Converged innovation: SoFi Stadium’s networks break new ground

SoFi Stadium’s integrated technology is designed to elevate the fan experience at all levels. Credit: Jeff Lewis/LA Rams

When you spend more than $5 billion building a revolutionary-looking new sports and entertainment venue, it’s a good bet that the technology found inside is the best that can be found.

What’s truly innovative at the new SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles is not just the quality and functionality of the technology’s pieces and parts, but also the venue’s embrace of a converged network design, where all network-attached devices connect to a single Cisco Catalyst-based network.

Led by Skarpi Hedinsson, chief technology officer, SoFi Stadium and Hollywood Park, and master technology integrator AmpThink, the networking and compute environment deployed inside the building (as well as in Hollywood Park’s neighboring retail, commercial and residential area) is unlike most large venues, where different systems typically exist in their own silos, often with their own separate and different network.

Instead, the SoFi Stadium network brings all building functionality – including the wireless networks (among the largest built anywhere), the server compute platform, the telephone system, the IPTV network, the indoor and outdoor digital signage (including the massive oval dual-sided 4K main videoboard), the television broadcast systems, and the building management systems – into one converged platform, with a single vendor/single format structure.

“What we delivered is a scalable platform that simplifies Day 2 operations on Day 1,” said AmpThink president Bill Anderson.

Over the coming months, Stadium Tech Report plans to do deep technical dives on each segment of the stadium’s different technology deployments. Consider this story a sort of “executive summary” that will attempt to at the very least introduce all the technology elements that are part of the stunning new venue, which hosted its first NFL games for both stadium tenants, the Los Angeles Rams and the Los Angeles Chargers, in early September.

Converged network a revolution for stadiums

Editor’s note: This story is from our recent STADIUM TECH REPORT Fall 2020 issue, which you can read right now, no email or registration required! Also in this issue is a profile of the technology behind Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas. START READING NOW!

If the stunning architecture of SoFi Stadium and its innovative elements like the oval, dual-sided videoboard represent the realization of Rams owner and Hollywood Park developer Stan Kroenke’s “art of the possible,” then the converged network and its interlocking technologies perhaps represent “the art of the practical,” at a scale somewhat unprecedented inside a large public venue.

If you poke your head inside older sports venues, you are most likely to see separate networks and operation centers for many of the different systems – wireless, wired networks, broadcast, and building operations. Historically the case has been made that those who know those systems best are responsible for building their operations – but the silo approach often brings headaches to those in charge of overall operations for the venue as a whole, as they deal with the proliferation of different systems to operate and manage.

Digital technologies helps SoFi Stadium be able to rebrand for each of its two “home” teams. Credit: Ty Nowell/Los Angeles Chargers

AmpThink, which has deployed networks in more than 70 venues across the country, pioneered the idea of a single, converged stadium network when it built the prototype at the 14,000-seat Dickies Arena last year. But the size and scope of the converged network project at SoFi Stadium – which will hold 70,000 fans for NFL games and up to 100,000 for special events like the Super Bowl – was much larger. Still, according to AmpThink’s Anderson, the planned outcome was the same: to deliver the best outcome for the customer.

“It all works together, because it’s designed to work together,” said Anderson. “Instead of fighting to see if one switch works with another, you can focus on the business.”

With 120 separate remote telecommunications rooms – including some hardened for hot weather conditions in the outside areas of Hollywood Park – the SoFi Stadium converged network is designed to present a “single pane of glass” management structure, where there are no “islands” requiring special attention.

Even the live video production system, usually a completely separate entity, is run on a connected Cisco Nexus switched environment. Every telecommunications closet or cabinet is directly connected via fiber to the campus core. According to AmpThink, all the telecom rooms have edge switches that use 25 Gbps optics and a minimum of two connections per closet/cabinet to provide an aggregate of 50 Gbps of campus interconnectivity.

The blanket of Wi-Fi and cellular coverage

On the Wi-Fi side, the SoFi Stadium network is the biggest AmpThink has built in a stadium, with approximately 2,400 APs inside the venue and another 300 in the surrounding Hollywood Park area. For the full Wi-Fi 6 Cisco deployment, AmpThink used an under-seat deployment in the main bowl. Before expanding to include full stadium technology integration, AmpThink made its name in successful big-venue Wi-Fi network design and deployment, with networks built most recently at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, and last year at Ohio State and Oklahoma University, the first two large-stadium networks to move exclusively to the new Wi-Fi 6 standard.

An outside view of the stadium. Credit: SoFi Stadium/LA Rams

In a commitment to offering the best possible connectivity to consumer devices no matter which network they use, the Wi-Fi and cellular distributed antenna system (DAS) at SoFi Stadium were both designed to each provide 100 percent venue coverage. The DAS, designed and deployed by DAS Group Professionals using gear from JMA Wireless, is the largest ever deployed. According to Hedinsson, the network has 2,400 antennas and 3,200 remotes, and is capable of covering all licensed spectrum bands between 600 MHz to 6 GHz.

As cellular carriers move toward the 5G future, the DAS is capable of supporting all the low- and mid-band spectrum currently planned for use. According to Hedinsson, there will also be millimeter-wave 5G services in the stadium, from a carrier to be named later. The stadium networks are supported by 50 Gbps backbone links.

Bringing data center strategies to the stadium

While hyper-convergence of server use is common in the data center space, that has traditionally not been the case in sports and entertainment venue operations. But the eventual compute network built for SoFi Stadium’s operations even surprised AmpThink’s Anderson, whose company originally estimated a compute environment with perhaps 20 to 30 virtual machines.

As it stands now, Anderson said the compute environment has almost 100 VMs, which host applications for all the network operations as well as varied building management needs like power, light, HVAC, security, and even specialized systems like irrigation and seismic monitoring. Instead of a mix of servers running siloed applications on separate physical machines with different operating systems, the SoFi Stadium compute environment is a unified platform and includes a seamless integration into Google Cloud, allowing it to be easily scaled to meet current and future needs.

A digital stadium with displays big and small

Any discussion of digital displays at SoFi Stadium has to start with the main videoboard, a one-of-a-kind design of a 120-foot long oval that circles the playing field, with dual-sided 4K screens, some 40 feet in height. (Please see our detailed profile of the main videoboard in our recent Venue Display Report.)

The digital display footprint goes far beyond the main screen, with some 2,600 other smaller boards deployed throughout the venue and in Hollywood Park. According to Hedinsson, the ability of the Cisco Vision display management system is a key part of the “digital stadium” design, especially when you consider that the venue has two main tenants, each with their own branding and look and feel.

“Being digital means we can switch over the branding [by changing displays] instead of physically having to move signs,” said Hedinsson. “That’s why we have Cisco Vision. We have digital ‘playbooks’ for the different scenarios, and we can just push them out as needed.”

Innovation and experience leads the technology deployment at Raiders’ Allegiant Stadium

Allegiant Stadium reflecting the evening sky in Las Vegas. Credit: Matt Aguirre/Las Vegas Raiders (click on any photo for a larger image)

If it looks somewhat like a spaceship, perhaps that’s appropriate since the arrival of Allegiant Stadium has brought to Las Vegas something alien that residents thought they might never see: live NFL games, happening just off the city’s famed Strip.

As befits its futuristic appearance, the new home of the newly named Las Vegas Raiders is also fitted with the latest in fan-facing technologies, deployments that will have to wait a bit before their potential can be realized.

Though the $1.9-billion, 65,000-seat stadium “officially” opened on Sept. 21 with a 34-24 Raiders victory over the New Orleans Saints, a decision made by the team earlier in the year meant that no fans were on hand to witness the occasion. But when fans are allowed to enter the building, they will be treated to what should be among the best game-day technical experiences anywhere, as a combination of innovation and expertise has permeated the venue’s deployments of wireless and video technologies.

With a Wi-Fi 6 network using equipment from Cisco, and an extensive cellular distributed antenna system (DAS) deployment by DAS Group Professionals using gear from JMA Wireless and MatSing, integrated fiber, copper and cable infrastructure from CommScope, backbone services from Cox Business/Hospitality Network, digital displays from Samsung, and design and converged network planning directed by AmpThink, the Raiders have used an all-star team of partners to reach the organization’s desire to provide what Raiders’ vice president of IT Matt Pasco calls “a top-notch fan experience.”

Finally getting to build a stadium network

Editor’s note: This story is from our recent STADIUM TECH REPORT Fall 2020 issue, which you can read right now, no email or registration required! Also in this issue is a profile of the technology behind SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles. START READING NOW!

For Pasco, who is in his 19th year with the Silver and Black, the entity that became Allegiant Stadium was the realization of something he’d never had: A stadium network to call his own.

From 1995 until the end of last season, the then-Oakland Raiders played home games in the Oakland Alameda County Coliseum, where they were tenants and shared the building with MLB’s Oakland Athletics.

According to Pasco, since the Raiders didn’t have the ability to direct capital improvements, “we never got to build a sufficient DAS, and we never got to have sufficient Wi-Fi for all our fans.”

MatSing Lens antennas look down from the catwalk. Credit: Matt Aguirre/Las Vegas Raiders

Fast-forward to the plans that eventually took shape with the move of the team to Las Vegas, and for a change Pasco was able to start thinking about what that meant from a technology perspective. With his long tenure and relationships around the league, Pasco said he embarked on a several years-long “stadiums tour” of accompanying the team for road games, looking at what other teams had done at their venues.

“I kept a big notebook on what I liked, and what didn’t seem to work,” Pasco said. “I sat down with a lot of my counterparts and talked about what worked well, and what they had to spend time with. So I got a really good sense of what was possible.”

Wi-Fi 6 arrives just in time

One fortunate event for Allegiant Stadium’s wireless deployment was the 2019 arrival of equipment that supported the new Wi-Fi 6 standard, also known as 802.11ax. With its ability to support more connections, higher bandwidth and better power consumption for devices, Wi-Fi 6 is a great technology to start off with, Pasco said.

“We were very fortunate that Wi-Fi 6 was released just in time [to be deployed at Allegiant Stadium],” Pasco said. “The strength of 802.11ax will pay off in a highly dense stadium with big crowds.”

The Raiders’ choice of Cisco as a Wi-Fi provider wasn’t a complete given, even though Pasco said that the team has long been “a Cisco shop” for not just Wi-Fi but for core networking, IPTV and phones.

“We did look at Extreme [for the new build] but Cisco just has so many pieces of the stack,” Pasco said. “Things like inconsistencies between switch maker A and IPTV vendor B are a little less likely to happen. And they’ve done good things in so many buildings.”

Pasco also praised the Wi-Fi network design and deployment skills of technology integrator AmpThink, which used an under-seat deployment design for Wi-Fi APs in the main seating bowl. Overall, there are approximately 1,700 APs total throughout the venue.

“I am thrilled with the work AmpThink has done,” said Pasco, who admitted that as a network engineer, he had “never done” a full stadium design before.

“They [AmpThink] have built networks at more than 70 venues, so they came highly recommended,” Pasco said. “And meeting their leadership early on sold me pretty quickly.”

Part of what AmpThink brought to the stadium was a converged network design, where every connected device is part of the same network.

Innovation abounds in the DAS

If the Wi-Fi world is already moving forward with general availability of Wi-Fi 6 gear, the cellular side of the equation is in a much different place as carriers contemplate how to best move forward with their latest standard, 5G.

For venues currently adding or upgrading a DAS, the 5G question looms large. One of the hardest things about planning for 5G is that the main U.S. cellular carriers will all have different spectrum bands in use, making it hard to deploy a single “neutral host” DAS to support all the providers. Currently, all previous 5G deployments in stadiums have been single-carrier builds – but that won’t be the case in Allegiant Stadium, thanks to some new gear from JMA.

JMA DAS gear in the roof structure. Credit: Matt Aguirre/Las Vegas Raiders

Steve Dutto, president of DGP – which used JMA gear at many of its other stadium DAS installations, including the San Francisco 49ers’ Levi’s Stadium and most recently at the Texas Rangers’ new home, Globe Life Field – said the DAS deployed at Allegiant Stadium “is like no other” NFL-venue cellular network.

“By selecting JMA DAS equipment we were able to deploy a [5G standard] NR radio capable system from day one,” Dutto said. “This means that all carriers can deploy 5G low- and mid-band technology without any additional cost or changes to the DAS system.”

According to Dutto and JMA, the JMA TEKO DAS antennas cover all major licensed spectrum used, from 600MHz to 2500 MHz. and will provide ubiquitous coverage over the entire stadium.

“Carriers will be able to deploy their 4G technologies along with their low- and mid-band 5G technology over all of the stadium coverage area,” Dutto said. “No upgrades will be required. All carriers will need to do is provide their base radios in the headend.”

According to Todd Landry, corporate vice president, product and market strategy at JMA, the TEKO gear used at Allegiant Stadium “employs an industry unique nine-band split architecture, placing lower frequency bands in different radios than higher frequency bands.” This approach, Landry said, lets the stadium “optimize the density of higher band cells versus lower bands” while also reducing the total number of radios needed for low bands by half.

Landry said the JMA gear also has integrated support for the public safety FirstNet spectrum band, and is software programmable, allowing venue staff to “turn on” capabilities per carrier as needed, eliminating on-site visits to install additional radios or radio modules. According to DGP the DAS has 75 high-band zones and 44 low-band zones in the main seating bowl, with a total of 117 high- band and 86 low-band zones throughout the venue.

Adding in the MatSing antennas from above

One twist in the DAS buildout was the addition of 30 MatSing lens antennas to the cellular mix, a technology solution to potential coverage issues in some hard-to-reach areas of the seating bowl. According to Pasco the Raiders were trying to solve for a typical DAS issue – namely, how to best cover the premium seats closest to the field, which are the hardest to reach with a traditional top-down DAS antenna deployment.

“We looked at a hybrid approach, to use under-seat [DAS] antennas for the first 15 or 20 rows, but the cost was astronomical,” Pasco said. “We also heard that [an underseat deployment] may not have performed as well as we wanted.”

The roof structure provided a perfect mounting place for the MatSing Lens antennas. Credit: Matt Aguirre/Las Vegas Raiders

The MatSing antennas, which are ball-shaped and support greater distance between antenna and end-device, were already designed for use in the Allegiant Stadium “Peristyle” gathering area, where there is a large open space where fans are expected to gather – with a large top-down distance between the area and the struc- tures where antennas are mounted.

“I had heard about the full MatSing deployment at Amalie [Arena] and wondered if we could do that,” said Pasco. Fortunately for the Raiders, the architecture of the stadium, with a high ring supporting the transparent roof, turned out to be a perfect place to mount MatSing antennas, which use line-of-sight transmission to precisely target broadcast areas. For Pasco, a move toward more MatSings was a triple-play win, since it removed the need for other antennas from walkways and overhangs, was less costly than an under-seat network, and should prove to have better performance, if network models are correct.

“It is the perfect marriage of cost reduction, better performance and aesthetics,” said Pasco of the MatSing deployment. “We even painted them black, like little Black Holes,” Pasco said. “It’s one of the most innovative decisions we made.”

“We are excited to be part of the Allegiant Stadium network,” said MatSing CEO Bo Larsson. “It is a great venue to show the capability of MatSing Lens antennas.”

Supporting wireless takes a lot of wires

Behind all the wireless antenna technology in Allegiant Stadium – as well as behind the IPTV, security cameras and other communications needs – sits some 227 miles of optical fiber and another 1.5 million feet of copper cable, provided by CommScope.

A good balance of the 100 Gbps fiber connections are used to support the stadium’s DAS network, with the capacity built not just for current needs but for expected future demands as well. According to CommScope senior field applications engineer Greg Hinders the “spider web of single-mode fiber” includes multiple runs of 864-strand links, which break out in all directions to support all the networking needs.

For the cable connections to the Wi-Fi gear, CommScope’s design went with Cat 6A cable, which has double the capabilities and a longer reach than standard Cat 6.

“The new APs really require it [Cat 6A] so we went standard with Cat 6A throughout the building,” Hinders said.

A view from the stands. Credit: Michael Clemens/Las Vegas Raiders

And if the job wasn’t tough enough – limited construction space at the stadium required that CommScope and its distribution partner Anixter had to stage its network in an offsite warehouse – CommScope also had to make sure that exposed wiring was colored silver and black to match the stadium design and the team’s colors.

While single-mode fiber is usually colored yellow, Hinders is enough of a football fan to know that Pittsburgh Steelers colors wouldn’t fly in the Raiders’ home.

“It all had to be black and grey,” said Hinders. “Black and yellow isn’t good for the Raiders.”

The MatSing antennas also posed a challenge for CommScope, since each MatSing antenna requires 48 individual connections for all the radios in each device.

“It was [another] logistical challenge,” said Hinders. “But it was great to see [the entire network] all come to fruition. It’s nice to know we had a part in putting it all together.”

Providing enough backbone bandwidth

To ensure that Allegiant Stadium had enough backbone bandwidth to support all its communications needs, the Raiders turned to Cox Business/Hospitality Network, a partner with considerable telecom assets in the Las Vegas area.

Jady West, vice president of hospitality for Cox, noted that not only does Cox have experience in providing data services to high-demand venues (including State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Ariz., which routinely hosts big college games and the Super Bowl), it also has a wealth of resources in and around Las Vegas, providing services to the big casino hotels and the Las Vegas Convention Center.

With a 100 Gbps regional network, West said Cox is able to bring “quite a bit of power and flexibility” to the equation. Having supplied services to big events like CES at the LVCC, West said, “takes a specialized skill, and that’s what my team does. This is what we do.”

Display technology and POS gear at a concourse lounge. Credit: Dan Grimsley/AmpThink

Specifically for the Raiders, Cox built two 40-Gbps redundant pipes just to serve the needs of Allegiant Stadium. Additionally, Cox built a 10 Gbps metro Ethernet link between the stadium and the team’s headquarters and practice facility in nearby Henderson, Nev., a connection that Pasco said would be essential for stadium operations as well as the on-field football business.

“Both the video production staff and the football staff can now push information back and forth like we’re in the same building,” said Pasco, who gave high praise to Cox’s work. From a production side, crews at headquarters can create content for videoboards and displays, and have it at the stadium instantaneously; similarly, video from the stadium’s field of play or from practices can be shared back and forth as needed, in a private and real-time fashion.

West said Cox, which also provides game-day network support and a “NOC as a service” solution, knows that the data demands of the big-time events that will likely be held at Allegiant Stadium will only keep increasing, and it built its systems to support that growth.

“The most demanding events are things like CES, and NFL games,” West said. “This network is built for the future, to hold up for all those events.”

Videoboards to fit the design

Last but certainly not least in the technology arsenal at Allegiant Stadium are the Samsung videoboards. Above the south end zone, the largest board measures approximately 250 feet long by 49 feet high, according to Pasco. Two identical sized boards of 49 feet by 122 feet are in the corners of the north end zone. Including ribbon boards, Pasco said there is a total of 40,000 square feet of LED lights inside the seating bowl.

On the stadium’s exterior there is another large videoboard, a 275-foot mesh LED screen that fits in perfectly with the bright lights of the city’s famed Strip. Inside, the venue will also have approximately 2,400 TV screens for information and concessions, with all the systems controlled by the Cisco Vision display management system.

New Report: Inside the technology at SoFi Stadium and Allegiant Stadium

Stadium Tech Report is pleased to announce our FALL 2020 issue, with profiles of two of the most innovative new venues to open – SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles and Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas! While neither venue will host fans this NFL season, our profiles will dig in-depth to tell you about the technologies in place to make these stadiums the most advanced when it comes to the game-day experience. We also have a substantive news analysis story about how venues and product and service suppliers are planning to tackle two of the biggest venue issues when it comes to hosting fans during a pandemic – venue entry and concessions operations.

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 and ExteNet Systems. 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.

We would like to take a moment here and give some special thanks to the people at SoFi Stadium and at Allegiant Stadium, and to all the other subjects we interviewed for this issue, for their extra help when it came to providing interview time and especially photos to help bring our publications to life. We quite literally couldn’t have done this without your help, and we look forward to visiting venues again in the near future!

Dodgers up the ante with new Wi-Fi 6 network

Dodger Stadium upgraded its wireless with a new Wi-Fi 6 network installed this past offseason. Credit all photos: Los Angeles Dodgers (click on any picture for a larger image)

Professional sports may have put games and exhibitions on hold, but a handful of IT executives from Major League Baseball teams have been using pandemic downtime to upgrade Wi-Fi and DAS systems in their stadiums.

Case in point: The Los Angeles Dodgers just completed the league’s first Wi-Fi 6 overhaul along with adding new 5G cellular antennas to ensure Blue Believers stay seamlessly connected to social media, email, text and good old-fashioned voice calls during home games. When baseball returns to venues, Dodger Stadium and the new Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas, will lead the way as the first stadiums with Wi-Fi 6 fan-facing networks.

“We’re up against the same challenges that every stadium has, which is how to deal with the density of individuals trying to connect simultaneously – a challenge that’s unique to our industry,” explained Ralph Esquibel, vice president of IT for the Dodgers. “Wi-Fi 6 was created for this kind of high-density environment.”

Wi-Fi 6, better known in IEEE circles as the 802.11ax standard, is a significant upgrade for Wi-Fi networks that started appearing last year. Among its benefits are that use of the new standard can increase the amount of available spectrum and number of channels available for users; it can also significantly accelerate users’ average data rates, while also decreasing the amount of battery power used by devices searching for a Wi-Fi connection.

As long as they have newer phones that support the new standard, Wi-Fi 6 networks provide everything a team could want for its connection-conscious fans.

Replacing the Wi-Fi 4 network

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!

Like its predecessor, the Wi-Fi 6 network will use under-seat APs in the bowl

It’s been barely five years since the Dodgers installed Wi-Fi 4 in the stadium, making use of under-seat APs and what were the league’s first APs cleverly concealed inside hand railings for even denser coverage. There were about 900 APs powering the network then, which easily accommodated 8,000 simultaneous users on its maiden voyage.

“It was state of the art back at that point in time,” Esquibel recalled. But usage and uptake quickly soared among fans and it wasn’t long before 30,000 simultaneous users were contending for bandwidth at each game.

“That was when I’d get a call from previous ownership, usually sometime in the second inning with, ‘I can’t get on email or make a phone call…’,” Esquibel laughed. Suddenly, it didn’t matter how close your seat was to home plate; anybody watching the game became inadvertent victims of Wi-Fi’s highly successful rollout at Dodger Stadium.

Other baseball stadiums experienced similar capacity and uptake issues. That’s in part what prompted MLB to dispatch its technology committee to look at technology upgrades to make sure baseball fans could do all the wireless networking they wanted to while watching a game. Though MLB did not respond to a request for more information, STR was able to get some information from other sources about the pending upgrade plans.

Wi-Fi 6 coming to more ballparks

According to our sources, MLB technologists settled on Wi-Fi 6 upgrades as their next strategic push. So while the Dodgers will be the first baseball team to upgrade to Wi-Fi 6, other teams were also reportedly in the first steps of adding Wi-Fi 6 before the coronavirus pandemic put a hold on many upgrade plans.

More APs were added in overhangs and roofed areas

It’s unclear if the MLB technology committee brought any financial help to the table along with their wireless expertise for these six upgrades. When MLB put together a consortium to bring wireless connectivity to parks starting back in 2014, it got financial buy-in from wireless carriers, equipment vendors and teams to help spread the costs around. Esquibel wouldn’t specify any dollar amounts for the Dodgers’ Wi-Fi 6 budget or whether the league contributed anything. He did note that the team negotiated an upgrade clause into its previous Wi-Fi networking contract.

Construction for the Dodgers’ new network began last fall, right after the Dodgers lost to the Washington Nationals in the NLDS playoffs. Back then, there were 880 APs that comprised the Wi-Fi 4 network; the upgrade to Wi-Fi 6 bumped that total closer to 1,100 APs, Esquibel said. The Dodgers installed 9100 series APs from Cisco in most of the same locations, reusing the cabling and conduits in the process. The Dodgers also replaced network switches (Cisco again, and its 9300 switching line) to handle greater throughput and the increased processing capacity, Esquibel added.

On the cellular side, Esquibel said carriers are adding 5G gear to the stadium, with AT&T having the most extensive deployment right now. Customers of AT&T and Verizon will also be able to be switched over to the Wi-Fi network when entering the park.

The upgrades to its wireless infrastructure also set the stage for some new capabilities coming down the pike. The combo of Wi-Fi 6 and 5G services will help the Dodgers deliver 4k and 8k video formats; it will also help as professional sports move toward “probability gaming,” i.e., online sports betting. Esquibel credits partners Cisco, AmpThink, Horizon Communications and MLB with building a powerful solution to enable these emerging services and capabilities.

Bench seating also got under-seat APs

There were other elements to the Dodgers’ 2020 tech stack refresh as well. Inside the stadium, they reworked the outfield to create a centerfield plaza with left- and right-field pavilions, with cut-outs and walkways above the pavilions plus more APs than last year to accommodate more seated and standing spectators. Esquibel said the team has also replaced its point-of-sale system, and has added Appetize, a cloud-based POS concessions app, as well as ParkHub to keep closer tabs on the Dodgers’ parking lots.

While the Wi-Fi 6 construction is complete, advance testing and fine-tuning are on indefinite hold. As of early June, Esquibel and his Dodger colleagues were sheltering in place and had been since mid-March.

“The pandemic has slowed down testing,” he said, nothing that the stadium needs capacity crowds to gauge how well the new networks are engineered and where antennas need adjusting. And it’s clear that contemplating the first post-pandemic home game brings out Esquibel’s fan boy, broadband wireless notwithstanding.

“I want to smell the grass and be with the crowd,” Esquibel said. “Like everyone else, I just want to see some baseball.”

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

New Report: Dickies Arena sets a new standard for arena excellence

MOBILE SPORTS REPORT is pleased to announce the Spring 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 latest issue contains an in-person report on the new Dickies Arena in Fort Worth, which may have just set the new standard for excellence in an arena experience. We also recap another record Wi-Fi day at Super Bowl LIV, as well as a DIY Wi-Fi network at Rutgers University.

You can READ THE REPORT right now in our new flip-page format, with no registration required!

For those who prefer the PDF, you can also download a copy of the report for free as well!

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.