- Darren Rovell, ESPN.com Sports Business reporter
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Another NFL stadium is going Wi-Fi.
The New England Patriots announced Monday that the team will offer free Wi-Fi to all its fans beginning at this weekend's home opener.
Gillette Stadium joins the ranks of the few stadiums that are Wi-Fi enabled, which include MetLife Stadium (Jets/Giants), the Georgia Dome (Falcons), Lucas Oil Stadium (Colts), Raymond James Stadium (Buccaneers), Mercedes-Benz Superdome (Saints), Bank of America Stadium (Panthers) and Sun Life Stadium (Dolphins).
Although the league sells 96 percent of the tickets it has available, the NFL is losing ground because of fans who feel they are out of the loop on other games and fantasy stats while sitting in the stands cheering for their teams.
In 1998, 54 percent of fans said they would rather be at an NFL game than watching it at home, according to an ESPN Sports Poll. Last year, only 29 percent of fans said they would rather be at the game, the worst drop of any major sport tracked over that time period.
Providing fans access to the information they seek is one of the keys to improving the in-game experience. When the league started to brainstorm about how to quickly attack its weaknesses, one item in particular rose to the top.
"We focused on Wi-Fi," NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said at the league meetings in May. "We believe it's important to bring technology into the stadiums. We've made the point repeatedly that the experience at home is outstanding, and we have to compete with that in some fashion, making sure we create the same type of environment in our stadiums."
While it might be seen as an investment in the future, installing Wi-Fi in stadiums is not cheap. Setting up hundreds of access points and paying for the service could cost more than $6 million, which is one reason why the league has been searching hard for a technology partner that could help defray some of the costs in the name of the partnership.
For the past three years, the Patriots have offered free Wi-Fi to fans in its suites so they can go online or watch NFL RedZone. This season, the Wi-Fi will be available to all fans. So why would a team that has sold out every game since 1994 do this?
"The Krafts are always asking, 'How can we make the game-day experience better?'" said Fred Kirsch, the Patriots' vice president of content. "This will enhance the experience of being in our stadium, and it could help us down the road for the days when we might not be sold out."
Enterasys Networks, which worked with the Patriots, took about a month to install hundreds of access points around the stadium that will enable up to 40 percent of fans to simultaneously use Wi-Fi. That number likely won't be hit in the near future. At the Super Bowl in Indianapolis in February, a peak of 12 percent of the crowd was using Lucas Oil Stadium's Wi-Fi at the same time, and only 19 percent used it at all.
Eric Grubman, the league's executive vice president of business operations, said the NFL will be monitoring teams with in-stadium Wi-Fi this year and cull together the best practices to share with others.
"This is being done for the millions of season-ticket holders who make the NFL part of their lives," Grubman said. "In the next five to 10 years, not only will fans be able to be connected at the game like they are at home, I'm confident the experience is going to be even better. We'll see the stadium designs and layouts change to adapt and the game production might change, meaning fewer stops."
Of the 14 games played in Week 1, five teams -- the Buccaneers, Vikings, Browns, Chiefs and Cardinals -- failed to sell at least 95 percent of their tickets.