NHL takes first steps toward possible return to action; baseball players don’t like proposed salary cuts

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman announces the league’s ‘Retun to Play Plan’ in a video.

It’s just the beginning of the beginning, but progress of some kind toward a return to live sports action surfaced this week as the National Hockey League made an initial, official step toward that possibility.

On Tuesday the NHL announced is Return to Play Plan, which is centered around a direct move to the playoffs with 24 teams involved. Though many details of the idea are still to be determined, the plan is to have the first two rounds take place in two “hub cities,” where teams will be housed in a virtual bubble to try to make safety procedures easier. The idea is for players to come back for training in mid-July, but as many outlets noted, whether or not players agree to the idea is just one part of the work yet to be done.

In a short video announcing the plan, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman emphasized that nothing would take place without the approval of “civil and medical authorities.”

MLB, meanwhile, finally sent an economic plan for its idea of a shortened season to the players, and reaction so far is in the negative category, as perhaps expected with the salary cuts the owners have deemed necessary. What that means is more negotiations ahead as players and owners try to find a way to salvage the 2020 season in a way both sides can agree upon.

Appetize sees more contact-free concessions for venues going forward

Fans at Empower Field at Mile High Stadium use Appetize-powered kiosks to order and pay for food. Credit: Paul Kapustka, MSR

While the timeline for fans returning to large public venues for sports and events is still uncertain, one thing that does seem inevitable is that the future of stadium concessions will see more ways for fans to get food and beverages without human interactions.

That’s certainly the view from Appetize, one of the top players in the venue point-of-sale technology business. In a recent call with Appetize chief strategy officer Kevin Anderson, he said the last few weeks have been among the busiest in company history, as teams, schools and venues seek ways to make concessions operations more touch-free going forward. Though there are no government mandates yet making such technologies a necessity to open venues, it makes sense that when events come back fans might be feel safer using technology-aided methods like ordering and paying online, or paying with touchless device systems (like Apple Pay), as opposed to traditional human-based counter interactions.

“Most of our customers, including venues and managed-service food companies, are realizing that if their venues are not able to accept [contactless] payments today they will have to — and if they don’t have mobile or online ordering, they will need to do that as well,” Anderson said.

App- or web-based ordering should increase

Appetize, which sells a wide range of software and hardware for stadium and other point-of-sale systems, has also recently added support for web-based ordering in venues, something that other vendors like VenueNext have also rolled out. While stadium and team apps with support for in-venue food ordering (with either delivery or pick-up options) have been around in various forms for several years, the idea of a web-based “app” with similar functionality is a newer and growing idea, one that could gain even more traction whenever venues open again.

An Appetize screenshot of what a mobile payment screen could look like.

What web-based systems have in their favor is that they can be used by fans almost instantly, without having to go through the process of downloading an app.

A web-ordering system, Anderson said, “is very well positioned for a post-Covid world” since it could give venues the flexibility of a walk-up encounter without the human interaction. In one scenario Anderson said fans could use their device’s camera to scan a sign or display with a QR code, which would bring up a menu for the concession stand close to the sign. Fans can then order and pay without having to stand in a line, and get an alert to pick up their order when it is ready.

“Venues are not going to bulldoze concession stands, but they will have to figure out how to space out people in lines and how to incentivize people to pay with contactless systems,” Anderson said. “It’s going to be the future.”

Still bullish on touch-screen kiosks

Anderson also thinks that touch-screen kiosks will still be popular going forward, even if some people feel less safe touching a payment or ordering screen.

“We’re still bullish on kiosks,” said Anderson, who said 90 percent of Appetize’s venue deployments included some kind of touch-screen system. For many of its systems, Anderson said Appetize uses antimicrobial screen protectors, and going forward they foresee having sanitization stations near any touch-screen device.

“If you just use one finger to touch the screen and then you sanitize it after you’re done, that’s still better than being two feet away from someone speaking to you,” Anderson said.

Other less-human-contact ideas for venue concessions include more vending machines and grab-and-go type windows, where prepared, boxed items will help keep fans safer. Appetize is also already working on systems where food and beverages can be placed inside lockers that fans can access with a mobile device.

“I think you’ll see more concession stands flipped inside out, where you can just grab a sandwich in a package with a bar code and go,” Anderson said.

Friday links: NASCAR ready to roll, MLS considers Orlando-based tourney

In bits and pieces, sports across the country is trying to come back, mostly without any fans in attendance. At the very least, fans will at least have something to watch on TV besides a recap of Michael Jordan’s last title run.

NASCAR returns at Darlington, with no fans in attendance: This Sunday one of the bigger sports will return as NASCAR stages a race in Darlington, S.C. This ESPN post has a good breakdown of all the rules in place to keep drivers and staff safe from the coronavirus. What will be interesting will be to see how the announcers do, calling the race remotely. Here is an FAQ about the return to racing from the NASCAR web site.

MLS considering full-league tournament in Orlando: It sounds like a very strange summer vacation, but according to this Washington Post report, Major League Soccer is considering a plan to bring all 26 teams to Walt Disney World in Orlando for a full-league tournament. No official comments yet but it sounds like a fairly ambitious quarantine plan.

Golf gets going with a mini-tour event: With professional golf planning to hold events soon without fans, a mini-tour event in Arizona gave a glimpse of what it might look like to have players compete under safety conditions, which were followed by some but not all in this great report from Golf.com’s Alan Shipnuck from earlier this week. Now all we need is a self-sanitizing bunker rake and pin pole.

What will happen if and when the NFL season starts up? A couple interesting takes on what might happen (or not happen) if and when the NFL starts its season. In Carolina, the owner doesn’t see fans packing the venues at the start. And a good Washington Post piece about the challenges of coping with different situations in different states.

MLB proposes 82-game schedule with no fans in stadiums

News reports Monday said that Major League Baseball has formalized a plan for an 82-game season in stadiums without fans, an idea that still must face approval from the players’ association. According to a report in the New York Times the plan includes a designated hitter for both leagues, as well as an expanded playoff system and regional schedules to limit travel.

What’s yet unclear is how the league will regulate the opening of stadiums for games, since even without fans there must be safety procedures in place to protect players, umpires and stadium and broadcast staffs. One player, Washington Nationals closer Sean Doolittle, said he’d be paying close attention to such details:

According to a report on ESPN, MLB will present the plan to the players on Tuesday.

Dickies Arena: Raising the fan experience to the highest level

The opening parade sets the rodeo tone at Dickies Arena. Credit: Phil Harvey, MSR (click on any photo for a larger image)

Without a professional or major college sports team as a main tenant, it’s somewhat of a wonder that Dickies Arena in Fort Worth, Texas, got built at all. But once you step inside and attend an event there, the wonder shifts to the sheer excellence that surrounds you, in what may be simply the best-built arena-sized venue, anywhere.

It might seem like a Texas-sized stretch to make such a claim, but any other basketball-sized stadium similar to 14,000-seat Dickies Arena would be hard pressed to top the amenities, infrastructure and operations installed inside the new gem of Fort Worth. While first and foremost the venue serves as home of the annual Fort Worth Stock Show & Rodeo, a three-week-plus extravaganza that held its maiden run there earlier this year, when it’s safe to allow events to return Dickies Arena will also host concerts, ice shows and other sporting and non-sporting events, saving local folks from having to drive east to Dallas for a big-time experience.

But it’s opulence, comfort and service that will be the hallmarks of a Dickies Arena experience going forward, with those attributes far outweighing the convenience of just having a world-class venue in Fort Worth. During a visit by Mobile Sports Report during the middle of this year’s rodeo program (which ran 23 straight days from Jan. 17 to Feb. 8) we saw not just the visible attributes of perhaps the most polished finish of any arena ever, but also the underpinnings of important infrastructure assets like the wireless networks and video operations, and the intense level of attention to detail in food and beverage operations, all aimed at raising the fan experience to the highest level.

The opera house meets the rodeo

Editor’s note: This profile is from our latest STADIUM TECH REPORT, which is available to read instantly online or as a free PDF download! Inside the issue is a recap of the record-breaking Wi-Fi usage at Super Bowl LIV, and a recap of a DIY Wi-Fi deployment at Rutgers University! Start reading the issue now online or download a free copy!

Fine dining is just one of the premium seating options at Dickies Arena. Credit; Paul Kapustka, MSR

When we last visited the under-construction Dickies Arena in the fall of 2019, the finishing touches weren’t in place yet, even though we could see hints of what it was shaping up to be. For our late-January visit for a night of rodeo, we got to see the finished product in all its glory, and all we can say is, it may be some time before another venue even approaches the level of cosmetic finish achieved at Dickies Arena.

To be sure, not many venue ownerships may have the financial resources or the certainty of what they want out of a finished product as the team behind the creation of Fort Worth’s newest centerpiece. If you’re not familiar with the Dickies Arena story, the arena is part of a public-private venture between the city of Fort Worth and a consortium of investors and donors led by local Fort Worth philanthropist Ed Bass. As the home of Fort Worth’s namesake rodeo, Dickies Arena is clearly meant to be that and so much more, cementing in place a building where people who know what they want got exactly what they wanted – and more.

While we didn’t get to speak with Bass directly, his presence is felt in all areas of operation of the facility, with multiple stories of his direct involvement in making sure the smallest of details were adhered to. Even a first-time visitor to the rodeo could see and feel the devotion of leaders like Bass to their signature hometown event, from his riding a horse at the front of the event-opening parade to his video-board cameos of slapping bundles of cash into the hands of the event winners as the night progressed.

Behind the scenes, we heard stories about how Bass and the leadership team wanted very specific things done cosmetically – like making sure that no antennas for either the Wi-Fi or DAS networks were visible in any of the main public areas. To meet that challenge, main technical integrator AmpThink had to go outside the norm to design (and in some cases, custom-build) enclosures to hide the gear. Walking through the main concourses and seating areas, the only hint that wireless equipment might be overhead was the outline of flush-mounted panels, a design theme that even carried out to outside-wall mounting areas in the plaza areas around the arena’s exteriors.

Once inside Dickies Arena, visitors may feel like they are in somewhere more like an opera house than a multi-purpose venue (which on this night had a “playing floor” of some finely raked dirt). Floors of decorative tiles are underfoot, and railings on the staircases enclose sculptures of a distinctive local grass plant. That same design is reflected on the plates used in one of the premium seating areas, where the dining choices include a sit-down, white-tablecloth experience that looks like a four-star steakhouse inserted into the concourse.

A rafter deployment of DAS and Wi-Fi gear. Credit: Paul Kapustka, MSR

Bill Shaw, the assistant general manager for Dickies Arena, was courteous enough to give us a directed tour of the venue before the night’s activities, pointing out things we might have noticed but not really realized, like the different tones and types of wood used for paneling, which changed as you moved from a higher premium seating area to a more general admission space. In the suites, Shaw showed us some especially comfy leather stadium chairs, which he said were the end result of a long process of determination to find out the best way to pad and tan the chair’s components.

Even the construction of the wheeled chairs in the loge box where we were the guest of AmpThink for the night were subject to scrutiny by Mr. Bass, we were told, with a story about him using tape measures to ensure the seat width was correct, and discussions about having the proper types of armrests that wouldn’t inadvertently snag the handles of a handbag.

“Mr. Bass spent a lot of time on all of that,” said Shaw. “His fingerprints are everywhere.”

To be sure, the somewhat unique ownership structure and the recurring revenue from the rodeo – which has sold-out status for all the premium seating spaces thanks to the families who have been supporting the event for generations – means in part that Dickies Arena doesn’t have to saturate its public spaces with advertising. While its digital display arsenal includes striking elements like curved LED screens from LG and menu boards and other displays running the Cisco Vision dynamic signage system, Dickies Arena only has a small number of partner-sponsors whose messages run somewhat discreetly compared to other arenas that may have more need to have a higher number of displays and advertisements.

The layout of the arena in general also takes its cue from how the premium seating space is used for the rodeo. Instead of a normal sort of top-down arena seating with “courtside” seats being the most desired, the wide space needed for rodeo events and the family atmosphere (most premium packages, according to Shaw, are bought by families and not corporations) means that there are “boxes” of seats ringing the lower bowl, with a wide walkway behind them to facilitate the meeting and greeting (and the seeing and being-seen) that is part of the rodeo culture. Thanks to some very clever architecture and movable stands technology, the mid-bowl walkway can disappear for events like concerts and other sporting situations like basketball; but good luck trying to figure out how that works by walking by the stands, since all the moving parts are, of course, hidden from view.

While a ring of suites provides another premium seating option a bit higher up, at either end of the venue are two more unique gathering areas, with belly-up bars that stretch almost the full width of the space, providing a place for the premium box-seat patrons to mingle while still having a clear view of whatever action is taking place. Shaw noted that at one end of the arena the seating can collapse back to almost a straight line, providing ample space for concert stages that also gives Dickies Arena a concert-seating total that Shaw said is comparable to American Airlines Center in Dallas, which seats 20,000 for NBA and NHL games.

Then there are some more touches you can’t see, like the bass-sound traps installed in the roof area to improve acoustics – and those you can see, like the soaring rooftop that is meant to mimic the open sky of Texas. As more fans attend different events scheduled in the future they are no doubt going to be impressed and perhaps surprised by the “opera house” where boots and Stetsons are the local fashion of choice.

Well wired for wireless

In our early fall visit to Dickies Arena we detailed the single, converged fiber network that supports all network operations, including the cellular DAS, the arena Wi-Fi and the IPTV operations, in an orderly, future-proofed way.

Built by AmpThink for the arena, the network is a departure from what has long been the norm in venue IT deployments, where multiple service providers typically build their own networks, with multiple cabling systems competing for conduit space. At Dickies Arena, AmpThink was able to control the fiber systems to follow a single, specific path, allowing the company to save costs and space for the client while building out a system with enough extra capacity to handle future needs for bandwidth, according to AmpThink.

According to AmpThink president Bill Anderson, one of those future needs became necessary this past fall, when Verizon wanted to bring its 5G millimeter-wave services as a late addition to the arena. To support the four 5G antennas that are now mounted up in the catwalk, Anderson said AmpThink was able to just allocate some of the spare optical fiber it has in place throughout the building, making it possible to bring in the service “in a very affordable way.”

In addition to the numerous custom enclosures used throughout the venue, Anderson said AmpThink also designed a pre-fabricated combination Wi-Fi and DAS antenna unit design that it could then hoist up into the rafters in a single pull. By having the green light to lead and innovate, AmpThink was able to develop and learn things it will draw on well into the future, Anderson said. “This is really our master class [on stadium network design],” Anderson said.

An under-seat Wi-Fi enclosure. Credit: Dickies Arena

Since we spent most of our January time at the venue touring the spaces and talking to different representatives, we didn’t have that much time for network speed tests but the ones we did get showed the typical strong performances of an AmpThink-built network. On one of the concourses behind the suite levels we got a Wi-Fi speedtest of 67.0 Mbps on the download side and 65.0 Mbps on the upload.

Up at the highest level of seating, which is served from the rafter-mounted APs, we got a speedtest of 28.3 Mbps / 39.5 Mbps, during the night’s final event.

Though we didn’t get down there for a speedtest, the lower-bowl seats are served by under-seat Wi-Fi enclosures. According to Anderson there are approximately 550 Cisco Wi-Fi APs used throughout the venue, all of which are now the latest versions supporting the new Wi-Fi 6 standard. The DAS, which is overseen by ExteNet Systems, uses the Corning ONE DAS hardware system with approximately 258 active antennas in 11 zones for the DAS.

Keeping video and food and beverage operations in-house

Having never been to a live rodeo event before, Mobile Sports Report was somewhat in awe of the video production inside the arena, with multiple camera angles repeatedly in use on the large-screen centerhung videoboard. With no pauses, halftimes or timeouts, action was constant, and reflected as such on the main video screens.

We are simply going to have to revisit the arena for a more in-depth exploration of the video production operation itself, which is run entirely by the Dickies Arena team and even provides live feeds itself to cable channels covering rodeo. One of the more innovative twists inside the building is a concourse-level fan booth, where a large interactive video board can serve up multiple instant replays of rodeo action by clicking and dragging screenshots to the main display area.

The three-plus weeks of back to back rodeo action was somewhat of a stress test for the video crew, since almost every night there were different types of competitions (for instance, the night we attended there was a team competition, with scores from multiple events tabulated into a final team score) requiring custom programs to populate the video board displays. According to the video team there were no fewer than seven different scoring programs in play each night, but they were able to coordinate the results so quickly that they actually had to introduce a time delay into the reporting from judges to the video screens, so that the announcers could add some drama to their live play-by-play.

On the food and beverage side of operations, the do-it-ourselves theory of Dickies Arena meant that the arena controls all aspects of F&B operations, instead of contracting much of the work to a third-party caterer.

Families are a big part of the rodeo crowd. Credit: Paul Kapustka, MSR

Julie Margolin, director of food and beverage operations at Dickies Arena, said it starts with little things, like not having to live with a certain brand of hot dog because that is the brand a caterer carries. But then it expands into what is possible, and why you would try to do things like provide in-seat delivery service to 4,000 premium seats while also balancing the F&B needs for a diverse operation that includes white-tablecloth dining, suite operations, high-end bar areas, and mobile point-of-sale to support cotton-candy sales on the concourses.

“We do everything we can to make sure every experience is the best,” said Margolin. “That’s a task not a lot of people are willing to take on.”

But Margolin, who previously held a similar title at the Honda Center in Los Angeles, is like other top performers who found the opportunity and challenge presented by Dickies Arena too good to pass up.

“This building is very different than others in the industry,” said Margolin, citing the close working atmosphere that rapidly built between operations and construction and information technology teams as the building opened late in 2019 ahead of the real debut, the rodeo season.

“If something needed fixing, nobody went home until it was done,” Margolin said. And while like others she’s always looking for ways to improve, Margolin said the whole idea of a venue owning and operating its own F&B was an exciting challenge.

“If you go with someone else’s [catering] model, you’re serving two masters,” Margolin said. But trying to meld numerous different types of fan experience operations, she said, is a challenge worth pursuing.

“If you stick with the status quo, you’re going backwards,” she said.

Dickies Arena: As good as it gets?

Standing outside the arena on a clear-sky night, from one of the outdoor plazas, fans have a pleasing view back toward the lighted buildings of downtown Fort Worth. Legend has it that Ed Bass purchased the land Dickies Arena sits on more than three decades ago, with the vision that someday he would help build an arena with that signature view back toward downtown. Now that that dream is reality, the sky’s the limit for what Dickies Arena future may be.

Though the coronavirus has effectively put all arena schedules somewhat on hold, prior to the outbreak Dickies Arena had already announced future bookings for big-name concert acts as well as family events like Disney on Ice, Cirque du Soleil and even the U.S. Gymnastics Championships. Clearly, the events market will make use of a venue of Dickies Arena’s size and stature.

According to Shaw, patrons with rodeo season tickets get first dibs on other events, but it’s a good bet that the diversity of action inside the Dickies Arena walls will mean that a wide number of fans will be able to experience the wide range of seating options available. But even those attending on the least-expensive tickets will still be able to experience the overall quality of all aspects of the arena, which will be hard for other venues to match.


A panoramic view of the Dickies Arena seating bowl. Credit: Phil Harvey, MSR


A sunny-day view of the arena’s exterior. Credit: Phil Harvey, MSR

California Governor Newsom says no live-audience sports until ‘therapeutics’ are available

Gavin Newsom, governor of California, tweeted out some information Tuesday on a staged approach California will take toward re-opening the economy following the current coronavirus shutdowns — and it’s not good news for those looking forward to returning to live sports events in the state anytime soon.

In a tweet thread where he said “Our re-opening must be gradual, guided by public health and science,” Newsom outlined four stages of “re-opening,” starting with Stage 1 of “Safety and Preparedness,” which is what the state currently does with stay-at-home measures. In Stage 2 Newsom forsees opening of “lower-risk workplaces,” including retail, manufacturing and some offices. It isn’t until Stage 3 when Newsom foresees opening “higher-risk workplaces,” where his list includes “sports without live audiences.”

Then finally he gets to Stage 4, where the “end of the stay-at-home order” includes live audiences for sports events, but only “once therapeutics have been developed.” According to news reports, Newsom said Phase 3 and Phase 4 are likely “months away.”

According to news reports, the first “Phase 2” openings could be weeks away, Newsom said. It’s not yet apparent whether the Stage 4 phase will require a vaccine, or if “therapeutics” means other kinds of treatments. We will continue to follow this story and provide updates as we get them.