High Concept

You're sitting in the middle of a row of seats behind home plate in Boston's Fenway Park. You're longing for a beer and a Fenway Frank, but there are no hawkers in sight. Sox ace Pedro Martinez is pitching, so clambering over people and racing to the concession stand is hardly an option.

Fanlink Networks Inc. wants to solve such pressing problems with a wireless ordering service it hopes to roll out at multiple stadiums this summer. Conceived by company founder Rob Thorne, the service enables sports fans to use their cell phones or personal digital assistants to order from their seats. Thorne initially developed the idea to address his own habit of arriving at the theater "just in time," which meant forgoing popcorn to catch the beginning of the movie. He wondered if there was a way to have his popcorn delivered to his seat, although he realized that his fellow moviegoers might object to the interruption. That's where the stadium plan came in: at ballparks no one's worried about keeping quiet.

Fans who know they're always hungry by, say, the third inning can preorder from home.

When game attendees want to order snacks, they simply call the Fanlink number from a cell phone and either use an automated voice-response system or speak to an operator. If they have a Web-enabled phone or a PDA, they can access the Fanlink Web site directly. Users indicate their stadium location, select their comestibles from a menu, and enter their credit-card information. Fanlink's software processes the order, first checking the credit-card information and charging the card, and then sending the order to a computer installed at the concession stand at the appropriate park. The process is similar to that used for online shopping, except in one crucial respect: Fanlink's routing and fulfillment take just minutes. Concession workers retrieve the order from the terminal and load up the goodies, which they or an available hawker deliver. The customer signs the receipt -- which generally includes a $2 service charge -- and continues cheering. Fanlink scored big points at its first location, the New Orleans Superdome, throughout the 2001 football season. Saints fans report that it took 2 to 3 minutes to place their orders and just 10 minutes for delivery.

To run the software, stadium managers and concessionaires will pay a licensing fee that's determined by the size of the stadium and the number of seats the service covers. Interim CEO Craig Brumfield expects stadiums to sign up in part because Fanlink encourages people to buy more food. "The person isn't constrained by what he can physically carry," says Brumfield. "And using a credit card allows you to get what you want even if you don't have enough cash."

After Fanlink introduces the service to stadiums, it plans to eventually extend to any industry prime for what Brumfield calls "line avoidance." One example: the service could allow commuters to preorder their lattes before work and pick them up at the nearest Starbucks as they head to the office.


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