Sports

Sonic Notify Uses Phones to Bug Fans Who Buy Cheap Seats


Golden State Warriors fans during an NBA Western Conference semifinal playoff series against the San Antonio Spurs in Oakland, Calif., on May 12, 2013

Photograph by Jeff Chiu/AP Photo

Golden State Warriors fans during an NBA Western Conference semifinal playoff series against the San Antonio Spurs in Oakland, Calif., on May 12, 2013

Some fans who bought nosebleed-seat tickets to see the Golden State Warriors received a friendly suggestion from their phones when they stepped off the escalators at Oracle Arena: Wouldn’t they like to spend a few extra bucks for a seat where they could actually distinguish Stephen Curry from Andrew Bogut?

Sneaking into better seats is a time-honored tradition among sports fans, but in recent years, teams have started using mobile apps to persuade attendees to pay more instead. Pro baseball teams began selling seat upgrades through smartphones last season, and the Warriors have been doing the same. The idea is to boost demand by capitalizing on another tech craze working its way through professional sports: the use of cheap sensors to track people’s exact location within the stadium. The Warriors are the first in the NBA to roll out iBeacons, sensors that use low-energy Bluetooth signals to communicate with any phone that has the team’s app installed.

Get used to this idea. Since Apple (AAPL) included the technology in an update to its mobile operating system last year, iBeacons have created a true fervor among companies wanting to sell you stuff. The Apple Store, Macy’s (M), and several grocery store chains have been experimenting with them. Next to retailers, sports teams seem to be the most excited. The NFL tested out the beacons during the Super Bowl in February, and 20 Major League Baseball stadiums are adding them this year.

Sonic Notify, the company that installed several dozen 2-by-2-inch beacons in Oracle Arena, says sports franchises are the ideal businesses to use this kind of technology. Stores have to worry about annoying their shoppers, says Aaron Mittman, the company’s chief executive officer, while sports fans are more open to experimenting. “You’re not going to get mad at the Golden State Warriors and go to some other arena instead,” he says.

Perhaps. But it does seem that sports teams peddling ambitious mobile apps are getting ahead of their fans. The National Football League ran a test to see how people were using stadium Wi-Fi networks last season and found that they were pretty much just uploading photos to Facebook (FB).

What’s more, most Golden State fans are unlikely to get the team’s notifications for now. Sonic Notify estimates that fewer than 30 percent of people who have phones equipped with Bluetooth Low Energy keep the feature turned on regularly. Only about 30 percent of U.S. smartphones have it at all, according to a recent study by Forrester Research (FORR), although the firm says about 80 percent of phones will have it within the next 18 months as people upgrade their devices.

Even then, the Warriors will still have to persuade people to download the team’s app. There’s also a significant nontechnical barrier: The team just doesn’t have that many tickets to offer. Kevin Cote, senior director of the Warriors’ digital efforts, says the team rarely has more than 50 extra tickets available per game, because its arena sells out pretty much every night. Right now, Golden State generally sells about half of the seat upgrades it pushes through its app. Extending the offer at just the right moment may help the organization sell more, but if the Warriors succeed in increasing demand for upgrades, there will inevitably be fans who try to get better seats only to find them taken. And that’s just mean.

Brustein is a writer for Businessweek.com in New York.

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