Top-down approach brings Wi-Fi to OKC Thunder’s Chesapeake Energy Arena

Chesapeake Energy Arena, home of the NBA’s Thunder. Credit all photos: Oklahoma City Thunder

If there’s one sure thing about stadium Wi-Fi deployments, it’s that pretty much no two networks are ever exactly the same. So even as there is a growing large-venue trend for putting Wi-Fi access points under seats or in handrails, sometimes the traditional top-down method is still the one that works best.

Such was the case for the first full fan-facing Wi-Fi network at Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City, home of the NBA’s Thunder. With a large amount of retractable seating in the 18,000-seat venue, an under-seat approach to Wi-Fi would prove too costly and disruptive, leading the team to look for connectivity from above.

While a solid in-building cellular distributed antenna system (DAS) had done a good job of keeping fans connected the last few years, the team’s desire to have more mobile insight to fan activity as well as a switch to a Wi-Fi-centric point of sale system led Oklahoma City to finally install fan-facing Wi-Fi throughout the venue.

Chris Nelson, manager of information technology for venue manager SMG, and Tyler Lane, director of technology for the Thunder, spoke with Mobile Sports Report about the recent Wi-Fi deployment at Chesapeake Energy Arena, which went live during the most recent NBA season.

An AP placement in the rafters

Though the venue looked at all options, Nelson said that going under-seat with APs would have been “very costly” to do, given the large number of retractable seats in the arena.

“We wanted to hang them [APs] from the top if we could,” Nelson said.

After testing the top equipment brands available, the Thunder settled on Ruckus gear, for what they said was a simple reason, one involving the 96 feet in air space from the catwalk to the arena floor.

“Ruckus was the only one whose gear could reach down all the way,” Nelson said.

Adding to the fan experience

Editor’s note: This report is from our latest STADIUM TECH REPORT, an in-depth look at successful deployments of stadium technology. Included with this report is a profile of the new Wi-Fi network at Allianz Field in St. Paul, Minn., and an in-depth research report on the new Wi-Fi 6 standard! DOWNLOAD YOUR FREE COPY now!

According to the team the deployment saw 410 total APs used, with 350 in the arena proper and another 60 deployed across the street at the Cox Convention Center. According to the Thunder’s Lane, the team rolled out the service slowly at first, with some targeted testing and feedback from season ticket holders.

Close-up of an AP placement

“We got some good feedback and then when we went to a full rollout we had signage in the concourses, communications via ticketing services and announcements over the PA and on the scoreboard,” to tell fans about the system, said Lane.

According to statistics provided by the team, the Wi-Fi was getting good traction as the season went on, with a March 16 game vs. the Golden State Warriors seeing 589.3 gigabytes of traffic, from 2,738 clients that connected to the network. Lane said the team employed Jeremy Roach and his Rectitude 369 firm to assist with the network design; Roach in the past helped design networks at Levi’s Stadium and Sacramento’s Golden 1 Center.

Now that the Wi-Fi network is in place, Lane said the Thunder is starting to increase the ways it can add to the fan experience via digital means, including app-based features like showing press conferences live and by having an artificial intelligence chatbot to help provide fans with arena information.

“It’s really all about enhancing the fan experience,” Lane said, with an emphasis on driving digital ticketing use in the YinzCam-developed team app. Lane said that the system also drives a lot of mobile concessions traffic, and added that “Ruckus did a fantastic job of asking all the right questions for our food and beverage partners.”

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