Mike Isaac

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49ers’ York and Sony’s Hirai: Get Off the Couch and Into Our Connected Stadium

York_HiraiIf you want 10 different angles on that last great touchdown pass, it’s probably better to watch the big game from your big screen at home.

But San Francisco 49ers boss Jed York and Sony CEO Kaz Hirai have a different idea to get you off the couch and into the stadium: “Beer-proof tablets.”

Well, that and a little more. The two outfits are working together to create a smarter stadium set to open in 2014, with an aim to connect the fans who come out to the game in far more ways than the usual fancy, giant electronic screens.

So a Sony-made “beer-proof tablet” may be one way to get fans in seats. But York says it’s more than that.

“You don’t want to be doing tech for tech’s sake,” York said in conversation with Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher at our D: All Things Digital conference. “So we’re talking to Sony about the inclusion of 4K cameras. We want to highlight Sony products, but we aren’t afraid of competition between Sony and other hardware competitors in the stadium,” he said.

That doesn’t necessarily mean tablets and smartphones strapped to the backs of seats. Think of it more along the lines of walking into a stadium with your smartphone or tablet, and being able to tap into an existing connected network that will make the whole experience of going out to a game much better.

“It’s things like the best route to get to your seat, the best place to park,” York said. Or perhaps you want to eschew hotdogs and beers for a salad — you could order said salad from your seat, and find the best route through the stadium to pick it up. York is aiming for a more “complete experience, as opposed to just different camera angles.”

So, what does Sony get out of the deal? For one, there are “lots of branding opportunities,” Hirai said. And, of course, there is space for Sony’s giant 4K, high-quality-display television screens across stadium walls.

And while York maintains that the 49ers want to “remain agnostic to devices in the stadium,” Hirai said there were other possibilities for Sony integration. “Do we want to rent out tablets? Do we want to rent out our Experia smartphones to let consumers try them out on the spot? We’ll see,” Hirai said.

That’s the same Sony electronics business that has seen flagging success in recent years, and which remains the focus of Hirai’s corporate turnaround since assuming the CEO role one year ago. He also brushed off questions about the recent proposal from activist hedge funder Dan Loeb — who has argued for Sony to partially spin off its entertainment arm from the electronics biz — saying that the board is still considering and discussing Loeb’s proposal.

To be sure, this isn’t the first idea for a connected stadium. Sony has outfitted dozens of other sporting arenas in the past with its tech. And even if the new 49ers stadium will be different from the others that preceded it, we’ve yet to see if people will want to actually use all this fancy techie stuff — or whether they’d just prefer to grab a beer and a bratwurst and just watch the game at home with the family.

Perhaps York can do both.

“The camaraderie of being at the game — there’s nothing like that,” York said. “We want to take that great home-entertainment experience and bring it to the stadium.”

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