When Robb Heineman took over as chief executive officer of the Major League Soccer franchise in Kansas City, in 2006, the team barely registered even in its local market. Despite reaching the MLS championship game a couple of years earlier, the Wizards had the league’s worst attendance, often filling fewer than 10,000 seats at 77,000-capacity Arrowhead Stadium, also home of the NFL’s Chiefs. A dot-com private equity veteran, Heineman wasn’t an obvious savior. His last gig in sports had been tearing tickets as a teenager for a minor league basketball team in his hometown of Sioux Falls, S.D. Shortly after taking the Kansas City job, he wrote on fan forum BigSoccer.com: “Please help me, I don’t know what I’m doing.”
Seven years later, Sports Illustrated calls Heineman the “Mark Cuban of MLS.” His team, now called Sporting Kansas City, has a waiting list for its 14,000 season tickets and has sold out 27 games in a row, packing an average of 19,709 people into a new stadium that seats 18,467. (Some tickets are standing room only.) That success is due in large part to the club’s reputation as one of the world’s most tech-savvy teams, which has attracted interest from other sports franchises concerned that live games are becoming a tougher sell for fans who can see much more action and replays on TV.
In a couple of weeks, Sporting will unveil a revamped version of its popular mobile app, Uphoria, which turns an attendee’s smartphone into an in-stadium DVR. Earlier iterations of the app let visitors earn loyalty points by playing trivia games and predicting action on the field. The upshot for Sporting: reams of information on those fans that the team can use to push hot dogs, jerseys, and tickets to future games. “Our team is all about data,” says Heineman. “It’s about collecting, repackaging, and utilizing that information to drive incremental revenue.”
Keeping fans connected to their smartphone was central to the design of Sporting’s soccer-specific stadium, opened in 2011. Of the $200 million it cost to build Sporting Park, $6 million went for a high-density wireless network with 220 miles of fiber—more than seven times the norm for a stadium its size—according to Asim Pasha, the team’s chief information officer. Sporting’s digital acumen comes in part from Heineman’s co-owners, who include the founders of health technology giant Cerner (CERN). Another factor was desperation, given the limited appeal of a soccer team in Chiefs- and Royals-dominated Kansas City.
Sporting began testing its app two years ago with features targeted at college students and young professionals. “To be honest, it was a boring app,” Heineman says. “We just wanted to see whether people would actually use it or if they were just on Facebook (FB) and Twitter.” While Facebook and Twitter dominate traffic over the stadium’s network, Sporting has found a quarter of attendees use Uphoria. (By comparison, the New England Patriots, one of the first NFL teams with stadiumwide Wi-Fi, get about a 10 percent usage rate among stadium-goers for its app.)
The new version of Uphoria, set to be unveiled on Aug. 3, will feature Cisco Systems’ (CSCO) StadiumVision Mobile system, which lets fans stream live video of the game on their phones or tablets from seven different camera angles and rewind the action from any point, wherever they are in the building. (Sporting and the NBA’s Brooklyn Nets are the first teams to use Cisco’s platform.) The cost has been negligible, Heineman says, because the system uses cameras that already pump content to the JumboTron and can stream extra video from security cameras outside locker rooms and elsewhere.
Sporting plans to sell sponsorships around the video platform, but team executives say the more promising function of the app is its ability to mine and collate data from ticket sales, concessions, merchandising, and more. “What we want is to take the 20 different data silos that exist and put them in a single fan profile,” Pasha says. A positive Facebook comment about the team’s goalie might prompt an offer to the fan to buy access to an autograph session. Someone whose birthday falls in November might get a coupon for a discounted jacket. “When you walk into the stadium, I’ll know everything about you—the serial number on your phone, the IP addresses you’re accessing, whether you buy something to eat,” Heineman says. “If I know that every time you come to a game you’re getting three beers and two hot dogs, maybe the next game I’ll offer you an all-inclusive package for an extra seven bucks.”
More than 200 sports franchises have sent executives to tour Sporting Park. Chip Foley, the vice president of building technology for the Nets’ Barclays Center, visited several times while designing his network. “One of the only requirements I had from Bruce Ratner was, ‘Make sure everyone’s phones work,’ ” Foley says, referring to his arena’s owner. The interest prompted the soccer team’s owners to start Sporting Innovations, an offshoot that markets its mobile platform and data-management system to other teams. The biggest cost for most franchises will be wireless infrastructure, which Heineman estimates at $1.5 million for a venue like Sporting’s and closer to $4 million for an NFL stadium. Heineman won’t disclose how much his team expects to reap from its app, but in presentations the company has told other teams the system will pay for itself within three years—if fans buy in. “If sports teams lack a depth of knowledge about their fans, the technology is there to put them in a position to close that gap pretty quickly,” says John Jackson, an analyst at market researcher IDC. “The question is, can they get the data they want?”
Following Sporting’s lead, the Chiefs have launched a loyalty app and are installing high-density Wi-Fi. This year, Sporting executives have met with representatives from Manchester United, the NFL, and Madison Square Garden, among others. Heineman says, “Eight of the top 20 brands in sports” have signed contracts with Sporting Innovations, though he wouldn’t say which ones. “They’re facing the same sort of problems we face,” says Eric Grubman, the NFL’s executive vice president of business ventures. “A 50-year-old watches football differently than a 25-year-old. The race to keep up is still going on.”