The NFL is not only playing catch-up with the mesmerizing potential of 110-inch, ultra high-definition TVs and the addictive nature of smartphones and handheld tablets. It's also facing stubborn, outdated thinking. As one team executive told CNBC, many older and unsophisticated owners are unwilling to invest in new wireless networks. "The only way some owners can use the Internet is for someone else to switch on a computer," he said, "and to tap the keys for them to get onto the Web."
"Owners just don't understand that wireless networks are as crucial to stadiums as concession stands and bathrooms," the official said. "[Commissioner Roger] Goodell gets it. The NFL's CIO gets it. Yet you mention $5 million for Wi-Fi infrastructure investment, and they say 'Why spend that money on the Internet, so teenagers can do illicit things?' If teams don't become more engaging with Wi-Fi and apps, people won't come to games."
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NFL Chief Information Officer Michelle McKenna-Doyle said she knows there's a "couchgate" problem. Fans will stay home if the stadium experience isn't "enhanced" to meet the growing challenge of new TV technology. With smartphone usage growing about 20 percent a year, McKenna-Doyle must also convince team owners that mere cellular service is not enough. It must be integrated with advanced Wi-Fi networks to assure limitless wireless access for intensive applications.
"We understand TVs are more immersive," McKenna-Doyle said, "and we need to give fans greater connectivity. We still have an awesome product. It is a tough challenge. A lot of clubs haven't reinvested in networks. But our product can't be duplicated at home, and we will do anything to get people off their sofas."
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Jonathan Kraft, president of the New England Patriots and co-chairman of the NFL's Digital Committee, told CNBC that less than a quarter of the 32 teams have new Wi-Fi networks that meet minimum league protocols.
The league has shown remarkable prowess in attracting TV audiences—regular season games in 2013 averaged 17.6 million viewers, making it the second most-watched season ever. That, in turn, boosted the league's licensing revenue and signing precedent-setting deals with TV networks. The NFL's latest agreement with ESPN alone is worth $15.2 billion over eight years.