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Are sports teams at colleges leading the way in embracing mobile, or catching up?

Some United States college teams are implementing mobile fan-engagement programs on a level rivaling professional sports organizations, but whether the collegiate teams actually catch the pros is open to question. 

Colleges are using a variety of mobile approaches, from Apple?s iBeacon technology to Xycast?s personal data receiver, to engage supporters, against a backdrop of mobile programs used at professional stadiums. Sports clubs recognize that spectators expect a fully immersive in-game experience due to mobile?s power to connect them almost instantly with a full range of services and products.

?It's a requirement,? said Bryon Morrison, president of mobile marketing with The Marketing Arm, Dallas. ?Just as people use mobile as a companion to television viewing, event attendees want to enhance their in-stadium experience.  

?For first-time attendees that might be to document and revisit experiences or share the experience with others,? he said. ?For regular attendees, that could be a second dialogue to the game or access to unique experiences.?

Proving ground 
For decades, the college campus has served both the commercial and academic worlds as a proving ground for ideas. In recent years, US higher-education institutions also have been used to test mobile innovation because of their mobile-savvy communities.

Now high-profile professional sports teams are setting an example for colleges seeking to build their brand with mobile.

The Dallas Cowboys? home, AT&T Stadium, is enhancing the in-stadium experience for visitors with a mobile application that guides them to seats, concession stands and bathrooms and even lets them post photos to a 130-foot LED display screen.

Auburn University's football app.
The mobile features, which will be used for the first time when the Cowboys meet the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday in their National Football League home opener, follow a 50 percent ramp-up in cellular network capacity at the stadium.

The Columbus Blue Jackets? Nationwide Arena installed high-quality Wi-Fi this summer to give their National Hockey League fans high-speed wireless connectivity on any mobile devices in the arena.

The network, which will allow fans to share information via their social channels, and enjoy in-venue entertainment, is expected to be fully operational for the Blue Jackets home-opening contest against the New York Rangers on Saturday, Oct. 11.

The National Basketball Association?s Brooklyn Nets are leveraging beacon technology and an updated application to bring fans closer to the team. The Nets plans to support beacon technology into the 2014-2015 season. 

Having an edge
College teams seeking to establish mobile programs are seen as having an edge over the pros by being part of a community that regularly communicates through mobile devices. 

?The collegiate user base is digitally oriented and can absorb options via mobile without much training,? Mr. Morrison said.

The urgency to keep up with the mobile fan?s growing demands gives both college and pro teams an incentive to embrace mobile, despite organizational challenges. College teams, for instance, tend to keep data in silos, using one system for email marketing, another for social media marketing and another for point-of-sale, which can complicate mobile marketing.

?Infrastructure plays a role, but that's not specific to college or pro,? Mr. Morrison said. ?New stadiums are incorporating the necessary technology base, regardless of level.? 

Although the parties have differing goals ? a pro team needs to make money to cover player salaries while a college team?s mandate is to provide a valuable extracurricular experience for students ? both groups seek to use mobile to build fan bases and boost brand engagement.

From the standpoint of a college, having deeply engaged fans only helps it in its quest to build a reputation and attract better students, faculty and resources.

The University of Mississippi, colloquially known as Ole Miss, is leveraging Apple?s iBeacon technology to enhance the fan experience during sports events and link to a rewards program. 

The system, which will be in operation when the research university plays its football home opener Sept. 13, will be integrated into an updated mobile application which provides users with scores, schedules and personalized dashboard content.

Tulane football app.

Using the low-energy, low-cost beacons is an inexpensive alternative to Wi-Fi systems that can support geolocated messaging and deals, especially for schools with small athletic budgets.

Ole Miss, which has a $70 million athletics budget, said its beacon system is the first in collegiate sports. 

Deploying mobile
Xycast?s personal data receiver, PDR, is another mobile option for universities.

Five colleges ? Auburn University, Florida State University, United States Naval Academy, University of Michigan and University of South Carolina ? will have fans using the Xycast PDR to receive personalized video highlights, play-by-analysis, interactive games and more via a mobile application.

In the pilot program, users pair the handheld PDR, which is about the size of a credit card, with their mobile phone to receive the content up to a mile from the stadium.

College and pro teams both are learning how best to deploy mobile. The main thing in mounting an effective sports mobile-marketing strategy is creating a personalized and seamless blend of information, interactive engagement and entertainment for connected fans.

?The key will be understanding individuals and treating them accordingly,? Mr. Morrison said. ?That's when it becomes a business benefit.? 

Final Take
Michael Barris is staff reporter on Mobile Marketer, New York.