Fewer fans a challenge for Super Bowl LV Wi-Fi

As part of the connectivity expansion ahead of the Super Bowl, poles like the one seen here may have 4G LTE, 5G and Wi-Fi for outside-the-venue coverage. Credit: ConcealFab

The diminished crowd size that will watch Super Bowl LV live Feb. 7 at Raymond James Stadium presents a unique challenge for the venue’s Wi-Fi network operators, who had to fine-tune a wireless deployment that is designed to support a full house.

“It’s all about optimization of RF [radio frequency],” said John Brams, senior director, venues, retail and logistics at Extreme Networks, the supplier of the gear behind the fan-facing Wi-Fi network in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ home stadium. But instead of the expected sellout of approximately 70,000 spectators, Raymond James Stadium will only have somewhere between 22,000 and 25,000 people in attendance for Super Bowl LV, due to Covid-19 safety restrictions for social distancing.

When Extreme put a new Wi-Fi network into the venue a couple years ago, it installed approximately 1,400 Wi-Fi access points, including 950 in the seating bowl with most of those in under-seat enclosures. Like most under-seat deployments, the network at Raymond James Stadium was designed to use the bodies of fans — known in the RF industry as “waterbags” — to block wireless signals in a beneficial way, allowing network operators to place APs closer to each other without generating interference.

With fewer fans in the building, Extreme and the Raymond James Stadium IT team had to figure out just how to “tune” the network to balance connectivity with potential interference.

Limited attendance games provided a testing ground

While Brams said Extreme and the stadium had “five different scenarios” planned for various attendance levels, from empty to full, the last few home games during the Bucs’ regular season gave the network operators a good testing ground for the eventual Super Bowl plan. At the team’s last home game on Jan. 3, there were 16,009 fans in the stands, enough to give Extreme a way to test the eventual network operation plan for Super Bowl LV.

The limited crowd, Brams said, “gave us a broad sense of what we would have to work with” for Super Bowl LV. One benefit of the under-seat deployment is that by being under seats, the APs are less likely to cause interference with other APs, unlike top-down Wi-Fi deployments where signals are more out in the open.

But even as the game will assuredly fall short of the trend of previous Super Bowls — which set overall Wi-Fi usage records year after year — Brams said Extreme still added Wi-Fi capacity to other areas of the venue, especially areas just outside the stadium, to support connectivity for other Covid-related needs, like all-digital ticketing and cashless concession operations.

In total, the venue now has 1,522 APs ready for use at the Super Bowl, with 1,439 permanent placements and 83 temporary devices. Some of those APs were mounted on poles installed by Verizon to cover the parking lots, blending 4G LTE, 5G cellular and Wi-Fi to provide complete coverage for fans’ devices. According to Extreme, the Wi-Fi APs are all 802.11ac Wave 2 (Wi-Fi 5) devices.

Per-device usage still expected to be high

One number Brams still expects to grow is the metric Stadium Tech Report has highlighted the past few years — average bandwidth used per device. While the “big number” of total tonnage at large events is usually tied to overall capacity — making it hard to compare big-event Wi-Fi totals fairly — the average bandwidth per device metric seems to be the best way to measure a large venue’s network performance, since it hones in on what is most important — how well users can use the network.

“In some of the limited-crowd venue events [at Extreme venues] we’ve seen the per-device numbers continue to grow,” said Brams. Last year at Super Bowl LIV at Miami’s Hard Rock Stadium, an Extreme-powered Wi-Fi network saw a record per-device number of 595.6 megabytes per user, a jump of more than 100 mbps from Super Bowl LIII.

Verizon updates DAS, brings more 5G to Raymond James Stadium ahead of Super Bowl LV

Raymond James Stadium, the place where Super Bowl LV will take place on Feb. 7, 2021. Credit: Tampa Bay Buccaneers website

The limited number of fans being allowed to view Super Bowl LV live at Tampa’s Raymond James Stadium should have no problem finding wireless connectivity inside the venue, thanks in part to new deployments that include a renovated 4G LTE distributed antenna system (DAS) and 5G cellular infrastructure from Verizon.

Ordinarily, the Super Bowl would be the place where once again new records would be set for wireless data consumption, as fans at the “big game” would spend most of their time there posting updates on social media to let their less-fortunate friends know just how good a time they were having either cheering on their favorite team or just being a part of the nation’s yearly biggest single-day sporting event.

But in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic, Super Bowl LV will be a big game unlike any other, with only about 22,000 fans allowed in the stadium because of health concerns. But Verizon, as it usually does ahead of the Super Bowl, said it has spent somewhere north of $80 million to upgrade its systems in and around Raymond James Stadium and the greater downtown Tampa area, not necessarily for this year but also for the big events expected in the near future at a venue known for hosting big events like the college football playoff championships and Wrestlemania.

“This is all being built for the next Super Bowl, or when the WWE [Wrestlemania] comes to town,” said Brian Mecum, vice president for device technology and sports partnerships for Verizon, in a phone interview. For the reduced crowd fortunate enough to be at Super Bowl LV on Feb. 7, and for all the big crowds that will soon (we hope) be able to attend future events, Verizon has put in place a renovated DAS as well as a “robust” 5G millimeter wave deployment that will bring the next level of wireless connectivity to cellular customers across the board.

Verizon said it has also installed 281 small cell antennas to provide permanent extended cellular coverage around town, both in and around Raymond James Stadium as well as in downtown Tampa, the Tampa Riverwalk, and in nearby Ybor City.

All carriers are on the new DAS

While he would not reveal an exact count of the number of antennas or remotes in the new stadium DAS infrastructure, Mecum was able to confirm that all three major U.S. cellular carriers — Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile — will be participating in using and paying for the DAS, meaning that customers of any of the aforementioned providers will be able to take advantage of new deployments, including some new under-seat antenna enclosures.

“It’s not good for the public if people are boxed out,” said Mecum, praising the “good relationship” between the carriers around the stadium DAS.

Verizon customers, however, will have the added advantage of being able to connect to 5G services at Raymond James Stadium, if they have an advanced handset that supports the company’s 5G signals. While there aren’t really any applications that can only be used on 5G, Mecum did say that 5G connections are “about 25 times faster than 4G,” so overall a user experience on 5G should be better.

Like in many other NFL stadiums, at Raymond James Stadium Verizon also does have an autoconnect feature that will switch Verizon customers over to the venue’s Wi-Fi network if their devices have their Wi-Fi radios active. But Mecum did suggest that Verizon customers at the game who have 5G-capable phones may want to turn Wi-Fi off at the event, to take advantage of the 5G connectivity.

“We do have Wi-Fi authentication [at Raymond James Stadium] but I would say stay on 5G if you can,” Mecum said.

MatSing antennas and upgraded Wi-Fi

We are still waiting to hear back from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers about improvements made to the venue’s Wi-Fi network, and will provide details when we receive them. We also have seen several recent photos of the stadium showing deployments of a few MatSing lens antennas, something we’ve seen at several recent Super Bowls where MatSings are used to provide direct connectivity to sidelines, typically for media and photography bandwidth.

Zippin checkout-free system debuts at stadiums in Sacramento, Denver

A Zippin-powered checkout-free concessions stand at Golden 1 Center in Sacramento in 2019. Credit: Zippin/Sacramento Kings (click on any photo for a larger image)

Checkout-free shopping payment systems, where customers simply take items off shelves and are charged automatically as they leave the store, are now arriving in sports stadiums, with startup Zippin leading the way with active installations in Sacramento and Denver.

At the Sacramento Kings’ Golden 1 Center and at Empower Field at Mile High in Denver, trial concession stands powered by Zippin have already opened and been used by fans, both before the pandemic (in Sacramento) and during the past season at Empower Field, where the Denver Broncos had some games this fall with limited fan attendance.

The checkout-free store idea, pioneered by Amazon a few years ago, uses pre-visit payment information (collected either via an app or a credit-card swipe before entry) and a combination of in-store recognition technology — usually a mix of cameras, weight sensors and artificial intelligence software — to “see” what customers are taking off the shelves, and to charge the customers for those items as they leave the store.

While many customers are amazed the system actually works even after they leave a store, the potential checkout-free systems have to solve one of the biggest pain points of stadium visits — waiting in line for concessions — has generated considerable interest among venue owners and operators. And with transaction times in both Sacramento and Denver averaging less than a minute — and some in Sacramento as quick as 10 seconds — it’s a also good bet that fans will quickly embrace more checkout-free operations so that they can get back to their seats to watch the event they paid to attend.

Fans can’t believe it works

“It’s so intriguing to watch a fan go through the [checkout-free] process, and see how they react,” said Jay Morrison, district manager for Aramark, the concessionaire at Empower Field. At one of the Broncos games this fall Morrison was watching fans exit the Zippin-powered concession stand “and they would look around, sort of stand there and say that they can’t believe it,” Morrison said. And then, of course, the fans would share the experience on social media.

“In all my years of being in F&B, I’ve never seen somebody taking a picture of somebody buying a soda,” Morrison said.

Overhead cameras track customers as they select items. Credit: Zippin

While Amazon may have pioneered the checkout-free idea when it opened its first Amazon Go store in 2018, the market now has a growing number of startups seeking to become the back-end suppliers. But Zippin, a San Francisco-based startup with 50+ employees and $15 million in venture funding, is the first to crack into the stadium concessions market, an area that seems ripe for such innovation, especially given the new reality of supporting concession operations during a pandemic.

In Denver, Aramark had already decided to trial the Zippin technology at Mile High well before the pandemic put a premium on less human contact for transactions.

“The unintended benefit is that [checkout-free] fits perfectly with Covid and beyond,” said Aramark’s Morrison.

John Rinehart, president for business operations with the Sacramento Kings, noted that the Zippin system’s entry gate inherently delivers a way to enforce social distancing by limiting capacity inside the store as necessary.

Getting fans back to their seats

Like in Denver, Sacramento had decided to try the Zippin system well before the pandemic hit — at Golden 1 Center a Zippin-powered store was opened in September in 2019, as part of what Rinehart said is a continued desire to use technology to improve the fan experience.

“It’s kind of in our DNA to look out for these things,” said Rinehart of the arena that opened in 2016 with some of the most advanced wireless networking and display technologies, as well as one of the most innovative stadium apps.

Entry gate at Zippin stand at Empower Field. Credit: Zippin

At Golden 1 Center, the Zippin store was an open area on the main concourse, and in addition to coolers with drinks it also had an assortment of snacks, as well as a way to use Zippin to pay for hot food items like popcorn or pizza. According to Rinehart a customer would purchase a ticket for the hot items inside the Zippin store, and then go next door to a hot-food stand where their order would be fulfilled.

In Denver, Aramark added the Zippin technology to one the “Drink Market” stands it had opened at the stadium the year before, which were basically walk-through stands with self-serve glass-door drink coolers. In 2019, those stands used a unique visual-scanner system from Mashgin where fans would place items to be scanned and priced. The only staffing needed was one person at the end of the line to check IDs and to open cans and bottles before fans left.

With the Zippin technology, fans can either download an app or use their credit cards at the entry gate. Once they are authorized, they enter the store, select their items and simply walk out through the exit gate (again, where they would encounter one staffer for ID check and bottle/can opening).

According to Aramark’s Morrison, having support both for an app as well as walk-up credit card access was a key selling point for Zippin, since many fans have historically proven “resistant” to downloading and registering through an app.

While education on how the store works is necessary — in Denver and Sacramento both stadiums had signage as well as email instructions for the systems — Morrison also said that fans seem to learn the system quickly and are happy to tell others how it works.

And in both stadiums, operators saw fans coming back for repeated visits during a single game, since they knew they wouldn’t have to wait long.

“If you know what you want, you can get in and out in less than 10 seconds,” said the Kings’ Rinehart. Both Denver and Sacramento operators said they saw average visit times of around 45 seconds, an unthinkable speed for anyone who’s ever spent an entire baseball inning or half a football quarter waiting for a hot dog and a beer.

Minimal reconfiguration needed

According to Zippin CEO Krishna Motukuri, the Zippin-powered stands don’t need a lot of technology or networking support. The camera systems, he said, only use about 15-to-20 Mbps of network bandwidth, and the AI computations are done on the edge modules Zippin installs on the site.

Ceiling cameras seen in Zippin Denver stand. Credit: Zippin

Motukuri said Zippin operates under a software-as-a-service module, charging venue owners and operators a monthly fee and a per-transaction fee. According to Aramark’s Morrison the cost of a Zippin deployment is far cheaper than buying similar technology from Amazon, which Aramark had initially considered.

At Golden 1 Center Rinehart said the Zippin system was fairly easy to deploy, since the open-concourse setting allowed them to bring cameras down from above. In Denver, Aramark and the Broncos actually had to raise the ceiling on the area used, so that the Zippin cameras could have a better range of focus.

And according to Aramark’s Morrison the Zippin system reduced the needed real estate for checkout, using less than a third of the space required by the Mashgin systems. “That let us put four more beverage coolers into the space,” Morrison said. In addition to the cameras, a Zippin system also requires entry and exit gates, as well as sensors for all shelves holding items.

Using the pandemic to ‘leapfrog’ to the future

Zippin’s Motukuri, who founded the company in 2015, said that the Covid pandemic has exposed some of the issues that still plague other concession systems, the fact that there still may be a wait to purchase items.

“Self-checkout doesn’t get rid of lines,” Motukuri said. “Our system is not just frictionless, it’s contactless. It offers venues an opportunity to leapfrog ahead.” According to Zippin, a new Zippin-powered concession stand is set to open at the San Antonio Spurs’ AT&T Center when fans are allowed back in that building.

In Denver, Aramark’s Morrison said that the speed enabled by the Zippin system was part of the process that allowed the venue to re-open with limited attendance.

“The state of Colorado [regulators] observed us, and we had to deliver on the commitment [to safer operations],” Morrison said. “Having the self-order system was part of what enabled us to get back to having fans.”

(Zippin promotional video below)

Vaccination sites popping up at stadiums across the country

A first responder gets a Covid vaccination shot at Gillette Stadium. Credit: Screenshot from Boston Globe video

While fans are still not allowed to attend events at most stadiums in the U.S., sports venues across the country are now being pressed into service as mass vaccination sites in the latest step in the battle against the coronavirus pandemic.

From Gillette Stadium, home of the NFL’s New England Patriots, to Dodger Stadium and Disneyland in Southern California, the wide-open indoor spaces and easy drive-up and parking lots found at most large public venues are now being used as staging grounds for initial deployments of the vaccines being used to fight the spread of the pandemic.

According to various reports, vaccination sites at stadiums are ramping up with plans to innoculate thousands per day. State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Ariz., home of the NFL’s Arizona Cardinals, expects to soon be administering more than 6,000 shots per day, according to an NPR report. According to a report in USA Today, Houston’s Minute Maid Park saw 4,000 vaccinations last weekend.

Other well-known venues also looking to ramp up vaccination sites or already providing such services include PNC Park in Pittsburgh, Petco Park in San Diego and the Oakland Coliseum. In New York, Mayor Bill de Blasio said that Citi Field — home of the New York Mets — will soon be able to vaccinate between 5,000 and 7,000 residents per day.

Already during the pandemic, sports venues across the country have used their unique characteristics — easy access and wide-open covered spaces with the ability to host large numbers of people with social distancing — to act as temporary Covid-19 test centers or overflow hospitals, and also as voting registration and voting sites. Those same characteristics, plus the availability of power, running water and other amenities, also makes them perfect sites for pop-up vaccination centers, which will be necessary as the country tries to get as many people vaccinated as possible in the shortest amount of time.


Ribbon boards at Gillette Stadium tout the vaccination services. Credit: Boston Globe video screenshot

New Report: AT&T Stadium rewrites the DAS playbook

Stadium Tech Report is pleased to announce our Winter 2021 issue, with an in-depth profile of the new, groundbreaking distributed antenna system (DAS) recently installed at AT&T Stadium, home of the Dallas Cowboys. With its super-dense deployment of approximately 670 network zones and use of cutting-edge MatSing Lens antennas, the new cellular network is designed to handle the biggest demands from the largest crowds at what is probably the busiest football-sized arena anywhere.

We are also debuting some of our new, expanded areas of content coverage, with an in-depth look at how a converged compute infrastructure can help venues recover leaseable space and reduce operating expenses. Also look for our inaugural “Design Vision” interview, where we talk to Chris Williams, president of WJHW, to get his insights on stadium design and on two of his company’s recent projects, SoFi Stadium and Allegiant Stadium.

Also, please make sure you read my “letter from the editor” at the start of this issue, as it describes the business and strategic changes taking place here at Stadium Tech 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, American Tower, CommScope, AmpThink, ExteNet Systems and Ventev. 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.

READ THE REPORT NOW, no email or registration required!

SoFi Stadium’s videoboard takes technology to new heights

SoFi Stadium’s oval videoboard is the visual centerpiece of the new venue. Credit: Jeff Lewis/LA Rams

Once just a vision captured by artist renderings, the main video board at SoFi Stadium is now a stunning reality, showing what’s possible when you combine a powerful idea with the technology, construction expertise and the will to make it so.

While fans will have to wait for the pandemic to subside before they can fully enjoy its attributes, like its full 4K resolution, the 120-yards long double-sided oval videoboard from Samsung – which is as tall as four stories high at its largest points – has been providing “wow” moments all fall to TV audiences who get glimpses on-screen of the board in action. But take their word for it, those who have seen it in person are generally in awe.

“It’s absolutely fascinating – I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Skarpi Hedinsson, chief technology officer for SoFi Stadium and Hollywood Park. The stadium is home to two NFL teams, the Los Angeles Rams and the Los Angeles Chargers. Early this fall at a team scrimmage, the board was lit up and Hedinsson walked all around the stadium for looks from as many vantage points as possible, and came away stunned.

“It’s everything we had hoped for,” Hedinsson said. “It’s exactly what it was designed to do.”

Vision of Kroenke

When the idea of what would become SoFi Stadium was being developed, several sources we talked to pointed to Rams Owner/Chairman and SoFi Stadium and Hollywood Park developer Stan Kroenke as the visionary for a videoboard that had never been done before.

The videoboard in Chargers configuration for a home game this fall. Credit: Los Angeles Chargers

“I have to give full credit to Mr. Kroenke for the vision,” said Hedinsson. “He sat down with HKS, our architects, and asked what was the ‘art of the possible.’ It was all part of how to innovate for the guest experience, and how to approach it.”

The evolution of videoboards in large NFL-type venues has become an interesting trend to watch, with highlights along the way including the massive centerhung screen at the Dallas Cowboys’ home, AT&T Stadium, and the circular “Halo Board” that sits below the outside edges of the camera shutter-like closable roof at the Atlanta Falcons’ Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

At SoFi Stadium (and the adjacent Hollywood Park), where various reports estimate that Kroenke has spent somewhere north of $5 billion in development costs, the needle of innovation has now been moved in a much different direction. Originally nicknamed the “Oculus” (a term no longer used by the stadium) the double-sided oval board hangs from the stadium’s cable-supported roof in a manner designed to present a clear video view to any seat in the house, from the field-level seats all the way up to the highest decks. Capacity for SoFi Stadium is estimated at approximately 70,000 for NFL games, and up to 100,000 for special events, like the Super Bowl.

So what are the stats?

According to figures provided by SoFi Stadium and by Samsung, the videoboard sits 122 feet above the playing field and 70 feet below the roof canopy; at 120 yards it is longer than the field of play, and it is also wider than the field. According to Samsung, its outdoor LED products were used exclusively to build the 70,000 square-foot dual-sided screen, which contains nearly 80 million pixels at a spacing distance of 8 millimeters from center to center.

The board is not symmetrical in shape for a reason: According to Samsung, the different sizes are part of the strategy of making the board visible to all seats in the venue. Mark Quiroz, Samsung’s vice president for sales, marketing and business development, said the company did virtual simulations of the screen’s visibility angles to all the seating sections to help determine the best final shape.

“It was all about getting the best views for the fans,” Quiroz said of the virtual testing.

The videoboard was first assembled on the field level, then raised up later. Credit: Jeff Lewis/LA Rams

At its tallest points, the board’s largest panel is approximately 40 feet tall; at the smallest points it is approximately 20 feet tall. According to Samsung, fans seated in the lower bowl will view the inside of the videoboard, while fans in the upper bowl areas will view the outer panels of the videoboard.

According to SoFi Stadium, the videoboard not only features the most LEDs ever used in a sports or entertainment venue, but it also has the first 4K end-to-end video production in a stadium, one that has 12 Gbps connections between cameras to ensure enough band- width for the higher-resolution content. The videoboard also has a JBL audio system that is home to more than 260 of the stadium’s approximately 4,500 loudspeakers.

According to Hedinsson, the videoboard will also eventually house 5G cellular antennas, since the location of the board gives it a perfect line-of-sight mounting position for the seating bowl.

If Hedinsson’s initial impression is correct, it would seem that all the partners involved in the board’s construction and deployment nailed Kroenke’s original vision, and made it come to life. But it was far from an easy task.

How to build ‘the art of the possible’

According to Hedinsson, the uniqueness of the videoboard and its structural size dictated that all design had to start by thinking about the board first.

“It [the videoboard] needed to be part of the earliest discussions – you have to design around an idea like that,” Hedinsson said. Since the 2.2-million-pound board would rely on the stadium’s cable-net roof for support, it was both one of the first structures to be designed, and one of the last to be put in place. The board was actually assembled on the ground inside the venue, and then hoisted into place after the roof was built.

According to Samsung’s Quiroz, the final installation of the board involved a lot more than just pulling on some cables.

A field-level view of the board in action. Credit: LA Rams

“The most challenging aspect [of the construction] was the tolerance levels in the seams,” said Quiroz, talking about the tightness needed to keep screens close together so that the video output does not have any visible breaks.

“Getting the seams right on the ground was one thing, and then keeping it together until you get it in the final resting place was another major challenge,” Quiroz said.

As if the construction team needed any more difficulty, during the final months of building the project had to deal with the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. While admitting that Covid was “kind of a cloud that loomed over everything,” Quiroz said that since the overall project was a closed situation in a fairly large space made it somewhat easier to deal with safety requirements like social distancing.

Using the new canvas

When fans finally are allowed in the venue, the final chapter of the SoFi Stadium videoboard will be written – or, more accurately, shown in 4K resolution, as game information and sponsor messages make use of the one-of-a-kind screenscape. With the circular shape, all the potential providers of content – from the teams to the potential sponsors – seem excited about the possibilities.

“With the custom shape, there are probably things that still need to be developed,” said Samsung’s Quiroz, about the need for new design tools and new ways of thinking about what types of content might be possible. “We provided the template, so now it’s all about how you can use the capacity.”

According to Hedinsson, the SoFi tenant teams – both the Rams and the Chargers – have actively been working on building content for the board since December of 2019. With various “modes” available for display
– including full 360-degree perspectives and “full takeover,” where the Ross Video and Cisco Vision display management systems in tandem will allow a single message across not just the video board but over all the 2,000-plus smaller displays in the venue – Hedinsson is looking forward to times when the video board fulfills its promise of being able to amplify the atmosphere.

“The teams have really embraced [the board’s possibilities],” Hedinsson said. “We’re going to see some really interesting uses of the space.”