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.

MSR Behind the profiles: 2019 Final Four, part 1

On the press bus to the stadium for the semifinals. Credit all photos: Paul Kapustka, MSR (click on any picture for a larger image)

Over the course of the last year, I’ve had several requests from readers to shed more light on what goes on “behind the scenes” on my various stadium visits. Here’s the first in a planned series I’m calling “Behind the profiles,” giving you some flavor of the fun and interesting things and people I experience on my trips to check out stadium technology deployments. In honor of the basketball tournaments we are all now missing, here is my “trip diary” from my visit last year to Minneapolis to see how U.S. Bank Stadium’s Wi-Fi networks held up under the big-game stress — along with some other interesting side trips! Please let me know if you find these interesting or fun to read and I will write some more… 2019 was a true banner year for MSR visits!

Friday, April 5, 2019: Getting to the Final Four, and a Prince tribute

If there was a recurring personal theme to my Final Four trip last year it was: dealing with my hip. After almost a year of putting up with various hip-related pains in November of 2018 my situation went “off the cliff” as one doctor said, rendering me unable to do much walking or any other activity. A subsequent MRI revealed that I had almost zero cartilage left in my right hip, which meant — after other MRIs confirmed it wasn’t a problem with my back, on which I had surgery 10 years ago — that I needed a hip replacement. The good news? It would turn out to be the most pain-free major surgery I’d ever had or heard of. It was done in an outpatient procedure and I was walking without crutches five days later.

The bad news? The surgery didn’t happen until late May. In early April I was still hobbling around in a sidewinder motion, slapping lidocaine patches on and taking anti-inflammatories to make it through each day. But with the downtime associated with the surgery ahead, I had to get enough stories in my notebook to fill our spring issues — so off to Minneapolis I went.

Not all displays are digital. At MSP airport.

I can’t thank the NCAA folks enough for granting MSR a credential (they had also done so the previous year) for the Final Four. There is nothing like being on site for an actual game to see how the networks and other technologies perform. While sometimes vendors and teams are able to find us some kind of pass to get stadium access, at the biggest events having a standard media credential just makes life easier for all involved. The trick is, convincing the powers that be that MSR’s coverage is beneficial to a sports audience. (Someday, Super Bowl, someday.)

After landing at MSP airport I got an almost instant dose of what is generally called “Minnesota Nice.” I had just started ambling up the concourse toward baggage claim when a nice gent pulled up beside me in one of those golf-cart things and said, “I can spot a bum hip a mile away. Get in!”

One of the numerous airport volunteers, the “Minneapolis ambassador” spared me about 15 minutes of pain-walking, a break I welcomed. “When’s your surgery?” he asked. I told him and he replied, “you’ll kick yourself after it’s over for waiting so long. But you’ll love it.” Correct on all counts. As I got out of the cart to go down to baggage claim, a local cheerleading group was doing their moves in the airport’s main atrium. I did a quick check of the Wi-Fi (good signal) and got my bag.

The other nice thing about a real media credential is having a real room at one of the official media hotels. You do pay for it — and are required to pay for four nights no matter how many nights you are actually there — but it’s worth it. Even though our Marriott (sports writers practically live in Marriotts) was close enough to walk to the stadium (about a half-mile or so), in my condition I needed the saturation of shuttles and free rides that are de rigeur for any big event like the Final Four. After checking in I took one of the shuttles provided by Buick (NCAA sponsor) over to the stadium to get my credential and lucked out as there was no line at all, allowing me to get my badge in just a few minutes’ time.

When the Timberwolves honor local legend Prince, they get purple.

Instead of trying to find where the shuttles picked up I tapped my “insider knowledge” of Minneapolis (which I had visited several times over the past couple years) and took the light rail from right outside U.S. Bank Stadium back toward the hotel — there was a station just about a block away. Walking back I noticed one other great maybe-not-a-coincidence about the location of the media hotel I was in: There was not one, but two local brewpubs on the separate street corners from the hotel entrance. And yes, over the weekend I visited them both. Good local beer and good pub-fare food. And of course, friendly people working there.

As if I wasn’t going to see enough basketball, on Friday night I went to the Target Center to watch the Timberwolves play the Miami Heat. It was a great way to relax into the weekend, and for a change I didn’t even go around and test the Wi-Fi (we had done a profile of the arena’s new technology the year before). And the game was one of the several “Prince tribute” events the Wolves had last year, where they wore purple jerseys and a band played Prince tunes at halftime. Very cool, very Minneapolis.

Saturday, April 6: Semifinals and Sally’s Saloon

With the semifinal games not starting until early evening, there was time to kill — so I hopped on the light rail again and crossed the Mississippi River over to the University of Minnesota area, where I had a late lunch at Sally’s Saloon, one of the several iconic U of Minn watering holes. Since it was rainy and chilly out I went with a good bowl of chicken soup while I watched the end of the inaugural women’s tournament at Augusta National — what a great way to get psyched for the Masters. And what great golf! Would love to come back and tip one at Sally’s pre- or post-football game. It just has that perfect college-bar feel.

Would love to get back here to see a Minnesota hockey game. Sieve!

After the local-scene interlude I went back to the hotel and boarded an early bus to the stadium, more to get the lay of the land than to file any stories. The great thing about my work as opposed to most writers there is that I wasn’t on deadline — my profiles wouldn’t appear until our June issue. After finding my assigned seat — way back in the back row of the press area behind one of the hoops — I went down to the floor to walk around before it got closed off. It’s cool to see the setup up close, the raised playing court, the band areas and wander right up to the NBA on TNT set in one corner, where Ernie, the Jet and Chuck (no Shaq that day) were holding court, live.

The terrible sight lines from my seat were not an issue — after all, my work was not to watch the game but to wander the stadium as the games went on, testing the wireless networks while the fans gave them the ultimate selfie workout. It’s just nice to have a place to rest (especially if your hip hurts), so it’s a nice perk. As it turns out, my seating arrangement was about to get much better (for me) in short time.

I did make it back to the “press working room,” a cordoned-off wide space in the bowels of the building. Think: concrete floors, hanging-drape walls, plastic row tables and folding chairs. Those are the typical conditions for big-time sports writers, photogs, bloggers and others at the big events. With something like 2,000 credentialed media, a standard press box won’t do.

During pregame, pretty much any press pass gets you close to the floor.

While spartan, the press rooms do have everything you really need to get the job done: Nearby access to interviews (a separate stage where they bring players and coaches in), power strips everywhere for laptops and phones, and serious Wi-Fi coverage in the form of temporary antennas on poles throughout the room. There’s also a basic but efficient food and drink service, which I avoided other than getting sodas and coffee. I’d just rather get stadium food instead of steam-tray stuff, to get a sense of the venue’s “flavor” if you will. Plus as I said earlier I’m not on deadline and usually not sitting in a seat so it’s easier to just grab something as I walk around.

I next went to find my networking types and was directed to the football press box, where David Kingsbury, director of IT for the stadium, had set up the NOC HQ in what looked like a coaches’ box. Like any good general David had set up his troops for success with a wide array of healthy and not-so-healthy snacks, which I was allowed to partake in. I did enjoy my fair share of Kind bars over the weekend, and was reminded (after a taste test) just how tooth-twistingly sweet a Twinkie is. (Rejected after one bite.)

While waiting for David and his team to find some time for a quick interview I noticed that the football press box was completely empty — and thought, why not set up here as a base for my stuff and to watch the games when I needed a break? For someone who wanted to spend the day roving around the venue, the football press box was a much better base location than my official press seat (which involved a series of tunnels and stairs to get to). Plus it had comfy office-chair type seating and lots of room to spread out. Sure the court was far away, but all the multiple TVs in the press box were live, giving you as good a view as anyone’s living room couch.

The press working room was well covered by temporary Wi-Fi APs.

Sometime during the night the press folks let the rest of the media know they could sit in the football press box on a first-come, first-serve basis, and while some others eventually joined me the place never got full. While there was none of the food or beverage service usually in place for Vikings games, the added bonus of the football press box was that it has its own restrooms — something not available near the courtside seats. And in the temporary official press room, the facilites were a trucked-in port-a-potty trailer.

Since I had only made it to the final game of last year’s championship I was interested to see what the crowds would be like for the semifinals — would the second game fans skip the opener and arrive after halftime? The answer — not a chance. If you’re at the Final Four, you do the Final Four, and the stadium was packed by tipoff of game 1. And for the first time, the Final Four was allowing alcohol sales, and beer was very popular at the many concession stands and kiosks around the venue. AmpThink, which in addition to having done the regular stadium Wi-Fi had also constructed a temporary Wi-Fi network for the additional courtside seats, put all the switches it used under the stands inside waterproof cases — in part to protect from inevitable beer spills.

Over the course of the first game, I wore myself out completely, overdoing it a bit with stadium laps to see if the network held up everywhere, from the courtside seats to the highest seats up in the rafters. What impressed me was how many people were really into the games, even from far-away seats. I tried to find the perfect picture from behind, of a fan using a phone to record the action, but truthfully my opportunities were few and far between, as most people really paid attention to the action on the court. One thing that surprised me was how fast the Final Four gear sold out: There was one hat I thought was really neat, and thought “well, I’ll get one Monday.” Rookie move. By the second game Saturday, there were almost no hats at all of any kind available, with the design I wanted long gone. Next time, I’ll buy any swag on Friday at the media hotel, where there was a pop-up stand for one day only.

In between games I retreated to my football press box seat, and found some time to interview David Kingsbury and his staff about not just the Wi-Fi and DAS but the displays as well, including the temporary centerhung board which was pretty amazing for a once-only apparatus. In addition to multiple screens it also had the capability to project images onto the court itself, an extra kind of screen that really brought pregame ceremonies to life.

With the games finally over and Monday’s championship between Virginia and Texas Tech set, I walked out with the AmpThink team, skipping the masses that formed a huge line at the light rail station outside the stadium. However, we didn’t do much better trying to hail an Uber or Lyft, having to walk nine blocks away from the stadium before we could get clear enough from crowds to get an SUV driver to pick up all seven of us. A late-night dinner at an excellent brewpub capped a great night of hoops and networking. More later this weekend on the rest of the weekend, including trips to a soccer stadium and the Mall of America!

Here’s the link to part 2 of the story.

More photos below!

Up close and personal with the NBA on TNT crew

The good, bad and the ugly at the NOC HQ snack table


Some of the $5 million in curtains U.S. Bank Stadium had to set up to keep the light out


Kept trying to find the perfect ‘fan with a camera’ shot. Bonus geek points if you can spot the MatSing ball antennas


Republic, one of the two brewpubs on either side of the media hotel


My football press box perch

The crush at the light rail station after the semifinals

NCAA cancels March Madness; MLB, NHL, MLS susupend schedules

In another somewhat inevitable decision, the NCAA on Thursday announced it was canceling the men’s and women’s Division I basketball tournaments, “as well as all remaining winter and spring NCAA championships.” After the NBA suspended its season Wednesday night and most conferences canceled their year-end tournaments in progress, it was quickly apparent that the NCAA’s Wednesday decision to hold games without fans was not going to be a good enough measure given the seriousness of the growing coronavirus pandemic.

Also on Thursday all of the other top professional sports with active schedules announced postponements to games, including Major League Baseball’s decision to postpone opening day by at least two weeks and to cancel spring training; the NHL’s decision to postpone its current season; and Major League Soccer’s decision to suspend its season for 30 days.

Statement tweets below.

NBA suspends season after Jazz’s Gobert tests positive for coronavirus

In yet another of seemingly endless unprecedented moments in sports Wednesday, the NBA postponed a game about to start and then announced it was suspending the entire season after a Utah Jazz player tested positive for coronavirus. Here’s the entire explanation on the NBA website:

NEW YORK — The NBA announced that a player on the Utah Jazz has preliminarily tested positive for COVID-19. The test result was reported shortly prior to the tip-off of Wednesday’s game between the Jazz and Oklahoma City Thunder at Chesapeake Energy Arena. At that time, Wednesday’s game was canceled. The affected player was not in the arena.

The NBA is suspending game play following the conclusion of Wednesday’s schedule of games until further notice. The NBA will use this hiatus to determine next steps for moving forward in regard to the coronavirus pandemic.

The announcement was made after players had already been introduced at a game between the Jazz and the Oklahoma City Thunder in Oklahoma City. From the Washington Post report:

Members of both the Thunder and Jazz went through warm-ups and starting lineup introductions at the Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City before the three game officials huddled shortly before tip-off. After a brief conversation, the officials sent both teams back to their locker rooms. During the delay, which lasted approximately 35 minutes, the Thunder proceeded with their halftime entertainment. Finally, the Thunder’s public address announcer informed fans that the game would be postponed.

According to the Washington Post story, The Athletic broke the news that the positive test was Gobert:

Later Wednesday night, the Sacramento Kings game was also canceled:

‘Best of Breed’ wireless drives Chase Center experience

An under-seat Wi-Fi AP enclosure at Chase Center, foreground, with a DAS enclosure visible to the left. Credit all photos (except where otherwise noted): Paul Kapustka, MSR (click on any picture for a larger image)

As stunning as Chase Center is visually, what you can’t see is equally powerful in adding to the fan experience. Namely, the wireless networks, and the gear that supports the connectivity.

Inside the shiny new home of the NBA’s Golden State Warriors, which sits on the edge of the San Francisco Bay, is a cellular DAS deployment from Verizon using Corning gear that may be the new forward-thinking model for cellular infrastructure for large public venues like stadiums and arenas. The 18,000-seat arena also has a Wi-Fi network using gear from Aruba, a Hewlett Packard Enterprise company, which supports the emerging Wi-Fi 6 standard for communications inside the main seating bowl.

But if you’re attending a Warriors game, or one of the many concerts scheduled at Chase Center, you may not ever see the equipment that brings the world-class connectivity to the fans. Both the DAS and the Wi-Fi networks utilize an under-seat antenna deployment method, just part of an aesthetic plan that does its best to minimize the visual impact of antennas and other wireless gear. Even deeper into the building is all the optical fiber supporting the networks, with capacity for future needs already in place.

During a mid-October 2019 visit before all the networks were fully tuned, Mobile Sports Report still got strong test results from both Wi-Fi and DAS networks in most areas in and around the arena, clear confirmation that the Warriors’ goal of having excellent wireless connectivity at their new home was right on track. And with the Corning ONE system in behind a DAS design built from the ground up with future needs in mind, as well as the expected capacity gains coming from Wi-Fi 6, the Warriors and their partners are confident they’ve built a wireless system worthy of their world-class venue goals.

“We feel extremely proud” of the venue’s wireless systems, said Brian Fulmer, director of information technology for the Golden State Warriors. Though the inevitable construction delays led to some late nights heading up to the arena’s Sept. 6, 2019 public debut, according to Fulmer all wireless systems were fully online for the opening Metallica concert, where the arena saw 2.58 terabytes of data used on the Wi-Fi network with another 2.69 TB used at another Metallica show a couple days later.

“It was a race to the finish line but we did it, and the performance speaks for itself,” said Fulmer.

Searching for ‘Best in Breed’

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 are profiles of the new Wi-Fi deployment at the University of Oklahoma, as well as profiles of wireless deployments at Fiserv Forum and the University of Florida! Start reading the issue now online or download a free copy!

If there was ever a chance to build the best-ever new arena, Chase Center was probably a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. When you combine the championship run of the team on the court with a devoted fan base centered in one of the hottest economic markets ever, you have the liberty to search for quality instead of bargains on every level.

A Wi-Fi AP hovers over a concourse gathering area.

(Case in point: The Warriors were able to sell out of their new court-level luxury suites, which have rooms just under the stands that include private wine lockers and can cost up to $2 million per year. Clearly, this is a model that may not work in places that aren’t Silicon Valley.)

For the privately financed $1.4 billion building, the Warriors turned to consulting firm Accenture to help determine the “best in breed” technology partners, especially on the wireless front. Several Warriors executives interviewed for this story did all agree on one main point: The team was not trying to install any technology to win imaginary awards for being the best or fastest building out there. Instead, it was all about how technology, especially wireless, could help bring about a world-class experience during every visit.

“Nobody shows up [at an arena] just looking for fast wireless speeds,” said Mike Kitts, the Warriors’ senior vice president for partnerships. “They want to interact. We wanted to create unforgettable experiences in an engaging environment. With the end in mind of a world-class experience, we knew great technology would absolutely play a role.”

Like a team drafting top players, the Warriors ended up choosing Verizon to lead the distributed antenna system (DAS) for cellular wireless, and Aruba for Wi-Fi. To build its neutral-host system, Verizon chose Corning and the Corning ONE platform, with an installation led by Communication Technology Services (CTS).

“We certainly leveraged the expertise of Verizon, as well as AT&T (which is also on the DAS as a client),” said Fulmer. “They’ve done this countless times, and they have the lessons learned of painful experiences.”

Building a DAS that can handle growth

Anyone in the stadium business in Northern California doesn’t have to look too far or remember too long ago to recall one such example of the pain that the nonstop growth in cellular demand can cause. After the San Francisco 49ers’ brand-new home, Levi’s Stadium, opened in 2014, the also brand-new DAS had to be upgraded the very next season to ensure it had enough capacity for the upcoming Super Bowl 50. Verizon, which basically invented under-seat DAS antennas for that deployment, said it had a goal at Chase Center to build a DAS that didn’t need upgrading for at least a few years.

A Wi-Fi AP painted to blend into the outside facade.

Terry Vance, senior manager for Verizon’s Pacific market network performance group, said “the plan from day 1 was to build a DAS with capacity for today and tomorrow. We needed to build this DAS so that for the next 3 to 4 years, we won’t have to touch it.”

Verizon also had to build the DAS in a way that complied with the Warriors’ stringent requirements for clear sight lines, especially in the main bowl seating area. According to the Warriors’ Fulmer, the team “looked at handrail [enclosure] designs,” but rejected them in favor of an under-seat approach. Though more costly in both equipment and construction, the under-seat approach was Verizon’s favored method as well to get more density in the arena.

What Verizon ended up with was a design that currently uses 71 active sectors, with 42 of those in the seating bowl. According to Vance, all the sectors in the bowl area can basically be split into two parts if needed, for a total of 84 potential bowl sectors. Currently, Vance said there are 598 under-seat DAS antennas in use.

According to Vance the Corning ONE system’s extensive use of optical fiber makes it easier to add capacity to the system as needed.

“The fiber to the edge [in the Corning system] is especially useful as you go to 5G,” Vance said. Though it’s not part of the shared DAS system, Verizon also has full 5G bowl coverage at Chase Center, one of the first arena deployments in California. Verizon also is using a couple of MatSing ball antennas, mounted in the rafters to provide cellular coverage to the floor area for concerts and other non-basketball events.

Right now AT&T is the only other carrier on the DAS, with participation from T-Mobile and/or Sprint pending depending upon the outcome of those two companies’ potential merger.

A Verizon 5G speedtest. Credit: Verizon

Jessica Koch, sports and entertainment director of business development for Corning optical communications, gave praise to integrator CTS for its deployment know-how, which she said was “critical to the success of this project.” Corning, Koch said, knows that for fans in large venues like Chase Center, “reliable connectivity without restriction – all the time, at full speed, on any device, from anywhere – has become the expectation in our connected world.”

For Warriors president and COO Rick Welts, the best wireless system is one fans don’t see or worry about, but just use without concern.

“The best thing is if the phone just works, and I don’t have to think about it,” said Welts, who led a stadium tour during MSR’s October visit.

Though Verizon said the system went through some necessary optimization during the hectic early events schedule at Chase Center, Verizon engineers in December were getting DAS speed tests in excess of 100 Mbps for both download links in most locations, according to Philip French, vice president of network engineering for Verizon. Download speeds for 5G connections, he said, are breaking the 1 Gbps mark.

“This DAS is unique since it was the first one we’ve built with 5G in mind from the ground up,” French said. “It’s a very robust design, and for us this is the design of the future.”

Leading the way with Wi-Fi 6

Like several other stadiums that were being finished this past summer, Chase Center was able to take advantage of the release of Wi-Fi equipment that supports the emerging Wi-Fi 6 standard. Though all the new capabilities won’t be fully realized until most end-user devices also support the new version of Wi-Fi, having support for the technology inside the arena was key for the Warriors’ plans.

“You can never really be ‘future proofed’ but we were extremely fortunate with the timing [of Wi-Fi 6 gear arriving],” said the Warriors’ Fulmer. “We were right in the sweet spot for an initial deployment.”

Wi-Fi and DAS gear on the catwalk.

According to Aruba, Chase Center has approximately 250 Aruba 500 Series APs (which support Wi-Fi 6) deployed in the main seating bowl, mostly in under-seat enclosures. Overall, there are approximately 852 total APs used in the full Chase Center network, which includes coverage inside the building as well as in the connected outdoor plaza areas.

During our October visit, MSR got Wi-Fi speedtests of 27.3 Mbps on the download side and 18.2 Mbps on the upload side while standing outside the east entry doors near the big mirror balls that are selfie central for fans visiting the new arena. Inside the doors, our speedtest in the lobby got a mark of 55.8 Mbps / 68.6 Mbps.

On one upper concourse area, near several concession stands outside portal 57, we got a speedtest of 10.5 Mbps / 11.2 Mbps. In the seats in upper section 220 just before tipoff we got a mark of 46.0 Mbps / 28.0 Mbps, and in a lower-bowl concourse area outside portal 9 we got a test mark of 53.7 Mbps / 71.5 Mbps.

According to Aruba, several events other than the Metallica concerts have passed the 2 TB Wi-Fi data mark so far, with several events seeing more than 8,000 unique clients connected and marks of 6,000+ concurrent connected devices and 2.6 Gbps of throughput.

The Warriors’ Fulmer praised not just the Wi-Fi gear but the full “end to end network solutions” available from Aruba as well as from parent Hewlett Packard Enterprise, which is a founding partner at Chase Center.

“We’re still only three months in, and there’s a lot more that we want to do,” Fulmer said. “It was not a small undertaking. But I think we can let the technology speak for itself.”

Fiserv Forum’s wireless networks ready for the Democratic Convention

Milwaukee’s Fiserv Forum, home of the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks and also the locale for this summer’s Democratic Convention. Credit all photos: Paul Kapustka, MSR (click on any picture for a larger image)

With one of the most demanding arena-sized events headed its way this upcoming summer, the wireless networks at Milwaukee’s Fiserv Forum appear to be more than ready to handle any audience demand for mobile connectivity.

With a full-featured distributed antenna system (DAS) deployed and operated by ExteNet Systems using gear from JMA Wireless, as well as a Wi-Fi network using Cisco gear, Fiserv Forum shows both the expertise of wireless providers who have a long history of knowing what works, as well as the foresight to add new techniques and technologies to combine high performance with the quality aesthetics that are the hallmark of the new home of the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks.

And while a Mobile Sports Report visit this past fall for a Bucks game found all the wireless elements in top working order, the big event for the venue’s second year of operation will be the Democratic National Convention in July 2020. While the four-day nomination gathering is a test for any locale, Fiserv Forum’s forethought on how to prepare for numerous types of events in and around its uniquely designed structure has it well prepared to handle whatever wireless needs the convention will require.

It all starts with the DAS

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 are profiles of the new Wi-Fi deployment at the University of Oklahoma, as well as profiles of wireless deployments at Chase Center and the University of Florida! Start reading the issue now online or download a free copy!

Even in these days of predictions of the death of DAS, Fiserv Forum is proof that for high-profile venues, carriers will still participate in a quality deployment. And while many venues have just two or three cellular providers on their DAS, according to ExteNet, the Fiserv Forum DAS has five major carriers participating — AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile, Sprint and U.S. Cellular.

Wi-Fi AP on an outdoor plaza light pole

Unlike some new arenas, where wireless is an afterthought to construction, ExteNet was involved early on, according to Manish Matta, vice president of marketing at Extenet.

“Getting in sooner rather than later is always better,” said Matta, who said ExteNet was well involved in the overall construction plans, ensuring that there were no delays associated with wireless deployments holding up construction of other parts of the building.

During a pregame tour in October with a team from ExteNet as well as with Robert Cordova, chief technology and strategy officer for the Bucks, Mobile Sports Report got an up-close look at some of the inside parts of the DAS network design, including the headend room and multiple antenna installations that were hard to find given their well-designed placements and camouflaging.

In addition to regular enclosures that were painted or otherwise placed in areas out of the main sight lines, ExteNet and JMA also utilized some of the newer circular flat-panel antenna enclosures that fit flush to ceilings, minimizing the exposure.

The 215 DAS antennas are powered by 40 remote units. According to JMA, the remotes are connected to the backbone with optical fiber, and use digital power to bring power to elements up to a mile away. With 16 sectors in the bowl design, the DAS is able to segment coverage to all parts of the arena, including the bowl as well as concourses and other in-house areas.

DAS antenna in a concourse location

ExteNet, which owns and operates the DAS as a neutral host, also installed 10 extra MatSing ball antennas in the rafters for additional top-down coverage. Though only AT&T is using the MatSings right now, ExteNet said they are integrated into the DAS design if other carriers should wish to utilize them in the future.

During a short walk-around before the Bucks game started, MSR got a DAS speedtest of 85.8 Mbps on the download and 14.9 Mbps on the upload, even though our older iPhone (on the Verizon network) doesn’t support all the latest DAS capabilities. Near the start of the game, as the pregame introductions were at their peak, we got a DAS mark of 18.0 Mbps / 15.7 Mbps in the middle of an upper-deck seating area (Section 227) and then a little bit after the game started, we got a mark of 21.3 Mbps / 12.5 Mbps near a bar area on the upper-level concourse.

Wi-Fi inside and out

On the Wi-Fi side of things, a visitor to Fiserv Forum can connect to the network even before coming in the doors, as part of the 623-AP Cisco installation includes Wi-Fi APs mounted on light poles in the “Deer District,” the plaza area on the stadium’s east side that connects to an outdoor beer garden and several bars and restaurants that were all part of the planned environment built in sync with the arena’s opening.

Before we went inside, we got a Wi-Fi speedtest of 40.5 Mbps / 40.2 Mbps in the middle of the Deer District plaza, which was hosting a pop-up haunted house attraction sponsored by Jack Daniels.

Inside the building, we again needed some guidance from the Bucks’ Cordova to locate some of the Wi-Fi APs, which are inside triangular enclosures that are either painted to match wall surfaces, or utilized as high-visibility section number signs, hiding the gear in plain sight.

Wi-Fi AP blended in to the wall covering

In the seating bowl, Fiserv Forum again shows its commitment to aesthetics with the smallest handrail enclosures we’ve ever seen, a discreet hand-sized enclosure that tucks the antenna components neatly into the top part of a railing, with the AP electronics hidden below the seating areas. Designed by integrator Johnson Controls and its ecosystem partners, Abaxent and AccelTex, the 28 special enclosures are also designed to be easy to detatch and re-attach (with something Johnson Controls calls a simple two-click “dart connector”) which facilitates keeping the network working when the lower-bowl seating areas need to be reconfigured for different events.

Sitting in a courtside seat near one of the handrail enclosures about 20 minutes before tipoff, we got a Wi-Fi speedtest mark of 15.8 Mbps / 33.2 Mbps. On the main concourse just after the game’s start we got a Wi-Fi mark of 28.6 Mbps / 60.4 Mbps, and later on at that same upper-concourse bar we got a mark of 39.9 Mbps / 61.1 Mbps.

Later on during the second quarter of the game, we watched another fan in our lower-bowl seating area spend most of the period keeping one eye on Monday Night Football streaming on his phone. “The Wi-Fi is really good here,” he noted.

Looking ahead to CBRS and 5G

As ExteNet and JMA prepare for the onslaught of the convention’s needs, in many areas the Bucks are already looking farther ahead, to future communications improvements including 5G millimeter wave deployments, and a possible introduction of CBRS services. Cordova, who is an advocate of the capabilities of private LTE networks over the CBRS spectrum, said the flexibility of provisioning services in a CBRS environment could be extremely useful for temporary needs, like during last year’s NBA playoffs when the NBA on TNT crew set up a temporary stage out in the plaza.

While the Bucks have already prepared for connectivity of all sorts out on the plaza space – from the top-level outside Panorama deck at Fiserv Forum that lets fans look out over the city, Cordova pointed out several metal boxes in the plaza that have home-run fiber connections for broadcast TV as well as remote power – there’s going to be all sorts of temporary connectivity needs when the convention media tents set up in the empty lot next door where the previous stadium, the Bradley Center, used to stand.

The fact that the Bucks and ExteNet were already well involved with planning for a July event in October the year before is just another sign of a networking operation that is well positioned now and already thinking about what the next necessary steps are.

Robert Cordova, chief technology and strategy officer for the Bucks, in the headend room

MatSing ball antennas point down from the rafters

The Daktronics centerhung video board