NFL Is Improving The Fan Experience, And The Patriots Are Leading The Way

I recently had the privilege to speak with Fred Kirsch, the Publisher & Vice President of Content at Kraft Sports Productions, which includes the New England Patriots, New England Revolution and Gillette Stadium. I have the privilege to serve and collaborate with many CIOs and CTOs, including the Patriots who are one of my customers, and based on his impressive 20-year background as an innovative digital leader, I like to refer to Kirsch as the "Chief Digital Officer". Kirsch was joined by Lauren Brousell, staff writer at CIO Magazine who offered some great insights based on her experiences with talking with CIOs.

Kirsch has a track record for pushing the envelope when it comes to technology, putting the Patriots as the digital leader in the NFL. Under Kirsch's leadership, the Patriots introduced the concept of a team website and in 2005 they were the first NFL team to have a website. In 2009, the Patriots were one of the first teams to offer apps to their fans and they are the first team to offer high-definition streaming video to fans. In his own words Kirsch says, "I want the Patriots to be seen as leader, not a follower, and that's why being first is so important".

So what is the biggest challenge for this top NFL sports team? It's not ticket sales, a problem that keeps most sport team CEOs up at night. The New England Patriots, who have sold out every home game since 1994 and have 40,000 fans on a paid waiting list for season tickets, don't have this concern today. The challenge they face right now is competing with what Kirsch likes to call the "3 C's" of at-home viewing - cost, convenience and comfort.

The introduction of HDTV, along with mobile devices, challenges in-stadium game attendance. In a recent Boston Globe article, Patriots president Jonathan Kraft said, "Without ever-better stadium technology, live venue viewing at this scale is really going to be put at risk." What better way to meet technology, than Kirsch is focused on using Wi-Fi technology at Gillette Stadium to create a better fan experience that strives to meet and exceed what fans can get at home - and build on the things that fans can't get at, emotion and excitement.

Here are 4 ways to create a Game Day Experience that keeps fans coming back for more:

Differentiate the in-stadium fan experience - The New England Patriots does this by creating special game day entertainment for those who come to the stadium. They have a game day app called "Patriots Game Day Live" that will available to season ticket holders this July (I have seen it and it is stunning!), as well as a new digital landscape at the stadium that will allow them to offer more stats, fantasy football results, instant replays and more. "By listening to what fans want and delivering those things at the stadium, we are making it an even playing field with home viewing and the fans are benefiting," says Kirsch. That's just the tip of the iceberg for Kirsch. You remember how he wants to be first, right? He told us that he is in the process of working with a company to figure out how to deliver an app for crowd wait times that goes above and beyond what they could do at the stadium...stay tuned!

A strong networking wired and wireless infrastructure is crucial - The Patriots upgraded their network infrastructure in 2012 and delivered a complete Wi-Fi network to serve 68,000 fans. "You need to have that infrastructure solidly in place to do all these things. With our robust Wi-Fi network, we are confident that we can launch our new Game Day app and know that we will not disappoint the 68,000 people at Gillette Stadium," says Kirsch. Brousell adds that having a strong infrastructure and Wi-Fi network is also important for obtaining the "Big Data" needed to get to know your customers, or in this case, fans. This brings us to Kirsch's next point.

Get to know your customers - Kirsch wants to take Big Data and combine it with fan affinity programs that track customers and reward them for their engagement. It all comes down to knowing your customers and using that information to give them what they want and deliver more value to fans. Kirsch says it's still all new and teams are in the process of trying to figure it out, but it has the potential to really enhance the fan experience by providing them with personalized fan information. The Patriots are planning to pilot the use of technology that allows them to have full visibility of the mobile application usage within the stadium. "The next level up is personal," says Kirsch, "Knowing what someone does on the web allows us to serve them better." For this to happen Kirsch says there needs to be an incentive for customers to give out their personal information and it needs to be safe. Customers need to trust that you are using this personal information for only what you say it will be used for.

Be social - During our conversation I gave Kirsch yet another title, "Social Executive". So why is Kirsch so social? "It's all about that daily two-way conversation," he says. Of course Kirsch tweets with fans but one of the more unique things he does is host an online radio show where fans from all over world call-in, email-in and download it. Kirsch says, "Radio is just another form of social, it is bridging the gap between us and fans. Fans what to be closer to the team, and with no filter, social is phenomenal at doing that." Kirsch reminds us that each platform does not contain the same fans, so you have to change how you interact with each platform accordingly. Kirsch questions any CEO that is not social: "Any CEO that thinks they don't need to do social is making a big mistake, you have to be social. Even if you can't respond to every tweet, just being out there and trying your best says you care about what your customers think and that level of transparency builds trust."

Kirsch knows that his fans are his stakeholders so he is always looking at new ways to improve their experience and leaves us with this piece of wisdom: "You have to always be prepared and have the best product you can for your fans in good times and bad." Instead of trying to drive fan behavior, he is trying to make something for everyone so that everyone will be happy.

You can watch the full video interview with Fred Kirsch and learn more about the Gillette Stadium Wi-Fi installation here. Please join me and Michael Krigsman every Friday at 4PM as we host CXOTalks - connecting with thought leaders and innovative executives who are pushing the boundaries within their companies and their fields.