something all teams and arena operators need to be thinking
about," says Jim Delaney, marketing director for the FleetCenter,
which spent $2.5 million to install 153 ChoiceSeat monitors last
month. "If fans can sit at home watching the game on their sofa
and interact with it via a laptop, why shouldn't they have the
same option at a live event?"
Franchises are increasingly presuming that their top-end fans are
Net-savvy and expect digital enhancements at the stadium. David
Katz, vice president of strategic alliances for 3Com, notes that
the ePlates have been in heavy use since they were installed in
the park bearing his company's name. The system saw its greatest
activity during the baseball playoffs, when 49ers fans could keep
tabs on the Giants' Division Series with the Mets.
The biggest potential payoff from applications like ChoiceSeat
comes not from added ticket sales but from ancillary income.
Teams can boost food and drink sales--dozens of arenas already use
wireless technology to deliver burgers and beers to premium
seats--as well as offer merchandise with the swipe of a credit
card. "The opportunities for advertisers are limitless," Katz
says. "You can build a personalized relationship with the fan in
the stands. Locally, you can extend the stadium into the
neighborhood by couponing restaurants and stores."
Even in an environment of instant information and interactive
stimuli, however, traditionalists persist. Although designers of
San Francisco's Pacific Bell Park scattered a handful of Internet
kiosks in public areas throughout the stadium, the Giants passed
on in-seat applications because fans found them intrusive. "Our
fans told us they come to games to escape their offices and the
high-tech world," says Shana Daum, public affairs manager for the
Giants. "They wanted to have access if they chose it, but not
right in front of them."
Back at the Rangers game, James Paterson, an engineer from Staten
Island, said he scarcely noticed ChoiceSeat's running video feed
on the seatback screen in front of him. "I did order a couple of
franks and knishes off it," he says. "But if the Rangers go on an
odd-man rush, all I'm looking at is the ice."
Soon purists may not have a choice. As the revenue potential of
in-seat technology becomes more apparent and the hardware
cheaper, interactive monitors may become de rigueur at stadiums
and arenas. For better or worse, the 50-cent slice of bleacher
bench is giving way to the fully loaded luxury box play