It's a tough challenge for the National Football League to entice some fans off their comfy couches and into stadiums when ticket prices are almost as high as the sport's TV ratings.
The temptation to stay home goes beyond cost. Equipped with high-definition televisions, Wi-Fi and laptops, tablets and smartphones, fans at home can watch multiple games on Sunday while simultaneously checking their fantasy rosters and celebrating with (or taunting) friends via text. So when the owners of the San Francisco 49ers drew up plans for the team's new $1.3 billion stadium, they tapped the ingenuity surrounding their Silicon Valley home.
The result? Levi's Stadium is home to the first mobile app designed to enhance every aspect of a fan's stadium experience, from steering fans to their parking spots to identifying the least-crowded restrooms. No more waiting in line for a $10 beer and $6 hot dog. During the game, fans can order food and drinks delivered directly to their seats or picked up at express windows. Don't agree with that call? Use the app to watch instant replays from four camera angles.
Ultimately, the 49ers hope to profit from the digital capabilities by eliminating ticket printing costs and ringing up more concession sales as the team gains a better understanding of fans' individual preferences.
The personal analysis mirrors what Google, Facebook and thousands of other mobile apps have been capitalizing on for years. Such surveillance doesn't bother 49er season-ticket holder Ron Johnson of San Francisco -- as long as the app delivers on its promise to learn what he likes.
"I would much rather that they have some idea of what I want to buy so they can put that stuff front and center for me, as opposed to showing me things that I would never purchase," Johnson says.
Roughly one-third of fans at the 49ers' first two regular-season games used the app in some way. "We think this is going to be the forebear of everything else that comes to stadiums," 49ers' CEO Jed York says.
The app was developed by VenueNext, a startup backed by a venture capital fund financed by York and other members of 49ers' management.
The NFL wants all its stadiums to provide free Wi-Fi by the 2016 season; most already do. The Wi-Fi goal is part of a leaguewide push to give fans more reasons to attend games, not stay home.
"Our competition is the couch," says VenueNext founder John Paul.