Commentary: What’s Next in the Return to Venues

By Bill Anderson, president, AmpThink

The NBA suspended its season in March after a player tested positive for Covid-19.

On March 11, 2020, a full house of fans had filled Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City, in anticipation of an NBA game between the Thunder and the visiting Utah Jazz. But just before tipoff, the referees convened at midcourt for a discussion. Soon after that, the teams were sent back to the locker rooms, and eventually an announcement was made that the game was cancelled. A player on the Jazz, Rudy Gobert, had tested positive for the coronavirus, an incident that sent the fans home from the venue that night – and ultimately, signaled the end of attending spectator sports as we knew it, for the foreseeable future.

What followed in short order was the closing of worldwide economies and social structures as people everywhere entered stay-at-home quarantines designed to help stop the spread of the disease. All kinds of businesses, especially those like sports events, concerts and other activities involving large public groups, were effectively shut down, with no clear path to a future of when and how they might resume.

Now, as some of the positive effects of the quarantines are being realized, societies around the world are asking when and how more business and recreational activities can resume. And while social-distancing best practices that have emerged in places like grocery stores have provided a model that might allow more businesses to safely serve more customers, the idea of large groups of fans assembling packed together in stadiums during a pandemic still presents a much tougher challenge.

While the desire to return to the tribal gatherings of sports, concerts and other events is widespread, the timing of the “return to venues” is still unknown. The conversations around this topic are numerous and diverse, and involve many factors and factions, including politics, government, economics, biological science, venue operations, and personal safety. While AmpThink is not be in a position to solve the myriad problems that must be addressed, we do see that technology will have a significant role in the
final solution. And that role will be layered.

There is no ‘silver bullet’

Editor’s note: This profile is from our latest STADIUM TECH REPORT, which is available to read instantly online or as a free PDF download! Inside the issue is our comprehensive study on how venues can cope with Covid-19, plus a profile of Globe Life Field! Start reading the issue now online or download a free copy!

Unfortunately, right now much of the discussion around technology for venue security is increasingly one-dimensional, searching for a silver bullet that doesn’t exist. Heat-sensing cameras, robotic cleaners, disinfectant chemicals, UV lights and mobile-device tracking applications may all have a role, but no single solution solves the problem of “when will fans return” because there isn’t one problem. Technology will just be one part of a larger solution set.

Starting in late March, AmpThink kicked off a partnership with Stadium Tech Report to look at the future of large public gatherings. The goal of the effort was to have meaningful discussions with industry thought leaders to understand the framework for our collective “return to venues.” We are attempting to develop that understanding through the lens of decision makers who will control the process. We’ve broken our analysis into “stages of return.” This phrase reminds us of the top level concerns that must be addressed before the “return to venues” can occur, including: government approval; legal liability mitigation; and the restoration of fan confidence.

What is it is going to take for the government to allow public venues to open?

While venues can propose their own paths to opening their doors to fans, their ability to execute is premised on the assumption that they will be allowed to open their doors. Though opinions on readiness will likely be different from national and local perspectives, the decision to open the doors of venues will rest heavily on the ability to convince public health authorities that the risks of spreading an infection can be managed to the point that they believe that the benefits of gathering a crowd are not outweighed by the risks of the gathering.

Achieving this approval will require that venues are able to explain how the venue will identify and then mitigate the risks of mass public gatherings. This can be achieved on an ad-hoc basis and progress will occur at different speeds in different jurisdictions. However, establishing a national mandate, a framework, and a plan to measure execution can move the conversation along faster – achieving an accelerated return to venues.

If the government says yes to opening a venue, what liability does the venue have and what does it need to do to mitigate the risk?

Any responsible venue operator or owner has to ask if the gains to be made by opening the venue will outweigh the risks. Mortgage payments and balance sheet pressures will influence the decision, but the legal risks will not be ignored.

After addressing official mandates, venue owners and operators must be confident that they can safely open their building. And then, if and when the worst-case scenario happens – infection of some group of attendees – they can answer the tough questions regarding the execution of their plan. Who implemented the plan, how was it implemented, how was its effectiveness measured, were the plan elements repeatable, was training sufficient? The answers could save or damn the venue both legally and in the court of public opinion.

Having a government-endorsed strategy, a well-articulated plan, and a mechanism to document execution will provide venue owners and operators with the legal confidence that they require to open their buildings, and to provide a clear sense of responsibility toward the guests they will invite inside their doors.

Assuming there is an open venue, what has to happen to cause fans to become comfortable with attending a live event?

It is likely that if public health officials and venue owners have reached the decision to re-open public venues, the decision was not arrived at lightly. Buildings will be opening under plans that materially reduce the threat of mass infection at a public venue.

However, fans may remain wary and without an effective vaccine, fans may prefer the comfort (and safety) of their home to the live venue experience.

Communication of the efforts to identify and address the risk of exposure to an infected attendee, proactively identify exposed fans, and otherwise reduce the risks of attendance will need to be effectively communicated. While much of the communication will focus on reaching fans before they arrive at the building, their experience when they reach the venue will be an important part of developing momentum, using fans to build the case that the return to venues is safe.

How technology will help enable the ‘stages of return’

Emerging technologies that addresses critical problems for venues relating to coronavirus (for example threat identification, threat mitigation, sanitation, tracking and contact tracing, messaging, and communication) will take center stage in the coming months. But behind these point solutions there will be a need to build networking infrastructure to make their products work. Devices will need to be connected (for power, or by wire or over the air for networks), traffic will need to be transported, compute resources deployed, and systems built. The success of these systems will depend on architecting reliable, scalable, service provider class networks in these venues.

What is the new normal?

Is the current shutdown permanent? Will all future events be held without fans in attendance? Likely no! But returning fans to LPVs will take time and require a plan that addresses the needs of all stakeholders: Government officials, venue owners and operators, team owners, concert promoters, leagues, athletes and musicians, venue employees and contractors, and of course fans.

On behalf of our customers, we can listen, learn, and position them to execute on a strategy that gets us all to a common goal – the opening our stadiums, arenas, convention centers, malls, and other public
places to the public within a framework that manages the risk that we pose to each other when faced with a pandemic. Stay tuned as we present more findings of our ongoing research and interviews with thought leaders, subject matter experts, technology company leaders and venue, team and school IT professionals in the weeks and months to come.

Bill Anderson, AmpThink

Bill Anderson, AmpThink

Bill Anderson has been involved in the design and construction of wireless networks for over 20 years, pre-dating Wi-Fi. His first experience with wireless networking was as a software developer building software for mobile computers communicating over 400 MHz and 900 MHz base stations developed by Aironet (now part of Cisco Systems).

His work with mobile computing and wireless networks in distribution and manufacturing afforded him a front row seat to the emergence of Wi-Fi and the transformation of Wi-Fi from a niche technology to a business critical system. Since 2011 at AmpThink Bill has been actively involved in constructing some of the largest single venue wireless networks in the world.

Dodgers up the ante with new Wi-Fi 6 network

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

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

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

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

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

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

Replacing the Wi-Fi 4 network

Editor’s note: This profile is from our latest STADIUM TECH REPORT, which is available to read instantly online or as a free PDF download! Inside the issue is our comprehensive study on how venues can cope with Covid-19, plus a profile of Globe Life Field! Start reading the issue now online or download a free copy!

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

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

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

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

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

Wi-Fi 6 coming to more ballparks

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

More APs were added in overhangs and roofed areas

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

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

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

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

Bench seating also got under-seat APs

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

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

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

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

New Report: What’s Next for venues in the face of Covid-19; plus profiles of Globe Life Field and Dodger Stadium

STADIUM TECH REPORT is pleased to announce the Summer 2020 issue of our STADIUM TECH REPORT series, the ONLY in-depth publication created specifically for the stadium technology professional and the stadium technology marketplace.

Our stories for this issue include our first comprehensive look at how venue owners and operators, and teams and schools, might find a way back to live action and fans in stadiums following the current pandemic shutdowns. This feature is just the start of an ongoing series of research papers, interviews and other offerings of timely information we will be grouping under the “Return to Venues” title, a series of content done in part through an editorial partnership with AmpThink. We also have two profiles in this issue, one on the extensive network deployments at the ready-to-open Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas, and another on a new Wi-Fi 6 network deployment at Dodgers Stadium. Plus an explanation of our overall name change from Mobile Sports Report to Stadium Tech Report — read on!

You can also download a PDF version of the report.

We’d like to take a quick moment to thank our sponsors, which for this issue include Corning, Boingo, MatSing, Cox Business/Hospitality Network, Comcast Business, Samsung, and American Tower. Their generous sponsorship makes it possible for us to offer this content free of charge to our readers. We’d also like to welcome readers from the Inside Towers community, who may have found their way here via our ongoing partnership with the excellent publication Inside Towers. We’d also like to thank the SEAT community for your continued interest and support.

As always, we are here to hear what you have to say: Send me an email to kaps@mobilesportsreport.com and let us know what you think of our STADIUM TECH REPORT series.

Dickies Arena: Raising the fan experience to the highest level

The opening parade sets the rodeo tone at Dickies Arena. Credit: Phil Harvey, MSR (click on any photo for a larger image)

Without a professional or major college sports team as a main tenant, it’s somewhat of a wonder that Dickies Arena in Fort Worth, Texas, got built at all. But once you step inside and attend an event there, the wonder shifts to the sheer excellence that surrounds you, in what may be simply the best-built arena-sized venue, anywhere.

It might seem like a Texas-sized stretch to make such a claim, but any other basketball-sized stadium similar to 14,000-seat Dickies Arena would be hard pressed to top the amenities, infrastructure and operations installed inside the new gem of Fort Worth. While first and foremost the venue serves as home of the annual Fort Worth Stock Show & Rodeo, a three-week-plus extravaganza that held its maiden run there earlier this year, when it’s safe to allow events to return Dickies Arena will also host concerts, ice shows and other sporting and non-sporting events, saving local folks from having to drive east to Dallas for a big-time experience.

But it’s opulence, comfort and service that will be the hallmarks of a Dickies Arena experience going forward, with those attributes far outweighing the convenience of just having a world-class venue in Fort Worth. During a visit by Mobile Sports Report during the middle of this year’s rodeo program (which ran 23 straight days from Jan. 17 to Feb. 8) we saw not just the visible attributes of perhaps the most polished finish of any arena ever, but also the underpinnings of important infrastructure assets like the wireless networks and video operations, and the intense level of attention to detail in food and beverage operations, all aimed at raising the fan experience to the highest level.

The opera house meets the rodeo

Editor’s note: This profile is from our latest STADIUM TECH REPORT, which is available to read instantly online or as a free PDF download! Inside the issue is a recap of the record-breaking Wi-Fi usage at Super Bowl LIV, and a recap of a DIY Wi-Fi deployment at Rutgers University! Start reading the issue now online or download a free copy!

Fine dining is just one of the premium seating options at Dickies Arena. Credit; Paul Kapustka, MSR

When we last visited the under-construction Dickies Arena in the fall of 2019, the finishing touches weren’t in place yet, even though we could see hints of what it was shaping up to be. For our late-January visit for a night of rodeo, we got to see the finished product in all its glory, and all we can say is, it may be some time before another venue even approaches the level of cosmetic finish achieved at Dickies Arena.

To be sure, not many venue ownerships may have the financial resources or the certainty of what they want out of a finished product as the team behind the creation of Fort Worth’s newest centerpiece. If you’re not familiar with the Dickies Arena story, the arena is part of a public-private venture between the city of Fort Worth and a consortium of investors and donors led by local Fort Worth philanthropist Ed Bass. As the home of Fort Worth’s namesake rodeo, Dickies Arena is clearly meant to be that and so much more, cementing in place a building where people who know what they want got exactly what they wanted – and more.

While we didn’t get to speak with Bass directly, his presence is felt in all areas of operation of the facility, with multiple stories of his direct involvement in making sure the smallest of details were adhered to. Even a first-time visitor to the rodeo could see and feel the devotion of leaders like Bass to their signature hometown event, from his riding a horse at the front of the event-opening parade to his video-board cameos of slapping bundles of cash into the hands of the event winners as the night progressed.

Behind the scenes, we heard stories about how Bass and the leadership team wanted very specific things done cosmetically – like making sure that no antennas for either the Wi-Fi or DAS networks were visible in any of the main public areas. To meet that challenge, main technical integrator AmpThink had to go outside the norm to design (and in some cases, custom-build) enclosures to hide the gear. Walking through the main concourses and seating areas, the only hint that wireless equipment might be overhead was the outline of flush-mounted panels, a design theme that even carried out to outside-wall mounting areas in the plaza areas around the arena’s exteriors.

Once inside Dickies Arena, visitors may feel like they are in somewhere more like an opera house than a multi-purpose venue (which on this night had a “playing floor” of some finely raked dirt). Floors of decorative tiles are underfoot, and railings on the staircases enclose sculptures of a distinctive local grass plant. That same design is reflected on the plates used in one of the premium seating areas, where the dining choices include a sit-down, white-tablecloth experience that looks like a four-star steakhouse inserted into the concourse.

A rafter deployment of DAS and Wi-Fi gear. Credit: Paul Kapustka, MSR

Bill Shaw, the assistant general manager for Dickies Arena, was courteous enough to give us a directed tour of the venue before the night’s activities, pointing out things we might have noticed but not really realized, like the different tones and types of wood used for paneling, which changed as you moved from a higher premium seating area to a more general admission space. In the suites, Shaw showed us some especially comfy leather stadium chairs, which he said were the end result of a long process of determination to find out the best way to pad and tan the chair’s components.

Even the construction of the wheeled chairs in the loge box where we were the guest of AmpThink for the night were subject to scrutiny by Mr. Bass, we were told, with a story about him using tape measures to ensure the seat width was correct, and discussions about having the proper types of armrests that wouldn’t inadvertently snag the handles of a handbag.

“Mr. Bass spent a lot of time on all of that,” said Shaw. “His fingerprints are everywhere.”

To be sure, the somewhat unique ownership structure and the recurring revenue from the rodeo – which has sold-out status for all the premium seating spaces thanks to the families who have been supporting the event for generations – means in part that Dickies Arena doesn’t have to saturate its public spaces with advertising. While its digital display arsenal includes striking elements like curved LED screens from LG and menu boards and other displays running the Cisco Vision dynamic signage system, Dickies Arena only has a small number of partner-sponsors whose messages run somewhat discreetly compared to other arenas that may have more need to have a higher number of displays and advertisements.

The layout of the arena in general also takes its cue from how the premium seating space is used for the rodeo. Instead of a normal sort of top-down arena seating with “courtside” seats being the most desired, the wide space needed for rodeo events and the family atmosphere (most premium packages, according to Shaw, are bought by families and not corporations) means that there are “boxes” of seats ringing the lower bowl, with a wide walkway behind them to facilitate the meeting and greeting (and the seeing and being-seen) that is part of the rodeo culture. Thanks to some very clever architecture and movable stands technology, the mid-bowl walkway can disappear for events like concerts and other sporting situations like basketball; but good luck trying to figure out how that works by walking by the stands, since all the moving parts are, of course, hidden from view.

While a ring of suites provides another premium seating option a bit higher up, at either end of the venue are two more unique gathering areas, with belly-up bars that stretch almost the full width of the space, providing a place for the premium box-seat patrons to mingle while still having a clear view of whatever action is taking place. Shaw noted that at one end of the arena the seating can collapse back to almost a straight line, providing ample space for concert stages that also gives Dickies Arena a concert-seating total that Shaw said is comparable to American Airlines Center in Dallas, which seats 20,000 for NBA and NHL games.

Then there are some more touches you can’t see, like the bass-sound traps installed in the roof area to improve acoustics – and those you can see, like the soaring rooftop that is meant to mimic the open sky of Texas. As more fans attend different events scheduled in the future they are no doubt going to be impressed and perhaps surprised by the “opera house” where boots and Stetsons are the local fashion of choice.

Well wired for wireless

In our early fall visit to Dickies Arena we detailed the single, converged fiber network that supports all network operations, including the cellular DAS, the arena Wi-Fi and the IPTV operations, in an orderly, future-proofed way.

Built by AmpThink for the arena, the network is a departure from what has long been the norm in venue IT deployments, where multiple service providers typically build their own networks, with multiple cabling systems competing for conduit space. At Dickies Arena, AmpThink was able to control the fiber systems to follow a single, specific path, allowing the company to save costs and space for the client while building out a system with enough extra capacity to handle future needs for bandwidth, according to AmpThink.

According to AmpThink president Bill Anderson, one of those future needs became necessary this past fall, when Verizon wanted to bring its 5G millimeter-wave services as a late addition to the arena. To support the four 5G antennas that are now mounted up in the catwalk, Anderson said AmpThink was able to just allocate some of the spare optical fiber it has in place throughout the building, making it possible to bring in the service “in a very affordable way.”

In addition to the numerous custom enclosures used throughout the venue, Anderson said AmpThink also designed a pre-fabricated combination Wi-Fi and DAS antenna unit design that it could then hoist up into the rafters in a single pull. By having the green light to lead and innovate, AmpThink was able to develop and learn things it will draw on well into the future, Anderson said. “This is really our master class [on stadium network design],” Anderson said.

An under-seat Wi-Fi enclosure. Credit: Dickies Arena

Since we spent most of our January time at the venue touring the spaces and talking to different representatives, we didn’t have that much time for network speed tests but the ones we did get showed the typical strong performances of an AmpThink-built network. On one of the concourses behind the suite levels we got a Wi-Fi speedtest of 67.0 Mbps on the download side and 65.0 Mbps on the upload.

Up at the highest level of seating, which is served from the rafter-mounted APs, we got a speedtest of 28.3 Mbps / 39.5 Mbps, during the night’s final event.

Though we didn’t get down there for a speedtest, the lower-bowl seats are served by under-seat Wi-Fi enclosures. According to Anderson there are approximately 550 Cisco Wi-Fi APs used throughout the venue, all of which are now the latest versions supporting the new Wi-Fi 6 standard. The DAS, which is overseen by ExteNet Systems, uses the Corning ONE DAS hardware system with approximately 258 active antennas in 11 zones for the DAS.

Keeping video and food and beverage operations in-house

Having never been to a live rodeo event before, Mobile Sports Report was somewhat in awe of the video production inside the arena, with multiple camera angles repeatedly in use on the large-screen centerhung videoboard. With no pauses, halftimes or timeouts, action was constant, and reflected as such on the main video screens.

We are simply going to have to revisit the arena for a more in-depth exploration of the video production operation itself, which is run entirely by the Dickies Arena team and even provides live feeds itself to cable channels covering rodeo. One of the more innovative twists inside the building is a concourse-level fan booth, where a large interactive video board can serve up multiple instant replays of rodeo action by clicking and dragging screenshots to the main display area.

The three-plus weeks of back to back rodeo action was somewhat of a stress test for the video crew, since almost every night there were different types of competitions (for instance, the night we attended there was a team competition, with scores from multiple events tabulated into a final team score) requiring custom programs to populate the video board displays. According to the video team there were no fewer than seven different scoring programs in play each night, but they were able to coordinate the results so quickly that they actually had to introduce a time delay into the reporting from judges to the video screens, so that the announcers could add some drama to their live play-by-play.

On the food and beverage side of operations, the do-it-ourselves theory of Dickies Arena meant that the arena controls all aspects of F&B operations, instead of contracting much of the work to a third-party caterer.

Families are a big part of the rodeo crowd. Credit: Paul Kapustka, MSR

Julie Margolin, director of food and beverage operations at Dickies Arena, said it starts with little things, like not having to live with a certain brand of hot dog because that is the brand a caterer carries. But then it expands into what is possible, and why you would try to do things like provide in-seat delivery service to 4,000 premium seats while also balancing the F&B needs for a diverse operation that includes white-tablecloth dining, suite operations, high-end bar areas, and mobile point-of-sale to support cotton-candy sales on the concourses.

“We do everything we can to make sure every experience is the best,” said Margolin. “That’s a task not a lot of people are willing to take on.”

But Margolin, who previously held a similar title at the Honda Center in Los Angeles, is like other top performers who found the opportunity and challenge presented by Dickies Arena too good to pass up.

“This building is very different than others in the industry,” said Margolin, citing the close working atmosphere that rapidly built between operations and construction and information technology teams as the building opened late in 2019 ahead of the real debut, the rodeo season.

“If something needed fixing, nobody went home until it was done,” Margolin said. And while like others she’s always looking for ways to improve, Margolin said the whole idea of a venue owning and operating its own F&B was an exciting challenge.

“If you go with someone else’s [catering] model, you’re serving two masters,” Margolin said. But trying to meld numerous different types of fan experience operations, she said, is a challenge worth pursuing.

“If you stick with the status quo, you’re going backwards,” she said.

Dickies Arena: As good as it gets?

Standing outside the arena on a clear-sky night, from one of the outdoor plazas, fans have a pleasing view back toward the lighted buildings of downtown Fort Worth. Legend has it that Ed Bass purchased the land Dickies Arena sits on more than three decades ago, with the vision that someday he would help build an arena with that signature view back toward downtown. Now that that dream is reality, the sky’s the limit for what Dickies Arena future may be.

Though the coronavirus has effectively put all arena schedules somewhat on hold, prior to the outbreak Dickies Arena had already announced future bookings for big-name concert acts as well as family events like Disney on Ice, Cirque du Soleil and even the U.S. Gymnastics Championships. Clearly, the events market will make use of a venue of Dickies Arena’s size and stature.

According to Shaw, patrons with rodeo season tickets get first dibs on other events, but it’s a good bet that the diversity of action inside the Dickies Arena walls will mean that a wide number of fans will be able to experience the wide range of seating options available. But even those attending on the least-expensive tickets will still be able to experience the overall quality of all aspects of the arena, which will be hard for other venues to match.


A panoramic view of the Dickies Arena seating bowl. Credit: Phil Harvey, MSR


A sunny-day view of the arena’s exterior. Credit: Phil Harvey, MSR

Super Bowl LIV recap: Big jump in per-device usage fuels record Wi-Fi mark

Miami’s Hard Rock Stadium hosted Super Bowl LIV this year, where the new single-day Wi-Fi record was set. Credit: Brian Nitenson, MSR

The big game is back on top of the unofficial Mobile Sports Report single-day Wi-Fi rankings, with a mark of 26.42 terabytes of data used at Super Bowl LIV in Miami, according to figures reported by Extreme Networks.

What’s most interesting (to us) about the number is that it was generated in a venue that had approximately 8,000 fewer fans in attendance than last year’s Super Bowl (70,081 in Atlanta for Super Bowl 53 vs. 62,417 for Super Bowl 54). It was also the second-lowest Super Bowl attendance figure ever, just above the 61,946 fans who attended Super Bowl 1.

So not surprisingly the fans who connected to the Wi-Fi network at Miami’s Hard Rock Stadium also set a new record for average data consumed per connected user, at 595.6 megabytes per user — a big jump from last year’s average data per user total of 492.3 MB. Going forward, we here at MSR think this statistic is even more important than the overall data-used or total tonnage mark, since it more accurately reflects how the network is performing for fans.

“I think the average [data] per user is the metric we’re most proud of,” said John Brams, director of sports and entertainment for Extreme Networks. Extreme, which has a sponsorship deal with the NFL to provide network statistics from every Super Bowl, was also the gear provider for the network at Hard Rock Stadium, the first Super Bowl for Extreme gear since Super Bowl 51 at Houston’s NRG Stadium back in 2017. According to Extreme, the Wi-Fi setup at Hard Rock Stadium uses some 2,000 APs, many of which are deployed in under-seat enclosures in the bowl seating.

The average data used per device, Brams said, is to Extreme the proof of how well each user is served by the network, and is perhaps a more important metric than the simple total of data used.

“If you are asking what is the health of a network, the average [data used] per user is a good metric for that,” Brams said. Brams, like MSR, also believes that the average data used per user is a metric that can be used to compare network performances between different-sized stadiums, like football stadiums and basketball arenas, which might be very far apart in total data used simply because of the capacity differences.

Verizon autoconnect helps out on the Wi-Fi usage

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 profile of Dickies Arena in Fort Worth and a recap of a DIY Wi-Fi deployment at Rutgers University! Start reading the issue now online or download a free copy!

With a reported 44,358 unique devices connected to the network this year’s Super Bowl also set a new mark for Super Bowl take rate at 71 percent; the top overall take rate mark still belongs to Ohio State, which saw 71.5 percent of its fans connected when Ohio Stadium saw 25.6 TB of Wi-Fi used this past fall during a game against Michigan State. It’s worth noting that the average data per user mark from the Ohio State game was 341.6 MB.

Wi-Fi ‘coaches’ helped fans connect at the big game. Credit: Extreme Networks

Like at Ohio State, at Hard Rock Stadium fans whose devices were on a Verizon cellular subscription could be automatically connected to the Wi-Fi network, a factor that often results in high take rates. Verizon has similar deals with a number of NFL stadiums and some large college venues, including Ohio State, Florida and Brigham Young. Verizon would not reveal what percentage of its customers were included in the overall unique Wi-Fi connection number at Super Bowl LIV.

Peak network usage hits 10 Gbps

Some more info from the great list put together by Extreme: The peak concurrent user number of 24,837 devices was seen during pre-game activities; the peak network throughput of 10.4 Gbps also occurred before the game started, according to Extreme. Of the final data total, 11.1 TB was used before the game started, with the balance of 15.32 TB being used after kickoff.

“We’ve seen the highest data rates right before the game started at the last four Super Bowls,” said Brams. According to Brams, this statistic may be caused by the fact that people at Super Bowls tend to arrive very early for the games, and by the NFL’s attempts to keep things interesting with plenty of pregame entertainment.

The most used streaming apps by fans at Super Bowl LIV were, in order of usage, Apple iTunes, Apple Streaming, YouTube, Spotify and Netflix; the most used social apps in order of usage were Facebook, Instagram, Twit- ter, Snapchat and Bitmoji. For sports apps, the most used in order of usage were ESPN, NFL, NFL OnePass, CBS Sports and ESPN Go.

When reading through the list of apps, MSR wondered out loud who would be watching Netflix at a Super Bowl. But Brams thinks Extreme’s network statistics have an answer.

“It’s amazing how many people bring kids to a big game,” he said. “And those kids may not be that interested in everything going on at the game, so in between they are streaming shows [on Netflix].” Brams said the Netflix-at-games is a trend at NFL games in general, with Netflix consistently showing up in the top 5 of apps used on a stadium network.

A view of the field just before kickoff. Credit: Brian Nitenson, MSR

Friday links: More Wi-Fi spectrum, Apple SE has Wi-Fi 6 and CBRS

Apple’s new $399 iPhone SE supports both Wi-Fi 6 and CBRS. Credit: Apple

If you need some pointers on things to catch up on this weekend here are some links to recent news that will likely have future impact on the stadium technology world, including new Wi-Fi spectrum, Apple’s support for Wi-Fi 6 and CBRS in its new phone, and Apple and Google working together on contact tracing.

FCC ready to clear 6 GHz band for unlicensed Wi-Fi

This surfaced a couple weeks ago but it’s worth revisiting as venues plan their Wi-Fi networks of the future. In a vote expected to take place next week, the FCC looks ready to approve pretty much the entire 6 GHz band for unlicensed use, a big win for the Wi-Fi industry. Monica Alleven over at FierceWireless has a good recap, we will of course follow up as this moves along to see how venues and equipment providers plan to take advantage of the roughly 1,200 MHz of new spectrum. Can you say bigger channel sizes? Yes you can. The new spectrum will be extremely powerful when combined with the technical advances of Wi-Fi 6 — which you can read about in the report we put out last year in partnership with AmpThink.

Apple supports Wi-Fi 6, CBRS in new iPhone SE

Keeping pace with the wireless support it placed in the iPhone 11 line that came out last fall, Apple’s new iPhone SE will have support for both Wi-Fi 6 and for CBRS (LTE band 48), which should mean that our opinion that Apple may hasten acceptance of Wi-Fi 6 gets a turbo boost. At just $399, the new smaller form-factor phone is already being praised as a good value. Since venues regularly still report iOS devices as the majority of in-stadium network users, it’s a good bet the lower-priced iPhone will show up in big numbers in the near future. That also means that venues planning on Wi-Fi 6 networks or CBRS deployments will have more clients sooner rather than later.

Apple, Google partner on COVID-19 contact tracing technology

It’s still very early days for venues trying to figure out which technologies they might need to adopt to help them re-open, but one development that bears close watching is the partnership between Apple and Google to work together on COVID-19 contact tracing technology. Again, no real plans yet on how venues might use this technology, but it’s a smart guess that some kind of tracking application will be needed to ensure people coming into stadiums can feel safe about being part of a crowd. The Markup has a good take on some of the pros and cons of the technology; we’ll be following this closely going forward as well.

How will touch screens work when people are wary of touching things?

As we pay more attention to concessions technology one question we’ve been wondering about is: What happens to touch-screen concessions technology in the era of COVID-19? Our pal Dave Haynes over at 16:9 has a virtual roundtable scheduled for next week Tuesday that will focus on that topic. Registration is free.