Venue Display Report: Sharks bring ‘excitement’ to SAP Center concourses with new digital display technology from Daktronics and Cisco

A long LED board lights up the main concourse at the San Jose Sharks’ home, SAP Center. Credit all photos: Paul Kapustka, MSR (click on any picture for a larger image)

If you’re an ice hockey fan, you are no doubt somewhat addicted to the excitement of seeing games live, in person. Yet one historical drawback to going to games has always been fearing those moments when you need or want to leave your seat, when missing out on the unpredictable action makes waiting in lines excruciating.

While many teams in all kinds of sports have been busy installing television screens in concourses and concession areas to help keep fans connected to the live action, at SAP Center in San Jose the NHL’s Sharks have taken concourse display technology to a new level: With cutting-edge LED displays from Daktronics and the Cisco Vision IPTV display management system from Cisco, the Sharks have turned what used to be basically a dark concrete tunnel into a well-lit, display-laden walkway that can bring live game action and exciting, engaging marketing messages to fans while they are outside the bowl, keeping the excitement level high no matter where in the building a fan might be.

The most visible part of the new display deployment, one installed in phases over the last two seasons, are the concourse LED boards from Daktronics, displays that were custom designed for the stadium’s walkways. Robin Hall, a regional manager for the Brookings, S.D.-based Daktronics, said there were a total of 17 displays added to the main concourse at SAP Center, all 3 1/2-feet tall but in many different widths, with one measuring almost 66 feet wide.

Narrow Pixel Pitch LEDs make a difference

Editor’s note: This profile is from our new VENUE DISPLAY REPORT series, a vertical-specific offering of MSR’s existing STADIUM TECH REPORT series. The VENUE DISPLAY REPORT series will focus on telling the stories of successful venue display technology deployments and the business opportunities these deployments enable. No registration or email address required — just click on this link and start reading!

John Castro, vice president of corporate partnerships for the Sharks, said the concourse displays are just the latest step in an ongoing process to “keep the venue updated and modernized.” Now celebrating its 25th year in existence, SAP Center recently hosted the NHL’s All-Star Game and is a regular stop for such big-ticket events as NCAA basketball regionals and U.S. Figure Skating championships.

In 2010, Castro said the arena added a new Daktronics center-hung video board, which has distinctive circular ribbon boards above and below that synchronize with the ribbon board that circles the arena in the middle of the seating areas. A few years ago, the arena put out an RFP to bring Wi-Fi to the stadium, and when it picked Cisco for the gear supplier, it also decided to use Cisco Vision to synchronize a new display strategy for the building’s main concourse.

“The idea was, let’s emulate what people see in the seats and bring it to the concourse,” Castro said.

A new LED screen above an entryway

What was eventually installed over the past two seasons were the new wall-mounted displays, which joined the 240 TV screens and the 16 hanging pendant displays (with six screens each) that were already in the concourses. According to Castro the Sharks took down eight static signs to make room for the new, interactive displays.

All the new displays make use of Daktronic’s new Narrow Pixel Pitch (NPP) technology, which feature 2.5-millimeter line spacing. The close alignment of the LED lights in the displays makes them sharp even from close distances, with a look and feel more like a traditional TV screen than an LED ribbon board.

By using LED technology, not only are the boards more flexible in what kind of content they can carry, but they are also cheaper and more resilient than TV screens, something Hall said matters a lot to venues like SAP Center that may see up to 300 live events a year.

“If you have TVs, you have to replace them often, and over a lot of hours [the expense] is hard to justify,” said Hall. With its LED technology, Daktronics was able to create custom size boards to fit different areas in the concourse (like above the entry and exit doorways, or above the main entry openings to the seating bowl), giving the Sharks lots of flexibility to build their new concourse viewing experience.

Bringing Cisco Vision to control displays

To make fans take notice of the new displays, the Sharks turned to Cisco and its Cisco Vision IPTV display management system, which allows teams and venues to program and run multiple displays from a single management system. Cisco also brings to the table years of experience in designing, deploying and selling display systems and system content, which can help teams like the Sharks not only keep fans more engaged but also help the team improve its digital ad sales.

Cisco, which supplied the Wi-Fi gear when SAP Center got its new wireless networks a couple years ago, teamed up with network deployment partner AmpThink to deploy a new display system at the same time, often doubling up on infrastructure. At many points inside the arena, a display screen is mounted in the same space as a Wi-Fi access point, an efficient design that combines aesthetics (the APs are hidden behind the screens) with cost savings.

Menu screens and live action are side-by-side to keep fans engaged

According to Ken Martin, executive director of digital transformation for the consumer industries in the Americas and for the sports and entertainment industry globally at Cisco, the Sharks’ previous display system was limited in its capabilities, especially in the ability to change things like menu boards easily between events. Martin also said the Sharks had four different signage solutions for the various boards and displays throughout the stadium, making it hard to coordinate programming across screens.

Now with Cisco Vision in place, the Sharks can build “shows” of content and advertising that flow from screen to screen, or arrive simultaneously on multiple screens to increase the visual effect. Inside the SAP Center concourses, the new Daktronics panels combine with an previously existing infrastructure of screen displays hanging over the walkways to create a visual “wall” that draws the eye.

“The way [the screens] are positioned, you cannot stand in the SAP Center concourses without being hit by something,” Cisco’s Martin said.

The Sharks’ Castro said there “was a lot of discussion and research” about the placement of the signs.

“Whether you turn left or right, you’re always going to see an LED,” Castro said.

How to use digital displays to entertain and inform

Through its professional services that are part of the Cisco Vision deal, Cisco also helps the Sharks brainstorm with potential sponsors to create digital display advertising ideas, and then also helps create, produce and run the “show” of ads that streams across all the stadium’s displays. A current campaign with BMW is an example of using all concourse screens simultaneously to create an immersive feel to the advertising.

A look at the hanging pendant screens in sync with the LED wall boards

“Part of what we do is show customers the art of the possible,” said Martin, who said many demonstrations of digital-display potential can happen in his team’s extensive demo room at Cisco, where they have 27 different types of screens to model just about any possible stadium deployment. Though much of the digital advertising industry in venues is still in an adolescent stage, Martin said that sponsors are “way more educated than they have ever been,” and know now that they can ask for particulars like having ads shown at certain times, or to have advertising content “wrapped” around live action on partial screen real estate, like an “L-wrap.”

With Cisco Vision, the Sharks are able to not just coordinate a “show” of ads and other content during the game, but they can also break in and trigger special screen content when something happens live, like a goal being scored. Such “takeover” moments are just another new asset that can be added to the ROI for a smart digital display solution, something not possible with static display systems. Such timely messages can really catch the fans’ eye, especially so at hockey games where people pay attention when they aren’t in their seats.

“If you’re a true hockey fan, you have your concourse timing down to a science,” said Daktronic’s Hall. “You never want to go to the game and feel like you’re missing something.”

To help those fans, one of the live action content pieces run across most of the concourse boards at SAP Center is a live clock that counts down the time until live action starts again.

“It can really be a showstopper, to use the screens and video walls, especially when they are all synchronized to the same message,” Cisco’s Martin said. “You’re going to get people to stop and pay attention.”

For the Sharks, the new system is already returning dividends; according to Castro, some 80 percent of all new digital display sponsorship business includes Cisco Vision integration as part of the opportunity.

“It helps [ads] rise above the clutter,” Castro said of the new display system. “You can see the impact on the brands as well as on the fans.”

“It’s like putting on a show in the concourse,” Daktronic’s Hall said of the new system. “It really extends the in-bowl experience through the whole venue.”

Editor’s note: This profile is from our new VENUE DISPLAY REPORT series, a vertical-specific offering of MSR’s existing STADIUM TECH REPORT series. The VENUE DISPLAY REPORT series will focus on telling the stories of successful venue display technology deployments and the business opportunities these deployments enable. No registration or email address required — just click on this link and start reading!

Introducing: The VENUE DISPLAY REPORT!

Mobile Sports Report is pleased to announce our latest editorial endeavor, the VENUE DISPLAY REPORT!

A new vertical-specific offering of MSR’s existing STADIUM TECH REPORT series, the VENUE DISPLAY REPORT series will focus on telling the stories of successful venue display technology deployments and the business opportunities these deployments enable. No registration or email address required — just click on the image below and start reading!

Like its sibling Stadium Tech Report series, the Venue Display Report series will offer valuable information about cutting-edge deployments that venue owners and operators can use to inform their own plans for advanced digital-display strategies.

Our reporting and analysis will be similar to that found in our popular STR series, with stadium and venue visits to see the display technology in action, and interviews and analysis with thought leaders to help readers better inform their upcoming technology purchasing decisions. And in case you are new to the MSR world, rest assured that all our VDR reports will be editorially objective, done in the old-school way of real reporting. We do not accept paid content and do not pick profiles based on any sponsorship or advertising arrangements.

Our inaugural issue contains profiles of a new concourse display strategy at the San Jose Sharks’ SAP Center, powered by new LED screens from Daktronics and the Cisco Vision IPTV digital display management system; a look at the Utah Jazz’s decision to use Samsung’s system-on-a-chip displays at Vivint Smart Home Arena; and the San Francisco 49ers’ decision to use Cisco Vision to control displays at Levi’s Stadium.

Start reading the first issue now! No download or registration necessary.

As venues seek to improve fan engagement and increase sponsor activation, display technology offers powerful new ways to improve the in-stadium fan experience. While these topics are of prime interest to many of our long-term audience of stadium tech professionals, we suggest that you share the link with colleagues on the marketing and advertising sales side of the house, as they will likely find great interest in the ROI enabled by strategic display system deployments.

Sponsorship spots are currently available for future VDR series reports; please contact Paul at kaps at mobilesportsreport.com for media kit information.

Niners, SAP announce stadium-operations management application

A sample screen shot from the new Executive Huddle stadium operations management platform, developed by SAP for the San Francisco 49ers. Credit: San Francisco 49ers (click on any photo for a larger image)

A desire by the San Francisco 49ers to see stadium operations information in real time has become a real product, with today’s announcement of Executive Huddle, a stadium operations management application developed for the Niners by SAP.

In use at the Niners’ Levi’s Stadium since the start of the current football season, Executive Huddle brings transaction information from nine different stadium operations systems, including parking, concessions, retail sales, weather and fan opinions into a visual output that allows team executives to make real-time decisions on how to fix problems or otherwise enhance the game-day experience.

Demonstrated at Sunday’s home game against the Los Angeles Rams, the software not only reports raw data like concession sales or parking lot entries, but also provides a layer of instant feedback to let team executives make immediate changes to operations if necessary. The cloud-based application, developed by SAP and Nimbl, is currently only in use at one upper-level suite at Levi’s Stadium, where the output runs during Niners’ game days on several video screens. SAP, however, plans to make the system available to other teams in the future, according to SAP executives at Sunday’s demonstration.

Fixing issues in real time

Al Guido, president of the 49ers, said Executive Huddle was the end product of a desire of his to be able to fix any game-day experiences on the day of the game, instead of in the days or weeks after. According to Guido, the Niners have been passionate about collecting fan-experience data since Levi’s Stadium opened in 2014. But in the past, the compilation of game-day data usually wasn’t complete until a day or two after each event, meaning any issues exposed were only learned lessons that needed to wait until the next games to be fixed.

Executives huddle: from left, SAP’s Mark Lehew, Niners’ Moon Javaid, SAP’s Mike Flannagan and Niners president Al Guido talk about the Executive Huddle system at a Sunday press event at Levi’s Stadium. Credit: Paul Kapustka, MSR

Things like slower sales at concession stands, or issues with parking-lot directions, Guido said, wouldn’t be known as they were happening, something he wanted to change.

“I really wanted to be able to act on it [the operations data] in real time, instead of waiting until the Wednesday after a Sunday game,” Guido said.

Now, with Executive Huddle, the Niners’ operations team can sit in a single room and watch as operations events take place, and can make in-game moves to fix things, like calling on the radio to a parking lot to tell gate operators of traffic issues.

“It’s like having an air traffic control system,” said Mark Lehew, global vice president for sports and entertainment industry solutions at SAP. Lehew said SAP worked with the Niners’ list of operations vendors, including Ticketmaster, ParkHub, caterer Levy and point-of-sale technology provider Micros to provide back-end application links so that Executive Huddle could draw information from each separate system into the uber-operations view that Executive Huddle provides. According to SAP, Executive Huddle is based on SAP’s Leonardo and Analytics platform.

The manager of managers

Though the system doesn’t currently monitor some other key stadium operations information, like performance of the Levi’s Stadium Wi-Fi network, Michael Pytel, chief innovation officer for Nimbl, said the system could conceivably add “any information we can get from an API.”

The Levi’s Stadium suite where the Niners monitor Executive Huddle information. Credit: San Francisco 49ers

Moon Javaid, the Niners’ vice president of strategy and analytics, said the continued robust performance of the stadium’s wireless networks make them a lower-priority need for the kind of oversight Executive Huddle provides.

Javaid, the quarterback of the program’s development from the Niners’ side of the equation, noted that part of its power comes not just from surfacing the data, but also from providing some instant intuitive markers — like red for declining metrics and green for positive — and the ability to compare current data to those from other events so that data could not just be seen but also understood, within seconds.

And while SAP plans to make Executive Huddle available to other teams, it’s clear that the program — as well as education and training for the decision-making staff who will use it — will need different care and feeding for each stadium that might want to use it. But SAP’s Lehew noted that being able to provide real-time data in an exposed fashion was becoming table stakes for operations providers, who would have to move past old ways of doing things if they wanted to be a part of the next generation of stadium service providers.

San Jose Sharks add more features to SAP Center stadium app

The San Jose Sharks announced today a raft of upgrades to their stadium app, including a feature that will allow fans to toggle through four separate modes of functionality, for Sharks games, SAP Center events, minor-league hockey info and information about the Sharks-associated public skating rinks in the area.

Now called the San Jose Sharks + SAP Center app, the mobile-device program developed by VenueNext and Adept Mobile will bring to life some previously mentioned services for Sharks fans, including the ability to order Sharks merchandise and in-stadium “experiences” — like purchasing a message on the big video board — directly from the app.

Screen shot of new ‘marketplace’ options in Sharks app

Other new features include live audio broadcasts of Sharks games and games for the AHL’s Barracuda; augmented reality experiences; and a message preference and inbox feature that will allow fans to self-regulate the frequency of in-app communications with the team.

The ability to toggle between different versions of the app — say, for Sharks hockey games or for a concert at SAP Center — is a feature finding its way into most stadium apps these days, including VenueNext’s app for the San Francisco 49ers and Levi’s Stadium. The Sacramento Kings have a similar two-apps-in-one strategy for the team and for Golden 1 Center, in an app developed by Built.io.

For fans, it’s a way to have all the arena-going information in one place, while for the teams and venues it’s a way to keep current customers informed of all the associated businesses. (On its face the feature sounds like a smart idea, but so far we haven’t seen any metrics from any teams showing proof that it is really working for either fans or teams/venues.)

Putting the ability to order experiences like big-screen messages (just $75!) or visits from the Shark’s toothy mascot into the app seems like a good idea, since those actions can now be acted on in the moment instead of having to plan far ahead. And for fans who like to hear play by play either at the rink or at home, having team audio is a great feature and alternative to radio.

State of the art network shines through at SunTrust Park

Opening weekend at SunTrust Park. Credit all photos: Atlanta Braves (click on any photo for a larger image)

Seasoned major-league baseball fans know better than to get too excited by good performances in April. Many times, long seasons and league-wide competition have a way of taking some of the shine off a sparkling start.

In Atlanta, however, Braves fans can start rejoicing now about their brand-new ballpark. If network performance is any clue, the thought, care and execution that went into the building of SunTrust Park seems pretty much state of the art, guaranteeing a great fan experience, no matter what happens on the field.

Like any other stadium or large public venue network, the Wi-Fi deployment at the Braves’ new home (located about 10 miles northwest of downtown Atlanta) will likely be tested sometime in the near future, either by large crowds or a bandwidth-taxing moment like a milestone home run or an important victory. But some early positive user reviews and hard numbers showing 8.4 terabytes of data used on the network in and around the park on its MLB opening weekend, it appears that the Braves and their partners put together a network ready for high performance from the first call of “Play Ball.”

It takes a village… of partners

Editor’s note: Welcome SEAT attendees to Atlanta! This profile is an excerpt from our latest STADIUM TECH REPORT, our Summer 2017 issue that has in-depth profiles of network deployments at the Colorado Rockies’ Coors Field, Westfield’s Century City Mall, and a profile of a new Wi-Fi network at Red Bull Arena. DOWNLOAD YOUR FREE COPY of the report today!

Bird’s-eye view of SunTrust Park and The Battery.

To be sure, the networking inside SunTrust Park and in the surrounding mixed-use entertainment/retail/residential/business area known as “The Battery Atlanta” had many hands in its making, starting with major partner Comcast, which helped bankroll the almost $12 million spent on the core networking components. Cisco, the main supplier of Wi-Fi and networking gear to many MLB parks, was also involved at SunTrust, not just on the equipment side but also by bringing its StadiumVision digital-display software system to the facility’s numerous TV screens.

Panasonic Enterprise Solutions Company, in somewhat of a coming-out party for the firm’s advanced technology solutions division that serves the sports, entertainment and retail industries, led the way with display deployments at SunTrust Park and The Battery, starting with the stadium’s main video board, a 120.9-foot wide by 64.3-foot high 16mm-pixel pitch SMD LED display. While we don’t have any performance measurements yet, SunTrust Park also has a neutral-host DAS built by Verizon, with AT&T already on board and T-Mobile scheduled to join later this summer.

Also in the mix was the organizational and consulting efforts of Van Wagner Sports and Entertainment. Bob Jordan, senior vice president of team and venue services at Van Wagner, said the Wi-Fi network at SunTrust Park and The Battery is “the culmination of a lot of information, including best practices and learning from all the stadiums we’ve done and seen.”

Close-up of a railing Wi-Fi AP during installation.

Jordan said having a commitment to building “the most comprehensive wireless platform” available meant that known possible constraints were eliminated ahead of time, producing something close to the sum of all the good experiences seen elsewhere.

Planning for speed and capacity

With the opening weekend’s traffic numbers — supported by some on-the-scene reports of device speedtests in the 60- and 80-Mbps ranges — perhaps the Braves can be forgiven for sending out some enthusiastic press releases right after the first home series that proclaimed the SunTrust Park network as the fastest in any stadium, anywhere. While we here at MSR would rather see more data before making such broad proclamations — and would caution against trying to compare the network at a 41,149-seat baseball stadium to those built in 100,000-seat football stadiums — we have little doubt that the project is at the very least among the best, given just the raw stats and smarts behind its deployment.

Some of that starts with the backbone bandwidth supplied by sponsor Comcast, a pair of 100 Gbps pipes that are for now probably overkill, since even fully loaded football stadiums at Super Bowls will only use a fraction of that kind of throughput. While those knowledgeable about networking know that just having lots of backbone capacity doesn’t automatically mean your network will have great client-side speeds, it also doesn’t hurt to have way more than you need before you even start.

Another aerial view of the park.

“We wanted to make sure we had ample connectivity for everything we did,” said Greg Gatti, senior director of information technology for the Braves, in part explaining the humongous backbone bandwidth, which so far in sports we’ve only heard of at one other new stadium, the Sacramento Kings’ Golden 1 Center, where Comcast also was the supplier of two 100 Gbps connections.

According to Gatti the Wi-Fi network “is the enabler for everything we do” at the park and the surrounding business areas, including fan-facing services as well as business needs and things like concession kiosks. The Wi-Fi runs off a fiber-based network that Gatti said connects almost all devices in the stadium. “Pretty much every single thing, including sprinklers, HVAC, elevators and lighting are connected to the network,” he said.

And while we here at MSR would like to see more data and tests before we agree with any self-proclaimed claims of being “the fastest” stadium network, with 900 Wi-Fi APs in the stadium — many of those Cisco’s newest 3800 series — and another 450 APs out in The Battery — Gatti is confident that the Braves won’t have any issues delivering high-density Wi-Fi bandwidth to fans.

“We’ll give you as much connectivity as your device can handle,” he said.

Leaning toward a 5 GHz-only future

Like several other sports stadium networks, the Braves will be using mostly 5 GHz channels only for fan-facing Wi-Fi. The reasoning behind this so far (at stadiums like Golden 1 Center, Bankers Life Fieldhouse and SAP Center) is that with most fan devices now having 5 GHz support, it’s easier and cheaper to offer only 5 GHz channels, leaving behind the challenges of supporting the 2.4 GHz band.

Putting the gear in place.

During an exhibition game ahead of the Braves’ MLB opener, Gatti said the SunTrust Park Wi-Fi network offered only 5 GHz connections for the first five innings. “After that, we turned on 2.4 [GHz] but we didn’t have much uptake,” Gatti said. “We’re leaning toward staying with 5 GHz only and avoiding 2.4 GHz if at all possible.”

Some of the 700 Wi-Fi APs in the main seating bowl are mounted in handrail enclosures designed by Wi-Fi integration experts AmpThink, devices used in many MLB deployments. “AmpThink has a lot of experience in MLB stadiums,” Gatti said.

One interesting note is that the Braves and Comcast did not participate in the ongoing MLB advanced media (MLBAM) program that helps pay for networking deployments in MLB stadiums; instead, Gatti said, the Braves and their sponsors footed the technology bill directly.

The Braves did work closely with MLBAM, however, on the stadium app front. According to Gatti, the team was interested in building a secondary app to expose new services available in and around the stadium and commercial area; but given that (according to Gatti) the Braves fans have the highest “take rate” on using the MLB-standard Ballpark app, MLBAM saw fit to help the Braves add additional SunTrust Park-only features to the Ballpark app; right now the Braves’ version of Ballpark includes support for digital ticketing and parking with mobile entry, mobile check-in, interactive maps and directories, integration with Waze, and seat and experience upgrades, according to the team. Some other services are not yet unveiled, as Gatti said the Braves are still testing beacon technology that will be used for wayfinding and other applications. The Braves also unveiled a kiosk-based wayfinding application, developed by YinzCam, to help fans find their way around the new stadium and The Battery area, which is all new to Atlanta and anyone visiting.

Bright future ahead

While most of the story about whether or not SunTrust Park and The Battery will be a successful combination of entertainment plus real-life activity, so far things look good, especially from a networking perspective. With The Battery’s office buildings, restaurants and living spaces, the combination may be the first real test of whether or not it building “city spaces” right next to stadiums is a winner for both customers and the owners.

Whether or not that business idea succeeds, its fortunes apparently won’t be decided by whether or not there is a good network in place. That test has already been passed, after what Gatti called “a fun and aggravating experience at the same time,” a greenfield project that doesn’t come around often in the stadium networking marketplace, that had one driving goal: Make sure the wireless worked well.

“It was pretty simple — in a modern ballpark, the expectation for fans is to have good connectivity,” Gatti said. If the opening weekend is any indication, the Braves and SunTrust Park have already recorded an important win in that category.

Editor’s note: SEAT attendees, see you at the Braves game Tuesday! This profile is an excerpt from our latest STADIUM TECH REPORT, our Summer 2017 issue that has in-depth profiles of network deployments at the Colorado Rockies’ Coors Field, Westfield’s Century City Mall, and a profile of a new Wi-Fi network at Red Bull Arena. DOWNLOAD YOUR FREE COPY of the report today!

Opening day fly-by is repeated on the video board.

Let the networking fireworks begin!

Stadium Tech Report: Sharks bite into digital future with new Wi-Fi, app strategy for SAP Center

Welcome to the Shark Tank. Credit: Paul Kapustka, MSR (click on any photo for a larger image)

Here’s a dirty secret about Silicon Valley sports: Even in this birthplace of the digital era, the hometown hockey arena has historically had some of the worst mobile connectivity around.

Despite the fact that loyal hockey fans always faithfully filled the seats to support their San Jose Sharks, the building now known as the SAP Center somehow never had the kind of wireless network you’d think its tech-savvy locals would demand.

But that was then. This is now.

After years of low connectivity, the “Shark Tank” is now filled with speedy, high-definition Wi-Fi that forms the base of a new digital-experience strategy for the Sharks and the SAP Center. The new digital experience includes a new team app as well as multiple LED screens in all parts of the stadium, bringing the old building screaming into the forefront of older venues retrofitted with technology that both enhances the fan experience while providing new business opportunities.

“If sports is behind the world in technology, we were even behind in sports,” said John Tortora, chief operating officer for the San Jose Sharks, about the building’s historical shortcomings. Interviewed between periods during a late-January visit by Mobile Sports Report to a Sharks game at SAP Center, Tortora said a sort of perfect storm of desires and needs arrived this past postseason, ending up as an initiative that brought in the arena’s first true fan-facing Wi-Fi network, an expanded LED-screen deployment throughout the arena and a new stadium app. Together, the elements are all aimed at supporting a data-driven strategy to improve marketing efforts while simultaneously providing a huge boost to the fan experience.

And make no mistake about it, better connectivity was an amenity fans wanted most of all.

High-density Wi-Fi provides digital backbone

Handrail enclosures bring Wi-Fi APs close to the fans. Credit: San Jose Sharks

Editor’s note: this profile is from our most recent STADIUM TECH REPORT, which also has in-depth looks at new networks at the Utah Jazz’s Vivint Smart Home Arena, and a recap of wireless activity from Super Bowl LI! DOWNLOAD your FREE COPY today!

“We had a survey of fans from the first half of last season, and the direct response was that the Wi-Fi needed to be improved,” Tortora said. Though there was some Wi-Fi in the building — according to Tortora, there was a system deployed in 2013 — it wasn’t anything the team wanted to talk about or promote; in fact, multiple requests by MSR to review the stadium’s networking infrastructure went ignored for years, prior to the new initiative now in place.

According to Tortora, there were also previously a number of different standalone apps for the various activities that took place in the building, including separate ones for the Sharks, the seasonal Disney ice shows, for youth hockey programs and for other SAP Center events like concerts. Bringing multiple apps together into a unified strategy led the Sharks to simultaneously seek a partner to help upgrade the mobile network infrastructure. Tortora said the Sharks found that partner in Cisco, which brought Wi-Fi gear and its StadiumVision digital-display system as well as some creative financing to the table.

“We had a chance to parallel both a new app and a new infrastructure, and Cisco was a great partner,” Tortora said. Though the terms are undisclosed, Cisco is also participating in the financing and operation of the network marketing elements as a partner to the Sharks.

Under-seat AP enclosure in the lower bowl. Credit: Paul Kapustka, MSR

The Sharks also brought in Wi-Fi deployment expert firm AmpThink to lead the network design, and used Daktronics technology for the multiple new LED boards, many of which are located in the previously blank-walled concourse and club areas. The result is a high-density Wi-Fi network operating at peak speeds, which forms the base for a high-touch digital experience that will ultimately give the Sharks deeper insight into fan behaviors, and a more personal way to deliver the right experience to each fan walking through the doors.

Going low and high to deliver Wi-Fi

Even before you get inside the building, you can connect to the new SAP Center Wi-Fi network, thanks to a bank of APs mounted on the outside walls. Allison Aiello, director of information technologies for the Sharks, said that many fans typically gather just outside the arena pregame, especially in a park just to the east side, and with the push toward more digital ticketing, providing pre-entry connectivity was a must.

Once inside the doors, fans are greeted by the innovative “Kezar” scanners from app developer VenueNext, which can scan either paper or digital tickets, with a green light on the top of the cylindrical system showing that a ticket is valid. Connectivity inside the entryways is also superb, as our tests showed Wi-Fi download speeds in the mid-60 Mbps range, even as crowds of fans came in through the doors.

Wi-Fi APs hanging from the rafters. Credit: Paul Kapustka, MSR

A quick lower-level visit to the main data room showed some of the challenges of retrofitting an older building (the arena, which opened in 1993, had been known as the Compaq Center and the HP Pavilion before becoming the SAP Center in 2013): One of the members of our tech-tour entourage bumped his head on a low-hanging pipe, part of the ice-making infrastructure, on the way to the data center doorway.

With more than 20 years of cabling history inside its walls, the SAP Center wiring closets were an ongoing challenge for the implementation crew from AmpThink, which took pride in its work to streamline and organize the wiring as it installed the new network (with some of the cabling in new, Shark-specific teal coloring). Moving out into the lower seating bowl, AmpThink president Bill Anderson showed off some of the under-seat and railing-mounted AP enclosures, where attention to detail includes drilling concrete cores around the railings below the surface level so that shoes, brooms and other items don’t catch on areas where work has been done.

Anderson said the lower-bowl network is only operating on 5 GHz Wi-Fi channels, adding San Jose to an industry trend of leaving 2.4 GHz channels off the network in fan-facing areas. The main reason for this switch has to do with both the administrative challenges of the 2.4 GHz networks, along with the fact that almost all consumer devices these days support the wider bands of the 5 GHz space. Anderson also had high praise for Cisco’s new 3800 series of Wi-Fi APs that were used in the deployment, which can support dual 5 GHz channels.

According to the Sharks’ Aiello, there are 49 handrail Wi-Fi enclosures in the lower seating bowl, with 47 of those having two APs in each enclosure. For concerts, she said the arena can hang additional APs over the sideline hockey boards, which stay in place while the end zone boards are removed. The total number of APs in the stadium is 462. Our pregame network tests prior to a Sharks-Blackhawks game on Jan. 31 showed a Wi-Fi speed of 63.39 Mbps download and 57.59 upload, halfway down the stairs between sections 114 and 115.

Overhead Wi-Fi for the upper deck

In stadiums where under-seat or handrail APs are used, it’s usually best to not combine those placements with overhead APs since client devices will often seek to connect first to overhead APs, even if they are farther away. But due to a quirk in the SAP Center’s construction, AmpThink went with a deployment strategy of overhead APs for the arena’s upper seating deck, mainly because of the low ceiling that is closer to the seats than many other indoor venues.

A look at the overhead APs from below. Credit: Paul Kapustka, MSR

Though combining different AP architectures is tricky, AmpThink’s Anderson said it’s better to pick “the one that’s economically right” rather than staying stuck with one method. Overhead placements like SAP Center’s, which are hung from the walkways near the roof, are typically much cheaper per placement than under-seat or handrail deployments, which often require extensive work including core drilling through concrete floors.

“I was a little concerned at first [about the combination of overhead and railing placements] but the roof is close enough to work,” said Aiello of the dual placement methods. According to AmpThink’s Anderson, most of the overhead antennas are about 30 feet away from the seats, with the farthest being 45 feet away — still close enough so that the power needed to reach fans doesn’t bleed the signal down into the lower bowl. Aiello also noted that an under-seat or handrail AP design for the upper deck would have required the Sharks the extra expense and work to drill through the ceilings of the stadium’s premium suites, which are located between the two main bowl seating levels.

In the upper deck section 219, we tested the Wi-Fi at several seating locations and came up with consistently fast speeds, including one at 48.88 Mbps/44.96; at the lounge area along the arena’s top row we saw even faster speeds, including a mark of 68.00/68.52. We also saw many VenueNext railing-mounted beacon enclosures, part of a planned 500-beacon network that Aiello said will be coming online sometime soon.

Since hockey games have two long breaks built into each game, it’s extremely important for venues to provide good connectivity in concourse and club areas where fans typically congregate between periods. And even though the SAP Center is an older building — which sometimes makes aesthetics a challenge — AmpThink and the Sharks were able to hide almost all of the APs that are placed every 50 feet around the main circular concourse thanks to a small drywall facade that sticks out from the main wall to support directional and section-number signage.

While some of the Wi-Fi speedtests we took while roaming the concourse during the crowded pre-game were in the high 40 Mbps range, we also got a few tests much higher, with one at 67.94 Mbps/ 58.14 Mbps, and another at 63.76 / 55.96, the latter near a crowded concession area. And even with fans streaming in at a good clip, we even got one test at 69.62 / 70.54 near a doorway, showing that walk-around coverage appears to be solid throughout the building.

A VenueNext beacon mount in the upper deck. Credit: Paul Kapustka, MSR

And even though the Sharks were eliminated in the first round of this year’s playoffs, fans used the SAP Center Wi-Fi at higher levels than normal during the postseason. According to Aiello, the stadium saw a peak of 5,013 concurrent users en route to a total of 1.3 terabytes of data used at the first home playoff game; the second home game saw 1.1 TB of data used, with 4,890 peak concurrent users.

New LED boards keep fans connected while out of seats

If the Wi-Fi APs will remain hidden to fans strolling the concourses, the new LED boards will have an opposite effect — instead of just a few TV screens here and there, the Sharks and Daktronics, along with AmpThink and Cisco have gone all-in with a strategy that has multiple-screen boards and long banks of LED strips that can all be controlled and programmed from a single location, thanks to the Cisco StadiumVision system.

Having networked and controllable screens is a huge plus for administration — according to Aiello the previous setup required manual walk-arounds to configure and check each display. AmpThink also helped reduce the wiring needed for all the new displays by connecting the LED boards to the IP cabling used for the Wi-Fi system.

This photo shows how close the ceiling is to the upper deck seats. Credit: Paul Kapustka, MSR

“The video, audio and Wi-Fi all used to be discrete systems,” said AmpThink’s Anderson. “Now they all roll up to one converged network.”

With StadiumVision, the Sharks will be able to program the displays on the fly, substituting advertising for live game action as quickly as hockey teams change players on the ice. Aiello noted that the combination of screens and a beacon system will allow the Sharks to sell more targeted advertising with real metrics showing the number of fans in the area of a display. Big displays mounted above doorways can also be changed to assist with foot traffic and transportation info for postgame exit flows.

App already providing more marketing leads

Wrapping it all together in the fans’ hands is the new app from VenueNext, a company Tortora said the Sharks had been in contact with since its inaugural launch of the Levi’s Stadium app for the San Francisco 49ers. While the VenueNext app will evolve over time to potentially add in a list of services, the ability to let fans move tickets around digitally has already helped the Sharks start down their desired path of having more personalized information to better reach current and prospective customers.

“During the preseason this year we had 2,500 tickets transferred per game, versus 800 during last year’s preseason games,” Tortora said. Because many of those transfers involved sending tickets to email addresses or phone numbers that weren’t current season ticketholders, Tortora said the Sharks were able to add approximately 7,500 new names to their ticket marketing database, which Tortora simply called “gold.”

Fans’ social media posts are featured on the scoreboard during pregame. Credit: Paul Kapustka, MSR

“To do digital tickets, fans have to download the app, so now we can market directly to that person,” Tortora said. That move will help the Sharks identify things like “who’s not coming to games and why,” which may help the team find out early if fans may not be wanting to renew season tickets, and market to them accordingly.

A Cisco-built fan portal is also part of the overall package, and eventually the team hopes to use that software to construct more-personal marketing messages that can be determined by factors including live presence and location within the building. As more data accumulates, Tortora said the Sharks plan to get even deeper into a strategy currently underway that revolves around dynamic ticket pricing.

“We can use data to find out where seats are in demand, and where some sections may not be selling well,” Tortora said, and shift prices accordingly. The team has already broken seating prices into 16 different categories for this season, with plans to expand that to 36 different categories for next season, Tortora said.

“Airlines do this, hotels do this,” Tortora said. “It’s all about being data-driven.”

The Sharks and Blackhawks get ready to rumble. Credit: Paul Kapustka, MSR

LED screens above an entryway. Credit: Paul Kapustka, MSR

More LED screens above the seating entry areas in the main concourse. Credit: San Jose Sharks

LED screens above entryway, where fans use the VenueNext ‘Kezar’ scanners to validate tickets. Credit: Paul Kapustka, MSR

Even more LED screens, on a different concourse. Credit: San Jose Sharks