MLB cancels games after Marlins suffer Covid-19 outbreak

Could the Major League Baseball season be over before it even really got started? After a dozen players and staff on the Miami Marlins tested positive for Covid-19, MLB canceled two games on Monday and all around the nation sports observers were calling for the league to end its season before things got worse.

Unlike the NBA and the NHL — major pro sports that are trying to finish their seasons in enclosed “bubble” environments — Major League Baseball started up this past week with teams playing in their own stadiums, without fans but with no bubble restrictions.

The Marlins, who played an opening series at Philadelphia, had their home opener against the Baltimore Orioles postponed Monday by MLB. Also postponed was the opener of a planned series between the New York Yankees and the Phillies, set to begin Monday.

What’s Next: The uncertain path forward in the ‘Return to Venues’

When will venues like Ohio State’s ‘Horseshoe’ be full of fans again? Credit all photos: Paul Kapustka, STR (click on any picture for a larger image)

As the world endures the summer of the global coronavirus pandemic, there is only one thing certain in the world of large public venues and mass-attendance events: Nobody, anywhere, has any complete idea what is going on right now, or exactly what the future holds for live audiences at sporting events or concerts.

To be sure, sports of all kinds are starting to test the waters on how they might return to action after the initial coronavirus shutdowns, and eventually how they might start welcoming fans back into their venues. But without any coherent top-down direction from the federal government, and what looks like an even bigger surge of new virus infections, the current state of how fans will return to venues in the U.S. is an uncoordinated chaos, with teams, leagues, schools, governments and fans all trying to find a way forward on their own that balances the need for safety with the desire to see live events in person.

After conducting a wide-ranging series of interviews with subject matter experts, industry thought leaders and representatives from teams, schools, leagues and venues earlier this year, Stadium Tech Report has come to some early conclusions about what the remainder of 2020 and beyond might look like for the world of professional and big-school sports. While all of these are still only best guesses as to what might happen, there are some trends that seem to be the way most operations will proceed as the search for a vaccine or some other type of coronavirus cure or treatment goes on.

1. Get ready for more events without any fans, maybe until next year.

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 look at a new Wi-Fi 6 network for Dodger Stadium, plus a profile of Globe Life Field! Start reading the issue now online or download a free copy!

In our research partnership with AmpThink (see Bill Anderson column) Stadium Tech Report agrees that the AmpThink-developed theory of a “stages of return” process is what we think most venues will need to go through in order to safely start allowing fans to attend events again. The first two parts of that process, getting government approval to open the doors to crowds and satisfying liability issues surrounding the safety of people in any building, are a combination that we see likely to push many venues into hosting events without fans – or in some cases, with severely restricted numbers of fans – since having only competitors and necessary staff, and perhaps a small number of fans inside the venues is likely an order of magnitude easier (and cheaper) to accomplish.

Granted, there are many sports and concert operations that may not have any incentive to hold events without fans, since their revenue models may lean heavily on game-day spending for food and beverage. However, the bigger sports with big TV deals would at least be able to earn some percentage of their incomes by holding empty-stadium events that would still be broadcast. Some sports, like NASCAR, bull riding and some independent minor-league baseball teams, have had limited-attendance events already. The PGA had proposed letting some fans in to the Memorial Tournament this week, but those plans were scrubbed in the face of the recent virus surges.

Right now the NBA and the MLS are in motion with plans to finish their seasons in a “bubble” type atmosphere in Orlando, where teams would be sequestered and would play at close-by facilities. The NHL and Major League Baseball are also in motion with plans for similar shortened seasons, with NHL teams playing in two cities in Canada (Edmonton and Toronto) while MLB teams will play 60 regular-season games in regional circuits.

College sports, with larger rosters and no ability to enact a pro league-type “bubble,” may not see any sports this fall. Already, the Ivy League has canceled sports for the rest of the year while two Power 5 conferences, the Big Ten and the Pac-12, have eliminated non-conference games in order to provide more flexibility in scheduling. Even then, representatives in those conferences admit that the end result may be fully canceled seasons.

And in the NFL, teams are already publicly planning for reduced-capacity seating if games take place at all, and if so if they are allowed to have fans in the stands.

The key thing similar to all the ideas? Even with contract agreements in place, some of those plans still face huge hurdles when it comes to testing, quarantines and overall health concerns for both participants and guests, factors that may eventually end any or all of the experiments before seasons can be finished. There is also a new growing social concern over pro leagues having instant access to Covid-19 testing while the rest of the nation is starting to struggle again with getting tests and results.

A crowded concourse at Ohio Stadium in 2019. Venues will be challenged to keep fans apart during the pandemic.

Since President Trump’s administration has made no effort to provide any type of national guidance for Covid-19 responses — especially for the re-opening of businesses — the result in sports is an ever-changing overlap of directions, with some governors proclaiming that their states are ready to host big events with fans in stands, while other state and international leaders are saying that they won’t allow big public events like sports and concerts to have fans in attendance until perhaps 2021.

No matter what the state or local governments decide, satisfying the combination of the second stage of the “return to venues” model – addressing the legal liability of the venues – and the third stage, which is gaining confidence of the fans – will likely push many venues to hold fan-free events first, while they work on plans and technology deployments to help get them to a place where they can earn government approval to open, to feel legally confident that they can keep fans safe, and then convince fans of that feeling.

While there will always likely be some fans willing to attend events no matter what the risk is, with national polls showing that a majority of people in the country are still in favor of restricting business activity to keep everyone safe from the virus, it might not make business sense for venues to try to open widely if big crowds don’t want to show up just yet. And events with less than full-house attendance may also not be economically feasible for many venues, given the large costs associated with just opening the doors of a stadium-sized facility; if you can’t make enough money to cover costs with a smaller audience, does it make sense to hold the event at all?

So just from a baseline measure of costs, safety and operational complexity, the feedback we’ve received from our interviews leads us to guess that most “big” events for the rest of the year will have no fans or strictly limited, small amounts of fans in attendance, if the events happen at all.

2. When fans do return to venues, new technologies and processes will be required, especially for venue entry and for concessions.

When it comes to social distancing to keep the virus from spreading, at large public venues it’s all about the lines.

With the prospect of an all-clear vaccine a year away at best, after some time the economic pressures of the current closures may become untenable if teams and venues want to survive as businesses. So, opening venues to some number of fans before a vaccine is available seems extremely likely; and in all discussions we’ve had so far, it’s apparent that venues believe they will need to enforce social distancing among guests, much like we are all doing in various phases of public activity today.

In seating areas, social distancing will be an easier task, given that venues can more easily keep seats unsold or erect barriers to keep unrelated groups apart from each other. The real problem with social distancing in stadiums comes from lines, a historical commonplace occurrence at entryways, on concourses and at places like concession stands and restrooms. To eliminate lines and to keep guests from inadvertently getting too close to one another, venues are likely going to need to deploy some kind of combination of technology and procedures to streamline the logjams we all used to just tolerate as part of the game-day experience.

Venues may require cashless transactions during the pandemic, like this stand at Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium did in 2018.

Since the terrorist attacks of 9/11, entry to almost all stadiums in the U.S. has become a more lengthy procedure than it was before thanks to the use of metal detectors. Physical checks of handbags or large coats have further slowed entry procedures in general, as have newer forms of identification for digital ticketing that required a live network connection at the point of ticket scanning.

Even in the face of all those barriers, many fans at big events still waited until near start time at tailgate parties or other outside-the-venue events, leading to large traffic jams of fans at the entry doors near the starting times. To allow fans to attend large events during a pandemic, however, fans may be asked to arrive even earlier to go through more thorough security checks that may include new procedures for temperature scans and perhaps even blood oxygen-level scanning; some venues may even choose to implement on-the-spot testing for Covid-19, new procedures that will likely force many venues to expand the geographic area needed to support all the new entry procedures.

New technologies, some of which have already been put in use in limited deployments, may offer some help in entryway procedures. The use of near-field communications (NFC) systems to allow personal devices to be scanned for valid tickets without having to present the devices could theoretically significantly speed up entry lines, with the caveat being that fans would have to adopt such payment or ticketing systems before arriving. Other venues are also looking at newer forms of threat-detection devices like metal detectors that can scan groups of people at a single pass instead of the airport-style one-person gate that is currently the de facto standard.

A no-tech additional solution being considered by other venues is the idea of reserved or staggered entry times, which could streamline the process if fans are able to or forced to comply. Similar methods have already been proposed for departure, with fans being instructed by section or row by row when it’s safe to leave.

The idea of entering at any gate and being able to wander around the entire stadium may also be something eliminated during a social-distancing audience phase. Some venues are considering highly regulated “zones” inside venues to keep fans apart. What is true of all plans, technology-aided or not, is that any new measures will require huge amounts of communication outreach to fans, a large amount of training and even new staffing for stadium workforces, and a new level of compliance, regulation and policing, all extra-cost measures during a time of significantly reduced revenues.

The contact-free concessions experience

Over the past year or so, many large public venues have already tested or had small deployments of so- called “contact-free” concessions technologies, where fans could order and pay for concessions via their mobile device, then either picking up orders at a specified window or having orders delivered to their seats. Other stadiums have already experimented with various forms of “grab and go” concessions stands, where pre-made items are offered for fans to take, with some deployments also featuring self-scan payment options.

The general idea of having fewer or no human interactions at all for concessions transactions will likely be the most widespread technology and process change for venues opening up during the pandemic. For most of the venue representatives we spoke to, plans that were already in place for some move to contact-free concessions operations will likely just be accelerated since such deployments will probably remain popular even after concerns about virus transmissions subside.

Grab-and-go concession stands, like this one at Denver’s Empower Field at Mile High in 2019, may be more prevalent in the near future.

Another trend that had already started in some venues and will likely only accelerate due to pandemic concerns is the move to “cash free” operations, where only digital payment methods are allowed. Though some states have laws prohibiting the complete elimination of cash payments inside venues, it will be interesting to see whether security and health concerns about the virus-spreading possibility of exchanging cash will force changes to those regulations. Some stadiums that have started cash-free operations have provided reverse-ATM type machines where cash can be deposited and stored on a machine-produced debit card for use in that venue. But those machines are costly to operate, and may not be necessary if opposition to cash-free operations declines.

One area of food service where there isn’t much consensus yet on what is to come is the area of club and other premium spaces, which in the past few years have mainly trended toward buffet-style offerings, sometimes as part of an all-inclusive cost system. While safety concerns have some observers predicting an early demise for the large-venue buffet, others see possibilities of having more closely staffed buffet operations, like the cafeterias of the past where a server (most likely behind a glass shield) can prepare individual plates. Premium suite services are also seen as an area heading for massive changes, with more prepackaged food and beverage options likely instead of the traditional steam-tray or open-serve catered offerings previously found in most venues.

3. Critical networks will be needed to support everything new and old

If there ever really was a question about whether or not wireless networks were needed inside venues, the advent of the coronavirus pandemic has removed all doubt. According to several sources we’ve talked to, some networking deployments or upgrade plans that had been “on the fence” prior to the outbreak have now been quickly green-lighted, as venues everywhere realize that critical networks will be even more important going forward, as new technologies and new procedures demand increased levels of connectivity.

On the technology side, it is clear that if venues are looking to add new layers of devices like sensors and threat detectors, there is going to be a need for greater wireless connectivity, sometimes in new areas of the venue that may not have previously had a priority for bandwidth. Entry areas in particular, and perhaps also spaces just outside venues, will likely need more carrier-class connectivity going forward, as venues seek to automate more transactions like ticket-taking and parking payments.

Installation of more mobile concessions technology, like kiosks and even vending machines, will also increase the need for overall connectivity, as will a shift to more fans using mobile devices for concessions ordering and payments as described previously. Venues are also likely going to want to increase the amount of digital displays in their buildings, to assist with crowd control, wayfinding and social-distancing policing – again leading to more demand for both wired and wireless connectivity.

Layer in more increases in communication demands just from a fan-education standpoint as well as any growth in demand for public safety and other operational needs and it’s clear that providing or upgrading existing networks to a much more robust state is probably the first to-do item on many venues’ work lists as they seek to support the return to venues. The good news is, from a technology and market perspective, there may not be a better time to be seeking new horsepower and capacity on a wireless-networking front.

On the Wi-Fi side, the advent of Wi-Fi 6 networking gear – now available from most top vendors – should provide a large boost in performance and capacity for venue networks, at costs only slightly higher than the past generation of equipment.

On the cellular side, 4G DAS networks remain a key tool in bringing a multi-carrier solution to providing basic access to most devices, while the arrival of nascent 5G services will enable carriers and venues to bring new kinds of services to guests, including applications with low-latency needs like virtual reality and other high- bandwidth broadcasts. Also, the emergence of networks using the CBRS bandwidth for potential “private” LTE networks may provide venues with an additional method of adding secure, standards-based communications for things like back-of-house operations, in-venue gaming, and Wi-Fi like services or Wi-Fi backhaul to areas where Wi-Fi signals can’t reach.

While budgetary concerns, venue aesthetics and demand for levels of services will still likely make overall networking choices a very local decision, the idea of trying to move forward in a pandemic age without a high level of basic wireless connectivity seems to be a non-starter.

A situation that changes day to day

As we said at the start — right now, the only thing everyone knows for sure is that nobody knows anything for sure. From our interviews, however, it is very apparent that for almost all the people we have talked to, few see standing still as a viable alternative. There are almost assuredly going to be some missteps, some money and time spent on technologies or procedures that don’t pan out, some anger and frustration on all sides, as we all adjust to new ways of doing things we’d long taken for granted. There will also be successful moves, victories small and big, which we hope to share to help accelerate the “Return to Venues” as much as possible.

Here at Stadium Tech Report, nothing has changed in our core directive — trying to help bring the best information possible to our readers so that they can be successful in operating their venues.

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.”

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

MLB proposes 82-game schedule with no fans in stadiums

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

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

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