During the second intermission of last Friday's Rangers-Sabres game, Madison Square Garden went pitch black, while down on the ice a lone, spotlighted fan began flicking pucks at a target, trying to win a new Mercedes. Pitch black, that is, except for several sections of $130-a-pop seats near center ice, from which emitted the electronic blue glow of hundreds of computer monitors (right). People in oversized Messier jerseys hunched over in their seats, as oblivious to their surroundings as slot players, index fingers jabbing at the 10-inch screens.
The objects of their undivided attention? Touch-screen consoles that offer everything from live video feeds from eight cameras flanking the ice to real-time NHL statistics to food delivery. The consoles, made by interactive entertainment company ChoiceSeat, are the most aggressive examples of the rapid infiltration of high-tech amenities that are making stadiums and arenas look like video arcades. "People expect more than live action," says ChoiceSeat CEO Mary Frost. "They don't just want to see Shaquille O'Neal play—they want to know how much he weighs and what his free throw percentage is. It's inevitable that this technology be integrated into the game environment to satisfy our insatiable need for information."
Over the last two years Madison Square Garden, Boston's FleetCenter and Tampa Bay's Tropicana Field have installed Choice-Seat monitors. San Francisco's 3Com Park, home of the 49ers, this year equipped 94 luxury boxes with Hitachi ePlates, handheld computers that provide Internet access and allow instant-messaging to other connected fans in the park.
"It's something all teams and arena operators need to be thinking about," says Jim Delaney, marketing director for the Fleet-Center, which spent $2.5 million to install 153 ChoiceSeat monitors last month. "If fans can sit at home watching the game on their sofa and interact with it via a laptop, why shouldn't they have the same option at a live event?"
Franchises are increasingly presuming that their top-end fans are Net-savvy and expect digital enhancements at the stadium. David Katz, vice president of strategic alliances for 3Com, notes that the ePlates have been in heavy use since they were installed in the park bearing his company's name. The system saw its greatest activity during the baseball playoffs, when 49ers fans could keep tabs on the Giants' Division Series with the Mets.
The biggest potential payoff from applications like ChoiceSeat comes not from added ticket sales but from ancillary income. Teams can boost food and drink sales—dozens of arenas already use wireless technology to deliver burgers and beers to premium seats—as well as offer merchandise with the swipe of a credit card. "The opportunities for advertisers are limitless," Katz says. "You can build a personalized relationship with the fan in the stands. Locally, you can extend the stadium into the neighborhood by couponing restaurants and stores."
Even in an environment of instant information and interactive stimuli, however, traditionalists persist. Although designers of San Francisco's Pacific Bell Park scattered a handful of Internet kiosks in public areas throughout the stadium, the Giants passed on in-seat applications because fans found them intrusive. "Our fans told us they come to games to escape their offices and the high-tech world," says Shana Daum, public affairs manager for the Giants. "They wanted to have access if they chose it, but not right in front of them."
Back at the Rangers game, James Paterson, an engineer from Staten Island, said he scarcely noticed ChoiceSeat's running video feed on the seatback screen in front of him. "I did order a couple of franks and knishes off it," he says. "But if the Rangers go on an odd-man rush, all I'm looking at is the ice."
Soon purists may not have a choice. As the revenue potential of in-seat technology becomes more apparent and the hardware cheaper, interactive monitors may become de rigueur at stadiums and arenas. For better or worse, the 50-cent slice of bleacher bench is giving way to the fully loaded luxury box play station.