Brett Crossley On How FanConnect Screens Drive Game-Day Experience At Sports Venues
April 25, 2023 by Dave Haynes
There are a lot of screens at sports and entertainment venues, and when it’s possible to buy a 4K TV the size of a bus for a few hundred bucks, team owners and venue operators are having to work harder than ever to compel people to get off their sofas and come to games.
Whether it is college football or pro basketball, there’s a big emphasis on maximizing the game-day experience for ticket-buyers, while also optimizing the investment sponsors have made in being at the venue and part of everything going on.
A Charlotte, North Carolina company called FanConnect is very specifically in the business of providing and supporting a platform and services that drive the game-day show, and the information on most or all of the flat screens around a stadium or arena.
FanConnect does in-venue TV programming that enhances live game broadcast feeds with things like real-time stats and sponsor messaging, and it also does IPTV for the suites and loge areas, as well as digital signage around the concourses and at concessions.
That last component is something most or all venues want and need, but the digital signage capabilities also track back to the roots of the company. I had a chat with Brett Crossley, FanConnect’s VP of Product.
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Brett, thank you for joining me. Can you tell me what FanConnect does?
Brett Crossley: So what we do is we work with the corporate partnership teams in sports venues, so in college and professional sports and we work with the partnership marketing, the sponsorship team if you think about it that way to put something on the TV screens. I’m talking about our primary product, so our biggest product is FanConnect TV. We make other things, but that’s probably the biggest thing we have. It’s also our biggest footprint, and what that does is it makes a private TV network for use in the venue that plays on all of the TVs that are in the venue that would’ve been showing just the live game feed. This feed was being produced for probably the video board in most cases. We turn that into something that fans are gonna want to look at because it’s good looking and that fully integrates what the sponsors and what the corporate partners need into that experience.
So that’s the main product that we supply, and then I’d say that all the related products are similar, right? They’re all designed to operate inside of a large sports venue, inside of a stadium or an arena, and they work with TVs or video technology of some kind inside of that venue.
Do you get any pushback at all from venues saying why wouldn’t I just use the broadcast feed that’s already coming in that I’ve already been using on the TVs?
Brett Crossley: No, I don’t think we don’t face that pushback, and the main reason is if you think about our primary customer is a corporate partnership team. On the college side, that would be somebody that’s a Rights holder, like a Leader field, a Playfly, a JMI, typically that’s who that is. On the professional side, it’s a group that’s titled something like Corporate Partnerships for the Chicago White Sox, and prior to us getting there, they either didn’t have any way to include their corporate partners in the TVs or what they had just wasn’t working for what they wanted to do.
And so yeah, I don’t think we faced any pushback there from people saying why not just use the existing feed? I think the other part of it is too tough, in our opinion, when we are done, it looks a lot better and it provides a better fan experience than before we got there. And I know we’re on a podcast so you can’t see this, but if people go to our website or if they look us up on LinkedIn. we’re FanConnect.TV so that’s our domain name. But if they look at what we do, it’s designed to mirror a lot of what you would see with a professionally produced broadcast. So imagine somebody’s in a truck and they’re using tools from Ross and Grass Valley, et cetera, and they’re building something to make it look broadcast quality, we’re doing something similar. We just do it in software and without having people do it in real-time.
I assume one of the drivers here for the corporate sponsor people is they’re looking for as many ways as possible to give their corporate sponsors some love and avoid any minefields of a TV broadcast, if, let’s say, I don’t know, Chrysler is the sponsor at a stadium or a sponsor at the venue, they don’t want a Ford ad on TV or a Toyota.
Brett Crossley: Yeah, absolutely. I think that what they’re trying to do is they want to create something that works for a partner, and I will say, because we probably lead the world in this and I know that sounds like blowing our own horn here, but as far as companies that are really invested in understanding how corporate partnerships work and the needs of the teams that work with them, I think we probably do more of that than anybody.
I’m not talking about just the pure technology people doing an L bar, creating something that kinda adds to the video. But the other part of what we do is education about the best use of that technology to actually do what it’s supposed to do, and so oftentimes prior to us getting there, if they did have something like, think just like an L bar, going back to Cisco Stadium Vision days. If they had something, there wasn’t a lot of thought put into it, and in most cases, the experience wasn’t great. It really looked like what it was, which is you just shrunk the amount of video space available to show the game and you put an ad wrap around it, and you’re showing kinda nothing but a wall of ads, and if you see what our product looks like, if you saw it in the NFL, you’re gonna see passing statistics and rushing statistics, and we’re gonna interleave in photos from the team’s official Twitter feed when those are appropriate, and just pulling in a lot of stats and engaging content and then embedding that with the sponsor assets in a way that looks really natural and not like we just put a wall of ads up there.
I’ve certainly heard through the years of very large technology companies like Cisco buying their way into these sorts of venues, and in order to do that, you have to use their technology. Are we past that where the venues realize, yeah, that was great, we got that for free, or very little money, but it didn’t actually work for us?
Brett Crossley: Yeah, it’s a good question. I’d say that is still something that is evolving. So if you look at the landscape today, certainly you’ve got teams that have invested in one IPTV system or another, right? So Cisco was one of the first of those. There are plenty of other technologies that do that, and that’s something that we make as full IPTV as well. But if you look at the people that do it, I think that in most cases they certainly would show in their marketing something that looks like an L bar and they’re all going to say words on their website like make more money from sponsors. But in terms of actually doing that, it’s an exercise left to the reader, and so you see teams that have had some of those newer technologies and have had them for years, and we know because we talk to everybody that we work with and people that we don’t, you’ll see people that have had it for multiple years that have not gotten that to where it does something close to what we do, not even just a basic version of it.
So the content’s hard. I think you probably know that as well as anybody, right? In the digital signage industry, content’s also hard. But it’s especially hard on the side where we play because you have a lot of things that you have to do well to make it look like what we’re trying to make it look like. We want the scoreboard embedded in the same way it would be on the broadcast TV feed. We want the live clock that’s coming, it’s the same thing that’s tied to the scoreboard controller that’s in the stadium. We want to be able to show out-of-town scores. We want to highlight when something significant has happened in those out-of-town scores that lead to changes. We want to show sort of detailed stats, like in major league baseball, hit and pitch data, and so tying all of those things together and making it work well is not something that’s easy, and so I would say that currently the positioning by. Most of the vendors that make something like IPTV is yeah, you can just use our stuff and go build something to your liking. In reality, we certainly work in a number of places where the vendor that is there would much rather that experience be them than be something created by us.
I’m curious about how deep you have to stitch your way into the operations of the venue and of the sports franchise, whether it’s football, baseball, hockey, or whatever the case, you have to work with the scoreboard systems, like the statistical analysis systems, the people are doing things like reading how fast that fastball came in and all that sort of stuff. Is that a lot easier to do now than it was even five years ago?
Brett Crossley: I would say that parts of it are easier, but there are new technologies that come out and then essentially new APIs that you’re having to deal with on the regular. It was much harder for us when we first started. So we started doing this way back in like, 2010, and I can share this now because it’s just been so long, and it doesn’t matter, but we really bluffed our way into it, and at the beginning, it was like, yeah we want to make something work here, can you work with our scoreboard controller? Yeah, sure. What is that? What brand?
And it was difficult, right? I think that when you think about the vendors that are in sports venues, a lot of them do not want to play well with others, right? Think about the people that made the scoreboard controller, and the people that made the stats, and I feel like there’s another barrier to entry there, which is that the professional sports side, all have pretty tightly codified APIs that distribute all of their data. But if you haven’t already got a team that’s your customer, you won’t get access to that data, and so it’s not if you came up with a product idea, you can just build it, and they will come. You have to have something in the door to be invited to use the data. I think for us, it certainly got easier over time because as we saw one of every type of scoreboard controller, we would just chalk that up and write it down. We’re like, oh, okay, they’ve got Dactronics, they have an OES, or whatever the thing was, and then we would figure out how to work with it. You can imagine some APIs represent abstraction for that so that t no matter which one of the controllers we’re working with or which stats API, we can kind of create something more unified and easier to manage.
Sports entertainment venues are turning into experiential venues in many ways. Are you now having to also work with almost like show control systems?
Brett Crossley: So that’s interesting. We do, in some cases, work with control systems, but interestingly enough, more of that is done during a live sports game for example, if you think about working with the production crew, they might have a Ross tool that is designed to trigger things on the video board, on the ribbon boards, et cetera and we can make it to work on the TVs that we operate on are one more thing that can be tied into those control systems and so imagine, somebody’s just hit the third home run of the game, and so they want to put a special message up, they can send that message, and it’ll activate all of the things at once. It’s kind of a TV takeover, video board, and ribbon board. So that’s where we see that.
On the sort of mixed-use venue side, I think that the requirements in general on the TVs are a little, and when I talk about the TVs, the bulk of the TVs, I’m not breaking it down to the very specific ones that are doing a job that looks much more like digital signage, right? Like concessions, menu boards, and sort of those things. But if you think about it, the bulk of the TVs that would’ve had the game on in that venue during a concert is probably still showing the concert feed. They might be doing a simple wrap, and the wrap is just giving some day-of-event information instead. So it’s a little bit simpler just because nobody has a big vested interest in doing something special for a one-off like a concert.
You mentioned digital signage. You also have that as part of your kind of product suite, right?
Brett Crossley: Yeah, sure. We originally were a digital signage company, so if you went way back when we started doing what we did originally in college sports and then eventually in professional sports as well, FanConnect was a wholly owned subsidiary of 10 Foot Wave, which was a digital signage company and was split off in 2018 as part of the acquisition of 10 Foot Wave by Spectrio and so our roots were in that space, to begin with anyway. It’s natural that as we split off and just focus on sports venues we wanted to be able to handle all of the small screens, you can think about them that way that are inside of a stadium, and so that includes the TVs that are showing the game, TVs that do the equivalent digital signage which is just informational, et cetera, as well as the concession, menu board, those types of things, and then the other kind of interesting one is like what we do at Ohio State, which is we make a tablet that’s used in the lodge area. And so it’s purpose-built, it does, IPTV, so it does videos so you can watch them out of town game or whatever that you’re interested in. But it also has a bunch of functionality used by the kind of premium seat holders at Ohio State. So if they need to call an attendant, if they’re trying to figure out the pricing of the mixed drinks or whatever, they can look that up what to do and all of that, look at rosters and team data, et cetera, on that purpose-built tablet.
So there’s one at every seat?
Brett Crossley: There’s one at every table, is the way that it works. So if you think about a lodge area, it’s a hybrid, right? So it’s assigned seats in grouped sections as opposed to just you’re in these five seats, so you’ve got a shared table for every three people or something like that.
So there’d be a lot of client entertainment happening?
Brett Crossley: Yeah, there’s a lot of entertainment, and then those people paid a lot of money for those seats wherever they are. I mean sports venues are expensive, and so just trying to create a premium offering for those people is something that a lot of teams are working on.
Is there a lot of pressure to do more and more from one company in a sports and entertainment venue?
I talk a lot about the importance of a company being known as the guys who do this kind of work, and I wonder if you were just going into sports and entertainment venues, purely doing the concession digital signage, are you pressured also to be doing IPTV in the suites and elsewhere on the concourses and all that sort of thing? Or are the venues pretty much okay with you doing this piece of it, we’ll have these other five companies do these other things?
Brett Crossley: I think that really like every industry that matures, the buyers in this case, the technology side of the stadium, they would rather have a smaller number of vendors to deal with than a larger number, and so as a practical concern, I think you’re right, which is the way we think about it, we need to be able to do all of the things you would want to be able to do on anything that looks like a TV inside of a venue. That’s part of what we have to be able to offer because, again, you are correct that people would rather have a single vendor, a single interface, et cetera, to deal with.
One place where I think that does break down a little differently is the content side because that’s just so complex on its own, and so we certainly have people that are leveraging us for the experience on the screens and all of that, who already have another vendor in as the IPTV solution who may have somebody different for menu boards, et cetera. And the one thing that they truly can’t get anywhere else would be something similar to what we do with the content that’s created on TV.
So you might have an IPTV service of some kind, and they’re quite good at video networking, but they don’t know much about the presentation side of it?
Brett Crossley: To be fair, I’m not going to say that they can’t make something that’s pretty, I think that you’ll see, and I think it’s been true of digital signage forever, which people will show you really pretty screens and, use that, whatever’s on that screen as a substitute for, here’s what you’re going to have to do to get that to work. And the example I always give is, you look up at a concession stand or a digital menu board, and you can’t really tell what you’re looking at, is it just a static image? Is it an image over just an animation background? Or is it truly being rendered dynamically tied back to a point of sale? It’s hard to tell.
So I think that at least on the content side, it becomes something where you would rather have something that works than be given a toolkit, especially when it comes time to actually build anything that’s as close to as complex as what we do. You could build it, but you’d be spending a long time. It took us a long time to build what we have, right? And so if you just sat somebody down and you gave them a pile of tools, building that is going to take a lot of effort, and you’re gonna have to hire people to do it and it’s not like you get to build it once, you have to continue maintaining it and working on it, changing it out and adding to it over time. I think it’s just difficult.
What’s the business arrangement that you would have with a typical venue? Where do you start and stop?
Brett Crossley: Yeah, so our contractual arrangement most of the time is with, like I said, the corporate partnership side, right? If you think about whoever is in charge of making money from corporate partners or sponsors, that’s usually who our contractual arrangement is with, and then a side part of that and really it happens in every deal that we’re in and every stadium that we’re in prior to the deal being signed, they bring in technology and those guys grill us and ask us, how are you gonna work with our system, and how do you do this? And we pull up diagrams because we’ve seen a lot of that before. And we’re like, yeah, this is what we would do to work with you guys.
Once that’s all done, we are working closely with the technical team to just make sure that everything is still operational. But then our business arrangements are with the corporate partnership side and we are paid kind of the way you think about it, just like anybody else, right? We get paid for things we build and put on the screen, and we don’t have weird arrangements, I don’t know if you remember those guys like Arena Media Network, et cetera. There were multiple companies that would try to do that. We’ll give it to you for free and we will keep some percentage of the inventory. In some cases, it was more like, we’ll give it to you for free, we’ll pay you to take it, and we’ll keep part of the inventory.
We don’t do anything weird like that. We’re more of a direct business relationship with whoever is the equivalent of the rights holder and then they are the ones that are bringing the corporate partners.
Yeah. The whole build it, and they will come to things where we’re putting screens in the washrooms and everywhere else, hoping that they could sell media time around it, there’s been a legacy of failure there.
Brett Crossley: Yeah, and you still see it, and not to pick on people, right? But the classic one for me was the urinal TV, where you mount these TVs, individual screens up, I like to think that what we do is the opposite of that. What we want to do is to make something that we’re a corporate partner, and when they see it on the screen, they are like, wow, that looks great.
We’re active on LinkedIn, and my favorite thing is when somebody that works for the sponsor takes a picture of the TV screen, and they are on it, and it’s the game-winner. You’ve just won the big game, and then their stuff’s up, and they take that picture, and they throw that out on their LinkedIn. They like what they see there and the company they’re keeping. As I said, if you just look at our product, it really does look good. In addition to kinda all the things that make fans want to be on it and the technology side, and I’m not saying that we wouldn’t build something to work in urinals if a team wanted us to build that, but we certainly wouldn’t go out of our way to do it without somebody really asking for it.
Yeah. If somebody’s in trouble, they become the field maintenance guy for that. Do you do the deployment, hardware sourcing, or anything, or are you strictly on the software and automation?
Brett Crossley: We work on the hardware side as much as we need to, or as little as we have to.
We’re not in the business of making players. We’re not like a Brightsign. We try to remain pretty hardware neutral. We have preferences, of course, I think anybody who’s been in this industry does. But if you think about the FanConnect TV product itself, it’s a hybrid cloud solution, right? So there is a server installed on the premises. A lot of the heavy lifting is done in the cloud. The server is responsible for compositing, pulling everything together, and building out what is going to really be a show and that’s how that’s going to work.
The rest of the hardware for FanConnect TV would be the video distribution system, so we work with whatever is there. In many cases, we were replacing, let’s say, you had your stadium, you had Channel 10.2 digital, or if you’re using IPTV, it’s an IP stream, and you’ve got kind of a symbol for it. We’re often just replacing that. That’s the first thing that we are doing at most places. Now there are places where we’re doing more sophisticated things, where you can imagine, if you’re in the suites at American Airline Center, every channel, no matter which channels you are tuned into, would still be wrapped in kind of an L bar wrap so that’s an example of something that’s different and does require a device behind every TV. But in most cases, pretty straightforward, we’re tied into the existing distribution system, pushing that out, and as I said, we try to remain relatively hardware neutral. Our server is, of course, just one U rack-mounted server that’s hardened and does what it’s supposed to do. But we can work with various kinds of player technologies regarding digital signage, our IPTV solutions, the things we do in suites, et cetera.
Yeah, I would imagine you’re seeing a lot of smart displays in suites now.
Brett Crossley: It’s starting to happen. It’s expensive to replace everything in a stadium, and you’d think replacing TVs would be something that would be something done more actively than it is. Still, right now, I think what are people wait until there’s either a big renovation or they’re just going to build another stadium, and so they’re waiting on one of those two things to go in and do the big upgrade on the TVs. But yeah, smart TVs, things with a system-on-a-chip capability are certainly starting to move out there, and I’m starting to run into them. And venues would like you to use them if you can, right? They would rather just have a smaller number of things to break and manage. If you can avoid putting a box behind every TV, then that would be better.
Does it make any business difference to you guys in terms of whether you’re working with Major League Baseball, which is gonna have 80+ home games a year, versus football that might have six or seven home games?
I just wonder about some of these massive venues that really don’t get used very often. Are they more reticent to invest in technology?
Brett Crossley: I don’t think that’s the case. I think that what you’ll find is, if you take an NFL stadium or a big college stadium, right? That would get you closer to your six or seven games. The fact that there are so few games means that the games that you have are extremely important and really in their minds, they want to make sure that nothing is going to go wrong. Whoever’s in charge of the technology side, just wants to make sure that it’s going to work. That’s their number one concern.
The corporate partnership people, again they care the way that I put it, and this is true of really anything in sponsorship, not just us, but if you’re a baseball team, if something goes wrong and you don’t do the activation for that corporate partner that you were supposed to do, you have a lot of other games to make that up to them and comp them. If something goes wrong at a football game and you mess up what you’ve committed to a corporate partner, then you’re in a different position because that game represented a significant percentage of what you were trying to do for them for the season.
I don’t think we’ve ever faced any pushback because of the number of games. It’s more on the technology side. They just want to make sure that it’s rock solid, and we’ve been doing this long enough, we can point to that, and we can go, we’ve done so many games, we can’t get an accurate count of them. We’ve tried, but it’s thousands upon thousands of live games that we’ve produced at this point and so I think it’s really a trust issue probably more than anything else.
Is it a challenge for something like an arena that may have an NHL team, an NBA team, a WNBA team, and they all have different sponsors, and they may change from night to night?
Brett Crossley: So we do support those. If you think about a complex example of that, it would be Capital One Arena in DC, where we were working with the Washington Wizards, The capitals and also Georgetown is in that same venue, and so you’ve got, NBA, NHL, NCAA, and then concerts, things like that, and the way that we operate the way we operate FanConnect TV is a little different from the rest of the digital signage. So today, we operate that as a managed service for them, and so they tell us what they are trying to do, what they want to do, and then we just help fulfill it and actually make it all work on the screens.
The needs for the different sponsors are really a byproduct of who is running corporate partnership at the venue and for the teams as far as if they need something different. So we do something similar at Acrisure Stadium, right? We work with the Pit Panthers and Pittsburgh Steelers, and there are two totally different corporate partnership teams. In some cases, it is the same team, whatever way they want us to work, we will work with that.
Tell me about the company. You’re privately held?
Brett Crossley: We are privately held. We’re not VC-backed. We have investors, and then many of us that are there are also investors, and we were as close to profitable as we want to be, right? And so if we’re not profitable at any particular time, it’s because we are intentionally spending more money. It’s not because we have not yet achieved some measure of success.
Has all the weirdness of the last three years affected your industry or your business at all? I mean obviously, when nobody was going to games, that was a bit of a challenge, but it’s back.
Brett Crossley: Absolutely. Looking back on it, it was very difficult. I think when Covid hit, a bunch of people we worked with just shrugged to put their hands up and it was not good. One thing that was nice about that was we’d been working on kind of a full ground-up replacement of our core technology, and we went ahead and did that, and now we’ve seen that through to where we finalized that, right? So it’s the third generation of this technology.
And we had the luxury of being able just to take our time, building it from scratch, knowing everything that we’d learned over this time, and so in some ways, I’d say that maybe was a little bit of a blessing, although it didn’t seem like it at the time, watching the P&L statements for that time. But yeah, I’d say it was crazy for everybody.
Yeah, I’ve heard that story a few times. It’s interesting when they say we didn’t plan on this, but suddenly we have time to tear up the platform and start over, or do v3.
Brett Crossley: That work had already been started, right? And technology moves forward, right? And then we’d been looking at a number of things that we wanted to be able to do better in a kind of fully integrated way, and so the timing was good. We’d already started working on that effort. It’s a lot of work, right? Replatforming is a significant amount of work.
What it allowed us to do, though, was to take our time and get everything right. There was no rush to try to get something in because the season was getting ready to start. So I’d say we’ve found some benefit. The one side note, though is things are bigger than they were pre-Covid in terms of what we do in live sports, in terms of attendance, in terms of the interest that we’re getting, in terms of the way people view what they want to do inside of a stadium. I’d say that things are better now than they were pre-Covid.
I live in Canada, and I don’t live anywhere near Toronto, but the Blue Jays just had their opener, and they did a huge refresh of a lot of the technology in that building, and one of the drivers said they have to up the game day experience. That’s what people expect if they’re going to be spending $14 on a beer and $80 on a ticket, that sort of thing.
Brett Crossley: Yeah, that’s right, and it’s not wrong when people say that sports venues are not competing with other sports venues. They’re competing with the big-screen TV that’s in your house, right? So putting something in front of the fans that is very impressive is really important, and we fit in well with that. During the off-season, when I say off-season, I’m really thinking of kinda the fall sports off-season, because we are running some games throughout the entire year, but when we had a chance, we went back and did a redesign of sort of the core of FanConnect TV, and we worked with graphic designers that have done work with Fox Sports, FX1, et cetera, to come up with something that was really polished and professional and look broadcast quality, because, that’s what people wanna see, right? Especially when we come in, and we’re like, we’ve got something that’s better for your TVs, and they’re like, okay, prove that, and that’s what we ended up with.
I think one thing that’s neat about our design is unlike an ESPN or somebody like that who has to essentially be neutral, right? Our broadcast is definitely themed for the home team, right? If you saw this at the University of Georgia, it is nice, and it’s red and black, and it is bulldog television, and if you saw the same thing at the Chicago White Sox, it definitely looks like the White Sox, right? It’s not trying to be neutral.
All right, Brett, thank you very much for spending the time with me.
Brett Crossley: Yeah, absolutely. I really appreciate it.