Commentary: What’s Next in the Return to Venues

By Bill Anderson, president, AmpThink

The NBA suspended its season in March after a player tested positive for Covid-19.

On March 11, 2020, a full house of fans had filled Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City, in anticipation of an NBA game between the Thunder and the visiting Utah Jazz. But just before tipoff, the referees convened at midcourt for a discussion. Soon after that, the teams were sent back to the locker rooms, and eventually an announcement was made that the game was cancelled. A player on the Jazz, Rudy Gobert, had tested positive for the coronavirus, an incident that sent the fans home from the venue that night – and ultimately, signaled the end of attending spectator sports as we knew it, for the foreseeable future.

What followed in short order was the closing of worldwide economies and social structures as people everywhere entered stay-at-home quarantines designed to help stop the spread of the disease. All kinds of businesses, especially those like sports events, concerts and other activities involving large public groups, were effectively shut down, with no clear path to a future of when and how they might resume.

Now, as some of the positive effects of the quarantines are being realized, societies around the world are asking when and how more business and recreational activities can resume. And while social-distancing best practices that have emerged in places like grocery stores have provided a model that might allow more businesses to safely serve more customers, the idea of large groups of fans assembling packed together in stadiums during a pandemic still presents a much tougher challenge.

While the desire to return to the tribal gatherings of sports, concerts and other events is widespread, the timing of the “return to venues” is still unknown. The conversations around this topic are numerous and diverse, and involve many factors and factions, including politics, government, economics, biological science, venue operations, and personal safety. While AmpThink is not be in a position to solve the myriad problems that must be addressed, we do see that technology will have a significant role in the
final solution. And that role will be layered.

There is no ‘silver bullet’

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 our comprehensive study on how venues can cope with Covid-19, plus a profile of Globe Life Field! Start reading the issue now online or download a free copy!

Unfortunately, right now much of the discussion around technology for venue security is increasingly one-dimensional, searching for a silver bullet that doesn’t exist. Heat-sensing cameras, robotic cleaners, disinfectant chemicals, UV lights and mobile-device tracking applications may all have a role, but no single solution solves the problem of “when will fans return” because there isn’t one problem. Technology will just be one part of a larger solution set.

Starting in late March, AmpThink kicked off a partnership with Stadium Tech Report to look at the future of large public gatherings. The goal of the effort was to have meaningful discussions with industry thought leaders to understand the framework for our collective “return to venues.” We are attempting to develop that understanding through the lens of decision makers who will control the process. We’ve broken our analysis into “stages of return.” This phrase reminds us of the top level concerns that must be addressed before the “return to venues” can occur, including: government approval; legal liability mitigation; and the restoration of fan confidence.

What is it is going to take for the government to allow public venues to open?

While venues can propose their own paths to opening their doors to fans, their ability to execute is premised on the assumption that they will be allowed to open their doors. Though opinions on readiness will likely be different from national and local perspectives, the decision to open the doors of venues will rest heavily on the ability to convince public health authorities that the risks of spreading an infection can be managed to the point that they believe that the benefits of gathering a crowd are not outweighed by the risks of the gathering.

Achieving this approval will require that venues are able to explain how the venue will identify and then mitigate the risks of mass public gatherings. This can be achieved on an ad-hoc basis and progress will occur at different speeds in different jurisdictions. However, establishing a national mandate, a framework, and a plan to measure execution can move the conversation along faster – achieving an accelerated return to venues.

If the government says yes to opening a venue, what liability does the venue have and what does it need to do to mitigate the risk?

Any responsible venue operator or owner has to ask if the gains to be made by opening the venue will outweigh the risks. Mortgage payments and balance sheet pressures will influence the decision, but the legal risks will not be ignored.

After addressing official mandates, venue owners and operators must be confident that they can safely open their building. And then, if and when the worst-case scenario happens – infection of some group of attendees – they can answer the tough questions regarding the execution of their plan. Who implemented the plan, how was it implemented, how was its effectiveness measured, were the plan elements repeatable, was training sufficient? The answers could save or damn the venue both legally and in the court of public opinion.

Having a government-endorsed strategy, a well-articulated plan, and a mechanism to document execution will provide venue owners and operators with the legal confidence that they require to open their buildings, and to provide a clear sense of responsibility toward the guests they will invite inside their doors.

Assuming there is an open venue, what has to happen to cause fans to become comfortable with attending a live event?

It is likely that if public health officials and venue owners have reached the decision to re-open public venues, the decision was not arrived at lightly. Buildings will be opening under plans that materially reduce the threat of mass infection at a public venue.

However, fans may remain wary and without an effective vaccine, fans may prefer the comfort (and safety) of their home to the live venue experience.

Communication of the efforts to identify and address the risk of exposure to an infected attendee, proactively identify exposed fans, and otherwise reduce the risks of attendance will need to be effectively communicated. While much of the communication will focus on reaching fans before they arrive at the building, their experience when they reach the venue will be an important part of developing momentum, using fans to build the case that the return to venues is safe.

How technology will help enable the ‘stages of return’

Emerging technologies that addresses critical problems for venues relating to coronavirus (for example threat identification, threat mitigation, sanitation, tracking and contact tracing, messaging, and communication) will take center stage in the coming months. But behind these point solutions there will be a need to build networking infrastructure to make their products work. Devices will need to be connected (for power, or by wire or over the air for networks), traffic will need to be transported, compute resources deployed, and systems built. The success of these systems will depend on architecting reliable, scalable, service provider class networks in these venues.

What is the new normal?

Is the current shutdown permanent? Will all future events be held without fans in attendance? Likely no! But returning fans to LPVs will take time and require a plan that addresses the needs of all stakeholders: Government officials, venue owners and operators, team owners, concert promoters, leagues, athletes and musicians, venue employees and contractors, and of course fans.

On behalf of our customers, we can listen, learn, and position them to execute on a strategy that gets us all to a common goal – the opening our stadiums, arenas, convention centers, malls, and other public
places to the public within a framework that manages the risk that we pose to each other when faced with a pandemic. Stay tuned as we present more findings of our ongoing research and interviews with thought leaders, subject matter experts, technology company leaders and venue, team and school IT professionals in the weeks and months to come.

Bill Anderson, AmpThink

Bill Anderson, AmpThink

Bill Anderson has been involved in the design and construction of wireless networks for over 20 years, pre-dating Wi-Fi. His first experience with wireless networking was as a software developer building software for mobile computers communicating over 400 MHz and 900 MHz base stations developed by Aironet (now part of Cisco Systems).

His work with mobile computing and wireless networks in distribution and manufacturing afforded him a front row seat to the emergence of Wi-Fi and the transformation of Wi-Fi from a niche technology to a business critical system. Since 2011 at AmpThink Bill has been actively involved in constructing some of the largest single venue wireless networks in the world.

Perform Path launches to bring UV disinfection technology to sports venues

UV disinfecting systems from Perform Path will be available in designs that can be mounted in ceiling tiles or on walls. Credit: Violet Defense

Will ultraviolet light be part of the disinfection solution for sports venues as they build an infrastructure that can deal with the Covid-19 pandemic? That’s the bet behind Perform Path, a Lake Mary, Fla.-based startup built to sell UV-disinfection solutions to teams and venues that the company says are “effective at killing up to 99.9% of harmful bacteria and viruses.”

Though no certified tests have proven that UV light can kill the coronavirus, since it is effective against many other types of pathogens many medical professionals seem to believe that UV systems could also work to eliminate Covid-19. Perform Path will be using devices based on technology from an Orlando, Fla., company called Violet Defense, which last year deployed its UV cleaning systems in the Orlando Magic’s locker rooms and other player social areas.

Jack Elkins, former director of innovation for the Magic, said the UV systems from Violet Defense were deployed before the world had even heard of the coronavirus. “We had initiated the project in order to protect players from all kinds of dangerous pathogens, which have become increasingly hard to kill,” Elkins said. Though Elkins later left the Magic to start an innovation-consulting firm called Sidekick Innovations, he’s balancing that initiative to also take over as president of Perform Path, which he thinks answers a growing need in the venue technology space.

“We did not get in this because we’re making a bet on the pandemic driving business,” Elkins said. “My near term effort is to help point my friends and colleagues in the right direction as they are putting protocols together. Sports should be safe and inspirational and we shouldn’t all have to be infectious disease experts to make it that way. We don’t want a world without sports. We want a world where we win against germs.”

Disinfects in 30 minutes

Given the news this past week of players from multiple sports testing positive for Covid-19 due to exposure during team activities, it seems like any technology that might help with active disinfections would be of potential interest to teams, schools and venues. According to Elkins the tests done by the Magic on its UV system deployment — which covered locker rooms, player lounges and some other common team areas — showed that it was extremely effective in eliminating pathogens in the air and on surfaces. According to Elkins the light system can “kill things to baseline zero” within a 30-minute time period.

Portable UV units can be rolled into different rooms. Credit: Violet Defense

One big benefit of the UV system, Elkins said, is that it runs by itself and is not prone to “cleaning errors” such as incorrect application of cleaning products or missed spots in hands-on disinfectant methods.

“We implemented a new versatile, smart UV disinfection technology because germs cannot become resistant to UV, and it wouldn’t require any effort on our staff,” said Elkins about the Magic’s initial deployment of UV systems. While hospitals have used UV systems for years, Elkins said the development of smaller UV systems will give teams the flexibility to deploy the technology in many different spaces.

Perform Path will offer products based on Violet Defense technology that are also resold by Puro Lighting of Lakewood, Colo., including units that can be mounted in ceiling tiles or on walls, as well as portable stand-type devices. Puro, along with Violet Defense, is currently participating in a project with the New York City mass transit system where the portable stand units are being used to disinfect trains.

The Perform Path devices use pulsed Xenon light to deliver the disinfecting light. According to the Violet Defense website:

“Pulsed Xenon technology delivers powerful, broad spectrum UV-C, UV-B, UV-A and Violet-blue light to begin killing germs immediately. Kills up to 99.9% of bacteria and viruses, including E. coli, Salmonella, Norovirus and even superbugs like MRSA.”

Elkins also said that Perform Path will donate a percentage of its revenues or provide UV disinfection systems “to groups of people at the margins of society who deserve pro-level protection.

“We’re not crisis chasing,” Elkins said. “We’re in this for the long run.”

Expanding our scope: Welcome to… Stadium Tech Report!

Mobile Sports Report is now… Stadium Tech Report!

Welcome to the strangest time ever for sports. For venue technology professionals, it’s even tougher, since they need to not just deal with the present but also must plan for the future. And that would be an incredibly uncertain future, with uncertain needs, perhaps fulfilled by untested technologies, which need to be paid for at a time when no money is coming in. All that makes it tough to show up for work every morning.

As much as we can from our home offices, we feel your pain. And in what we hope is a good move for us and our readers, we are taking a big step toward providing even more information we hope will help you with your jobs. As of today, the entity formerly known as Mobile Sports Report will now be known as Stadium Tech Report. What does that mean for you? Quite simply, it just means “more.” Let me explain, with a quick look back at where we came from:

When I started Mobile Sports Report nine years ago, we had a fairly uncertain focus. The only thing we
really knew was that digital technology would impact the consumption of sports in huge ways. It wasn’t that bold of a prediction, but what was unclear was what would matter most, and what we could make a business out of covering. In our business, that means finding an audience that needs information about a topic that matters to them. Would it be watching football on your phone? Would it be sports social media? Would it be figuring out wireless connectivity in stadiums? We covered a lot of topics at the start, and the title “Mobile Sports Report” was chosen purposely to be non-specific, giving us latitude to move wherever it made sense to move.

In 2014, we launched what would become the focal point of our business: Our quarterly “Stadium Tech Report” series, which began with a venue-by-venue survey of the wireless connectivity at each NBA arena, and a few profiles of deployments at stadiums, including the brand-new Barclays Center. The simple idea then remains powerful today: Since deploying wireless in stadiums is a complex and unique problem for each venue, we needed time and space to tell the stories completely, so that other technology professionals could learn and inform their own plans and strategies.

With team, school and venue reps telling us for years that wireless connectivity (or lack thereof) was one of the biggest pain points for fans, it made sense to focus on that part of the stadium technology puzzle. Over the years, we’ve had a front-row seat to all the trials and errors of Wi-Fi and cellular deployment strategies and told as many tales as we could, covering both the highs and the lows.

Along the way our audience steadily grew from friends and family at the start to a mailing list now
surpassing 4,000 active members, attracted we think in no small part by our commitment to honest, objective journalism. There is no pay to play at our house, no stories done in exchange for sponsor dollars. Our business premise has always been, that if you deliver a solid, honest product, the audience will appreciate it, and sponsors will want to reach those readers by showing their support for the outlet of the information. The continued interest of our readers and the continued support of our sponsors is an
honor we cherish.

Stadium Tech Report was called that for a reason

But just like we called the main publication “Mobile Sports Report” for flexibility, there also was a reason why we purposely called our flagship publication “Stadium Tech Report,” and not something with mobility or wireless in the title. Yes, mobility and devices will always be at the forefront of any game-day experience and even more so going forward, especially as digital interactions will likely replace
many human ones for safety reasons in the near future. But now more than ever, more technology will come into venues, in areas only remotely related to mobility. Scanners, digital signage and camera systems will become need-to-know-about technology now added to the to-do list for IT teams inside venues. And we will embrace those with the same direction as we did with wireless.

The cover of our first Stadium Tech Report issue in 2014

It’s a subtle but necessary change. It may not seem so to those on the outside reading in, but titles matter. You are, at some point, what you say you are on the biggest sign you have – a Restaurant, a Dry Cleaner, a Pet Store. Changing our main name to Stadium Tech Report says, out loud, that all technology for stadiums and other large public venues is now in our purview. That doesn’t mean we’re going to back down at all from our perch where (in our humble estimation) we cover stadium wireless technology more closely, deeply and objectively than anyone else out there. What the name change says is: We’re going to take the same approach with every other technology that goes inside the arenas, mainly because that’s what’s happening to our audience.

If they need to become instant experts on thermal imaging and detection, self-serve concessions operations, or AI-assisted crowd camera systems, we want to help them on that learning curve.

Watch for more improvements as the summer rolls on – we have some new directions coming in design and content to better address the changing way our audience consumes what we put on the table. It may also take a little bit of time to shake the MSR genes out of our system (you will ALWAYS be able to reach me at kaps at mobilesportsreport.com, and for now the site’s URL is still mobilesportsreport.com, for instance) but I am sure you can deal with the pace. We are working on a new site design as well, but as usual, editorial content takes precedence so we’ll start with the official name change and go from there.

Talking to all the smart people we can

One of the first endeavors is a joint research/editorial project with our friends at AmpThink we are calling the “Return to Venues,” an open-ended idea to expose all the best ideas, thinking and practices of the smartest people we know in the business in regards to the challenges presented by the coronavirus. We’re still in the process of putting this all together, but stay tuned for more in-depth reports, more live or recorded interviews, and other things all meant to help elevate the shared discussion about where we’re all headed next. Our initial report on What’s Next for venues in our new Stadium Tech Report issue was the end product of more than two months of joint interviews with AmpThink folks, talking to everyone we could at technology companies, stadium tech integrators, team and school IT leaders, and other smart people. We’ve learned some amazing things and got great direction on where to head next so stay tuned.

In the narrow-focus field of stadium technology, it’s going to be an incredible time over the next six months, over the next year, over the next two years. There’s going to be lots of experiments, some of which may bear fruit, some which may flame out, and others that will need tweaking and lots of trial and error before things work the way they should. We’ve seen this story before, if you think about ideas like in-seat delivery and stadium apps. What sounds great in a first headline doesn’t always translate to success in the seats. You can expect a lot of this in the days to come, where every “new” thing is touted as a savior, especially by those without a lot of background in the business. But will they follow up to see if those things worked, and if not, how venues eventually solved the problems? We will. Like you, we’re in this for the long haul.

For the nuts and bolts that matter – how will you install and run it, how will it be paid for, what is the total cost of ownership, will it really be necessary two years from now – you can count on us and our great audience, our readers who are our sources, to help figure out what works and what doesn’t.

If you think about it in math terms, running tech at an arena just went from algebra straight to calculus, no stops in between. Instead of just trying to figure out if you want your Wi-Fi antennas overhead or under-seat, now you have to contemplate an entirely new way of getting fans into a stadium, perhaps scanning them for body temperature or blood-oxygen levels on the way; you may have to completely reroute concourses and pathways to seats, sometimes in stadiums that were originally built over 100 years ago; And you may have to remake everything you ever did on a concessions standpoint, as the entire world switches to contact-free payment systems and shies away from someone taking your order face to face, taking your money and then wrapping and handing you a hot dog.

And just for kicks, the need for all the critical wireless networks underlying everything doesn’t go away, it only gets more necessary as all the new stuff like cameras, sensors, displays and POS terminals will need more, not less, connectivity. Same with outreach to fans and staff, who will all need more, not less, communication. It’s scary stuff, almost as scary as the pandemic that has caused the shutdown.

But staying still or moving backwards is not an option. That’s the same for us, and it’s why we chose this time to double down on what we do, mainly again because what we’ve learned in a two months of deep-dive interviews. Nobody knows what’s happening, there is no silver bullet, no single plan of action. It’s going to take a lot more Zoom calls, trials, errors, adjustments and re-adjustments until we get it figured out.

The one thing to me that makes this industry different from other tech-specific markets is that its practicioners share information with each other like no other. We’ll do our best to help that process along at a time when it’s needed more than ever. Join us at our new home – same as the old place, just with more room and an expanded menu. Welcome, then, to Stadium Tech Report!

New Report: What’s Next for venues in the face of Covid-19; plus profiles of Globe Life Field and Dodger Stadium

STADIUM TECH REPORT is pleased to announce the Summer 2020 issue of our STADIUM TECH REPORT series, the ONLY in-depth publication created specifically for the stadium technology professional and the stadium technology marketplace.

Our stories for this issue include our first comprehensive look at how venue owners and operators, and teams and schools, might find a way back to live action and fans in stadiums following the current pandemic shutdowns. This feature is just the start of an ongoing series of research papers, interviews and other offerings of timely information we will be grouping under the “Return to Venues” title, a series of content done in part through an editorial partnership with AmpThink. We also have two profiles in this issue, one on the extensive network deployments at the ready-to-open Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas, and another on a new Wi-Fi 6 network deployment at Dodgers Stadium. Plus an explanation of our overall name change from Mobile Sports Report to Stadium Tech Report — read on!

You can also download a PDF version of the report.

We’d like to take a quick moment to thank our sponsors, which for this issue include Corning, Boingo, MatSing, Cox Business/Hospitality Network, Comcast Business, Samsung, and American Tower. Their generous sponsorship makes it possible for us to offer this content free of charge to our readers. We’d also like to welcome readers from the Inside Towers community, who may have found their way here via our ongoing partnership with the excellent publication Inside Towers. We’d also like to thank the SEAT community for your continued interest and support.

As always, we are here to hear what you have to say: Send me an email to kaps@mobilesportsreport.com and let us know what you think of our STADIUM TECH REPORT series.

PGA Championship on tap for August in San Francisco, without fans

Ian Poulter in fine form during a practice round for the Cadillac Match Play event at Harding Park in 2015. Credit: Paul Kapustka, MSR

The San Francisco Chronicle’s Ron Kroichick is reporting today that San Francisco public health officials have given a green light to holding the PGA Championship at Harding Park in August, but without any fans in attendance.

According to a story posted today, the PGA is expected to make a formal announcement about the tournament on Tuesday. The PGA, originally scheduled for Harding Park in May, was one of many events postponed by the Covid-19 pandemic. Though the tour announced the rescheduled dates earlier, there was not any confirmation that California or San Francisco health officials would let the event occur.

Now scheduled to take place Aug. 6-9, the tournament will be golf’s first major of the delayed season. The PGA Tour restarted this past weekend with another no-fans event at the Charles Schwab Challenge in Fort Worth, Texas. While most tour events that have been slated to take place will also do so without fans, the Memorial Tournament in Ohio in mid-July is planning to have a limited amount of spectators allowed on site.

NFL issues facility-reopening protocols for distancing, cleaning

The NFL on Monday sent teams a nine-page guide of protocols that need to be followed in order to safely allow players and staff into team facilities during the coronavirus pandemic.

The guidelines, made public by the league, include a list of cleaning steps and procedures to ensure player and staff safety from the virus, including specific steps for disinfecting practice and workout areas and cleaning equipment and other things like gloves and towels. The protocols also include the need for social distancing, including having locker spaces six feet apart.

While no date has yet been set for when players and staff might return to team facilities, the NFL’s report said that some players might start returning for injury rehabilitation and other procedures sometime later this month. According to the protocols, teams will also be required to certify that they have complied with the guidelines, and the league said it will also conduct “unannounced inspections” to ensure that teams are complying.