SEC joins Pac-12, Big Ten with conference-only football schedule

There’s still no guarantee that any games will be played at all due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, but in case college football does return the SEC announced Thursday that it would play a conference-only schedule starting Sept. 26.

A release from the Southeastern Conference said “The 2020 SEC football season will be comprised of a 10-game Conference-only schedule and the SEC Football Championship Game will be played December 19 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, rescheduled from the original date of December 5. The schedule will include one mid-season open date for each school and an open date on December 12 for all schools.”

The SEC joins other Power-5 conferences that have announced similar plans. Both the Big Ten and the Pac-12 are also proposing conference-only schedules, while the ACC announced this week it would play an 11-game schedule with Notre Dame joining in.

“After careful consideration of the public health indicators in our region and following advice of our medical advisors, we have determined that this is the best course of action to prepare for a safe and healthy return to competition for SEC student-athletes, coaches and others associated with our sports programs,” said SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey in a prepared statement.

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.

Big Ten, Pac-12 move to conference-only schedules for fall sports

In what may eventually be just an interim step before outright cancellations, the Big Ten and Pac-12 conferences both announced this week plans to move to conference-only schedules for fall sports, which in immediate news meant that a significant number of non-conference football games are now canceled.

Both the Big Ten statement from Thursday and the Pac-12 statement from Friday contained language that acknowledged that the 2020-21 sports seasons may not take place at all, due to ongoing concerns related to the coronavirus pandemic. The Power-5 conference moves come on the same week as the Division 1 Ivy League announced its outright cancellation of all fall sports.

“As we continue to focus on how to play this season in a safe and responsible way, based on the best advice of medical experts, we are also prepared not to play in order to ensure the health, safety and wellness of our student-athletes should the circumstances so dictate,” said closing line in the Big Ten’s statement.

“The health and safety of our student-athletes and all those connected to Pac-12 sports continues to be our number one priority,” said Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott in the conference’s statement. “Our decisions have and will be guided by science and data, and based upon the trends and indicators over the past days, it has become clear that we need to provide ourselves with maximum flexibility to schedule, and to delay any movement to the next phase of return-to-play activities.”

Ivy League cancels all fall sports due to Covid-19

Is it the first domino, or just a separate case? Wednesday’s decision by the Ivy League to cancel all fall sports — including football — due to the pandemic may either be just the first of many such actions, especially if the current rise in coronavirus cases continues to climb.

In a press release, the league said:

The Ivy League Council of Presidents offered the following joint statement:
“As a leadership group, we have a responsibility to make decisions that are in the best interest of the students who attend our institutions, as well as the faculty and staff who work at our schools. These decisions are extremely difficult, particularly when they impact meaningful student-athlete experiences that so many value and cherish.

With the information available to us today regarding the continued spread of the virus, we simply do not believe we can create and maintain an environment for intercollegiate athletic competition that meets our requirements for safety and acceptable levels of risk, consistent with the policies that each of our schools is adopting as part of its reopening plans this fall.

We are entrusted to create and maintain an educational environment that is guided by health and safety considerations. There can be no greater responsibility — and that is the basis for this difficult decision.”

UPDATE, JULY 13: The Patriot League has also announced it won’t play sports this fall, but Army and Navy are exempt from the move. A Washington Post report has details.

Oklahoma leads the way with Wi-Fi 6 network at football stadium

An AmpThink handrail enclosure for Wi-Fi APs at Oklahoma. Credit all photos: Paul Kapustka, MSR (click on any picture for a larger image)

In the long history of college football, the Univeristy of Oklahoma is a name that is always somehow in the discussion when it comes to top teams and Heisman-quality talent. And now you can add stadium Wi-Fi to the list of things Oklahoma does well, after a deployment of a 100 percent Wi-Fi 6 network at Gaylord Family-Oklahoma Memorial Stadium was in place for most of the recent football season.

Formerly among the most conspicuous Wi-Fi have-nots among big-school stadiums, the Sooners have now moved to the front of the class with a network of approximately 1,350 access points in their 80,126-seat stadium, all new models that support the emerging Wi-Fi 6 standard, also known as 802.11ax. With a deployment led by AT&T, using gear from Aruba, a Hewlett Packard Enterprise company, and a design and deployment from AmpThink, using mainly handrail-mounted enclosures in the main bowl seating areas, OU fans now have the ability to connect wirelessly at the most advanced levels, with a technology base that will support even better performance as the balance of attendee handsets starts to catch up to the network with
support for Wi-Fi 6.

“We’re very excited” about the new network, said David Payne, senior technology strategist for athletics at the University of Oklahoma’s information technology department. Payne, who has been at Oklahoma since 2003, has spent the last several years shepherding the overall stadium Wi-Fi plan into place, starting first with Wi-Fi coverage for the stadium RV parking lots, then adding initial forays into stadium Wi-Fi deployment when Oklahoma renovated the south part of the stadium three years ago. But this past offseason was the big push to full stadium coverage, a trek that included a switch in equipment vendors that was prompted by Oklahoma’s solid commitment to the emerging Wi-Fi 6 standard.

Committed to Wi-Fi 6 for the future

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 and DAS networks at Chase Center, 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!

A water-sealed connection for the bottom of a handrail enclosure.

If there was a tricky time to pull the trigger on Wi-Fi 6, it was last summer, when not every vendor in the market could ensure it would have enough gear on hand to fully supply a big stadium like Oklahoma’s. And even though Wi-Fi 6 gear is new and generally more expensive than previous versions, for Payne and Oklahoma the long-term benefits combined with the periodic ability to refresh something as significant as a football stadium network made committing to Wi-Fi 6 somewhat of a no-brainer.

Payne, like many other big-school IT leaders, has spent years helping administrators and others at budget- deciding levels of leadership at his school try to understand the benefits of stadium-wide Wi-Fi connectivity. For many of those years, it just didn’t make sense to try to push through the multi-million-dollar expense of a project “that would only be used six or seven Saturdays a year,” Payne said. “There’s always a difficulty in telling the story of what value you receive in this since it’s different from traditional revenue streams,” Payne said. “There isn’t a direct dollar seen from Wi-Fi users.”

But with the late-2018 approval of a capital expenditure project to revamp the football stadium’s lower-bowl seating with new handrails, wider seats and other ADA-related improvements, Payne and the IT team were able to weave in the extra $3 million (out of a total project cost of $14.9 million) it would cost to bring full Wi-Fi coverage to the entire stadium.

“It’s just taking advantage of the timing to get economies of scale,” said Payne. Because of the already- planned work on the handrails, Oklahoma was able to add the AmpThink-designed handrail Wi-Fi enclosures (which use the handrail pipes to carry cabling) for a fraction of the cost of having to do that work as a separate project, Payne said. The university had also installed new backbone gear and cabling during the south end zone renovation, so that cost was already paid for.

The decision to commit to Wi-Fi 6, Payne said, was based on standard release projections from manufacturers. “We paid close attention to projected order availability and ship dates,” Payne said. “We were felt that if we were able to receive the gear by June, we could complete the project on time.”

Though some manufacturers were not sure of being able to fully deliver Wi-Fi 6 gear, Aruba, Payne said, had “high confidence” in meeting the deadlines, and won the deal. According to Payne, all the Aruba gear was shipped in time to begin construction in June.

A handrail enclosure in the lower bowl

“It’s important for us to get the full life cycle of technology, so that’s why we decided to go 100 percent Wi-Fi 6,” Payne said.

Attention to detail an AmpThink hallmark

On a visit before and during a home game against Texas Tech in late September 2019, Mobile Sports Report was able to test the live network in all parts of the stadium, with strong performance at even the highest seating levels as well as in sometimes overlooked spots like the long ramps that fans walk up to get in and out of the venue.

The Oklahoma deployment was part of a very busy summer for AmpThink, with similar Wi-Fi design and deployments at Oklahoma, Ohio State and Arkansas. Like those two others, Oklahoma’s main bowl AP deployment was in the patented AmpThink handrail enclosures, each stamped with the distinctive “OU” logo.

The handrail deployment system, which typically includes a core drill through the concrete floor to bring wiring into the handrail tubing, is now a standard process for AmpThink, following similar deployments at the Minnesota Vikings’ U.S. Bank Stadium and at Notre Dame Stadium, among others. At Oklahoma, AmpThink said it used 10 different handrail enclosure designs to fit all the necessary spaces.

AmpThink president Bill Anderson was present during our visit and took great pride in showing off some of the finer points of an AmpThink deployment, including a method of using a metal sleeve and some clever waterproof paint and sealant to ensure that no moisture finds its way into the holes used for cable delivery.

“We spend a tremendous amount of time [during deployments] making sure there isn’t any water leakage under the stands,” Anderson said. “Because you never know what is going to be below. This is a big part of what we do. We don’t just sell an enclosure.”

Concourse APs visible high on concrete posts

The same can be said of AmpThink’s overall network designs, which it monitors and tests and tweaks as fans use the system. On the game day we visited, no fewer than four AmpThink employees were at the stadium in the network control room, checking AP performance and network usage.

“We’re pretty proud of what we can do,” Anderson said about the company’s track record for network design in large venues. “We have proven formulas which we reliably implement.”

Solid speed tests throughout the venue

At 10:20 a.m. local time, just ahead of the early 11 a.m. kickoff, Mobile Sports Report started our testing inside the main-level concourse, where fans were already lining up to purchase cold beer, another first at the stadium this past season. In the midst of the entering crowds we got a speedtest of 55.9 Mbps on the download side and 43.7 Mbps on the upload side, an inkling of the strong tests we were to see everywhere we walked. In the concourses and near concession stands, a mix of overhead and wall-mounted APs provided coverage.

Up in the stands, we took our first test among the railing-mounted enclosures in section 6, row 51, just about at the 50-yard line. We got a mark of 68.2 Mbps / 58.7 Mbps before the stands were completely full. We then hiked up to row 67, which was underneath the press box overhang and served by overhead APs, not railing enclosures. There we got a speedtest of 27.8 Mbps / 49.5 Mbps, a half hour before kickoff.

One more speedtest in the lower bowl (around the 30-yard line, in row 19) netted a mark of 68.9 Mbps / 61.2 Mbps; then as we walked around to the south end zone, we got a mark of 38.7 Mbps / 64.3 Mbps in the south concourse, busy with fans getting food and drink ahead of the imminent kickoff.

The recently renovated south end of the stadium has a series of loge boxes and other premium seating options, and has an overhang which provides additional real estate for Wi-Fi AP mounting options. Ducking into a loge box (covered by overhead APs) for a quick test we got a mark of 36.8 Mbps / 54.2 Mbps just before kickoff. Moving around to the corner of the south stands for the pregame ceremonies we got a mark of 33.7 Mbps / 63.8 Mbps even as all the phones were out to capture the team run-on and school song rendition. After kickoff, we went into the crowded main east concourse and got a mark of 43.2 Mbps / 46.6 Mbps amidst all the late-arrivers.

Good coverage in the stairwells

Wi-Fi antennas in an overhang deployment

If there is one area where stadiums sometimes skimp on wireless coverage it’s in the stairwells and pedestrian ramps, which may not seem like an important place to have connectivity. But at Oklahoma, the multiple switchbacks it takes to climb from ground level to the top seating areas are all well covered with Wi-Fi, as we got a mark of 39.9 Mbps / 29.5 Mbps during a brief rest stop on our hike to the top of the east stands.

At a concession stand on the top-level concourse we got a mark of 61.3 Mbps / 70.5 Mbps, as we admired the neatness of the core drilling we could see that got the cabling to the underside of the seating areas above. In the stands we got a mark of 57.5 Mbps / 69.5 Mbps at one of the highest rows in the stadium, row 24 of section 226, a half hour after the game’s start.

According to Payne our visit coincided with the first live game with the Wi-Fi 6 software fully turned on, part of a sort of rolling start to the network deployment which wasn’t fully live at the first game on Aug. 31.

“It wasn’t without some hiccups and headaches,” said Payne of the overall deployment, which included a small number of temporary black-colored handrail enclosures from AmpThink, which saw its single source of handrail molding material run out of supply late in the summer. According to Payne Oklahoma started the season with 966 radios working on the network, ramping up with more at each home game until reaching full capacity later in the season. AmpThink had also replaced the black enclosures by the time of our visit with the standard silver ones.

Oklahoma also experienced what other venues deploying Wi-Fi 6 may find – that some of the very oldest devices still in use may have issues in connecting to the Wi-Fi 6 equipment. Payne said one such
problem surfaced in the press box (where reporters were using older laptops) but it was solved by creating some virtual APs which were tuned to an older version of the Wi-Fi standard.

Oklahoma fans during pregame ceremonies

OU also didn’t widely promote the network early in the season, but by the Oct. 19 home game with West Virginia not only was the school promoting the network on the stadium’s big video boards, the IT team also added the ability for students to automatically join the stadium network via their regular WiFi@OU SSID used around campus.

With 82,620 in attendance for the West Virginia game the total number of Wi-Fi users took a big jump from the previous high, with 25,079 unique connections, according to numbers provided by Payne. When Iowa State came to Norman on Nov. 9, the network saw its highest usage with 32,673 unique users, who used approximately 4.2 terabytes of data while in the stadium.

What was also interesting to Payne was the number of devices connected using the Wi-Fi 6 standard, which currently is only supported by a small number of phones. Payne noted that the first week OU had the Wi-Fi 6 working in the stadium was the same week Apple started delivery of its new iPhone 11 line, which includes support for the new Wi-Fi 6 standard. After seeing 941 devices connect on Wi-Fi 6 at the Texas Tech game, Payne said Oklahoma saw a steady increase of Wi-Fi 6 devices at each following home game, with 1,471 at the West Virginia game and 2,170 at the Iowa State game.

Is AX coming ‘sooner’… rather than later?

Though most consumer handsets being used today do not support the Wi-Fi 6 standards, Apple’s decision to include Wi-Fi 6 support in its latest iPhone 11 line as well as Wi-Fi 6 support from other new Android phone models suggests that device support for the standard may be coming sooner, rather than later, to the fans in the stands. When that happens and the Wi-Fi 6 network starts utilizing its new capabilities, Oklahoma’s network will be among the first to make use of the new standard’s ability to support more clients at higher connection speeds, critical features for big networks in small places like football stadiums.

The non-insignificant number of AX devices already seen by the stadium network, Payne said, felt like good justification of the school’s decision to commit to Wi-Fi 6. What was also interesting to Payne was some later analysis of the network which showed Wi-Fi 6 clients using nearly 10 times the data per client as older Wi-Fi 5 devices.

Looking ahead to next season, Payne said he will be working with school network officials to see how to more closely tie the stadium network with the overall campus wireless infrastructure, and to see how the school might be able to incorporate a stadium app or web-based sites to increase the ability of the network to improve the fan experience. Currently Oklahoma uses a portal from AmpThink to get email addresses from network guests, which Payne said will be used by marketing and ticketing departments to try to increase engagement.

The good news is, Payne said, is that “we are no longer looking at what it costs to put a network in place” to drive any new digital experience ideas.

For Oklahoma athletics director Joe Castiglione, it was important for the school to deliver an amenity that provided a a consistent fan experience whether a fan was in a suite or in the upper deck, a goal our tests seem to have validated.

“We feel that the Oklahoma tradition is among the strongest in the nation and really want to provide a top-notch fan experience to celebrate that tradition,” Castiglione said. “Wi-Fi is just the beginning of enhancing that experience. We hope to be able to use it to engage our fans through in venue activations and experiences that would not be available without the addition of Wi-Fi.”

The scoreboard touts the new Wi-Fi network (credit this photo: University of Oklahoma)

A panaoramic view of the stadium


Wi-Fi enclosure above a concessions stand

Wi-Fi breathes new life into ‘The Swamp’ at the University of Florida

Florida’s Ben Hill Griffin Stadium got a full-venue Wi-Fi network this fall. Credit all photos: Paul Kapustka, MSR (click on any picture for a larger image)

Can Wi-Fi help bring new life to an old venue? In a way, that happened this fall when the University of Florida lit up a stadium-wide Wi-Fi network at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, the 88,548-seat venue known by most as just “The Swamp.”

Though at Florida, like most SEC stadiums, the fans don’t really need any technology to fire them up, the addition of a NFL-caliber Wi-Fi network from Extreme Networks and Verizon was quickly embraced by fans in Gainesville, with one early contest against Auburn cresting the 11-terabyte mark for total data used. If nothing else, with the network in place a whole world outside of the stadium walls gets to see the arm-chomping craziness that makes Ben Hill Griffin Stadium one of the nation’s premier college football venues, thanks to social media and other apps that let fans share their game-day experience.

But beyond the obvious benefits for fans, the new network also brought new features to the Gators’ back-of-house business operations, including being able to connect a new point-of-sale system for concession stands, while also providing the potential for better digital engagement with the people in the stands. According to Florida athletic director Scott Stricklin, the addition of Wi-Fi has given Ben Hill Griffin Stadium somewhat of a new lease on life, with the ability of the new to augment the old.

“We had a lot of the inherent challenges of putting technology into a 90-year-old venue,” said Stricklin, “but it’s also interesting how technology allows you to work around those challenges.”

Under-seat APs in the club section

By partnering with stadium-application developer VenueNext, which has recently expanded its services to include a back-end POS system, Florida can now offer fans at home games a wide menu of digital-powered services, like the ability to order food and drinks ahead of time for pickup at express windows, and the ability to click on a phone to say “Water Me,” to have cold water delivered to the sunny-seat sections of the stadium.

For the business of running the stadium, the new VenueNext POS system allowed Florida to shed its old cash-drawer system to one that can now provide a connected way to manage concession stands.

“The new app and POS technology makes concessions better for everyone, it’s faster for those who order ahead of time, and the lines are shorter,” Stricklin said. “It’s a fascinating idea that technology can extend the useful life of a facility.”

Scenes from a retrofit: drilling and conduits

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 Fiserv Forum! Start reading the issue now online or download a free copy!

Like many other big-bowl stadiums at the big foot- ball schools, Ben Hill Griffin Stadium is a work built over time, with different renovations and additions adding layers of concrete and seating in ways that definitely did not have wireless networking in mind. And like many other schools, Florida had a tough time historically making the case for the capital outlay needed to bring Wi-Fi to a venue that might only see six or seven days of use a year.

At his previous job as athletic director for Mississippi State, Stricklin was part of an SEC advisory board that just five years ago didn’t see stadium Wi-Fi as a priority. Fast forward to 2019, and both the world in general and Stricklin have changed their views.

Flashing covers conduit leading to under-seat APs

“At one point, Wi-Fi was seen as a luxury item [for stadiums],” said Stricklin. “Now, connectivity is like running water or electricity. You’ve got to have it.”

An RFP process for a full-stadium Wi-Fi network ended up getting Florida to choose a $6.3 million proposal from Verizon and Extreme, which have paired together for similar big-stadium deployments before, mainly at NFL venues like Green Bay’s Lambeau Field and Seattle’s CenturyLink Field.

“Obviously they’re experienced,” Stricklin said of the Extreme-Verizon pairing. “The success they’ve had before played a big role in increasing our comfort level.”

Like at those stadiums, at Florida Verizon has its own separate SSID for Verizon customers, who can be automatically connected to the Wi-Fi upon entering the stadium. Other guests can sign in for free via a portal screen.

According to Matt Vincent, Florida’s director of infrastructure operations, construction of the network actually started during the 2018 season, with small-section roll-outs of the service. Over this past summer, however, the heavy lifting went in, with Extreme finishing the full-stadium design with 1,478 APs, all Wave2 802.11ac. Of that number, approximately 1,200 are in the main seating bowl, with most of those located in under-seat enclosures.

Unlike some other under-seat deployments where a separate core drill was done for each AP location, at Florida Extreme was able to reduce the number of concrete holes needed with some ingenious use of conduit and metal plating. In many areas of the stands, one hole through the concrete supports a number of APs, with conduit and metal plating covering the connections under and behind the seats and benches.

Gator fans can now share game memories while at the stadium

If you know what you are looking for, when you wander the maze of concourses under the seating sections you can spot a new network of conduit pipes that bring the cabling from the network out to the seats. In concourses, clubs and other areas with overhead mounting places, Extreme also used omni-directional antennas and other typical indoor equipment for coverage.

Getting to 11+ TB with fast, consistent coverage

At Florida’s biggest home game of the year, an Oct. 5 game against Auburn (a 24-13 Florida victory), Gator fans used 11.82 terabytes of data on the Wi-Fi network, one of the top totals ever seen at a college venue. Mobile Sports Report visited the stadium for a Nov. 9 game against Vanderbilt, and found strong performance on the network stadium-wide, including in harder-to-cover areas like concourses and narrow seating areas under overhangs.

Starting our testing in the club-seating lounge area, MSR got a Wi-Fi speedtest of 68.6 Mbps on the download and 65.2 Mbps on the upload, in front of a stuffed alligator with a very toothy grin. Heading down to the main entry gate, we got a mark of 50.2 Mbps / 61.8 Mbps as fans were streaming in just ahead of game time.

In a somewhat enclosed seating area on the lower level behind one end zone, we got a test of 21.9 Mbps / 29.9 Mbps just as the Gator mascots took the field for pregame activity. Moving up into the upper deck of section 43, we got a mark of 47.8 Mbps / 50.9 Mbps just after kickoff. Heading under the upper deck stands to the top concourse we got a mark of 43.6 Mbps / 55.5 Mbps, while drawing puzzled stares from fans wondering why we were taking pictures of the metal tubes running up the back of the seating floor.

An AP underneath a bench seating area

Stopping under the other end zone for a Gatorade break, we sat at some loge-type seats and got a mark of 61.2 Mbps / 64.4 Mbps. Then moving back out into the stands we got our up-close picture of the sign welcoming us to “The Swamp,” where we got a speedtest of 54.0 Mbps / 53.8 Mbps.

An island of connectivity among the crowds

While Florida’s Vincent spends most of his game days working to assure the network keeps running at top performance, he said that stadium staff enjoys the Wi-Fi as well.

“It’s been just a night and day difference for everyone since we added the Wi-Fi,” Vincent said, noting a tweet from a fan during the Auburn game that said “the only place in town his phone could connect was at the stadium.”

While saying the decision to deploy Wi-Fi was still somewhat of a leap of faith, Stricklin gave credit to the Florida staff members who prepared the reports outlining the benefits such a system could bring to the venue, for both the fans as well as for the school.

“It’s a little like Indiana Jones when he steps out [over the cliff] and doesn’t see the floor below him,” Stricklin said. “It’s an intense capital outlay [to build a Wi-Fi network] and I don’t know that we’ll ever see it all returned in terms of numbers. But again, I thank the staff and partners like VenueNext who all had a great vision of what a connected stadium could do. With mobile ticketing, you have the opportunity to learn who’s in your stadium. There are concrete ways we can use connectivity to engage, learn about fans, and keep up with them. It’s a wise investment.”

The white dots are under-seat APs

Wi-Fi coverage was good throughout ‘The Swamp’

Conduit carrying cables to under-seat APs proceeds in an orderly fashion up the underside of the stands