LAFC scores technology hat trick at Banc of California Stadium

Banc of California Stadium, the new home of the Los Angeles Football Club. Credit all photos: Terry Sweeney, MSR (click on any photo for a larger image)

There’s an elegance to the advancing striker – the foot work, feints, arc of the kick – as they target the opponent’s goal. For the Los Angeles Football Club, that elegance gets reflected back in its newly christened home field, Banc of California Stadium, with its graceful lines and minimalist design, plus visibility and a connection to the field rivaling venues half its size.

LAFC, one of Major League Soccer’s newest expansion teams, had a particular sort of experience in mind for fans inside the venue, with its capacity of 22,000. The steeply pitched stands create an intimate sporting and entertainment space. Multiple clubs, suites and concession areas are there to satisfy food and beverage desires. Team owners were equally adamant about having top-notch technology, according to Christian Lau, vice president of information technology for LAFC, especially where wireless networking was concerned. The requirement was for “unprecedented coverage,” he added. “We wanted to avoid doing any retrofitting for at least five years.”

Opened in April, LAFC’s gleaming new stadium sits adjacent to the Los Angeles Coliseum (home to USC football, and to the NFL’s Rams, at least for now), replacing what used to be the Los Angeles Sports Arena. That structure was demolished in early 2016 and LAFC’s lengthy list of owners (Peter Guber, Magic Johnson, Will Ferrell and Mia Hamm, to name just a few of the sports and entertainment luminaries with a stake in the team) set the timer for April 29, 2018, LAFC’s first home game for its inaugural season.

Construction crews worked relentlessly to meet the deadline; the venue was ready one month early, thanks to good planning and construction crews putting in 16-hour days to be ready for BofC Stadium’s debut. On April 29, the gates opened and a new era had begun with the ‘hat trick’ of a fiber backbone, solid wireless coverage and an advanced app strategy.

The optics of LAFC networking

Editor’s note: This profile is from our latest STADIUM TECH REPORT, an in-depth look at successful deployments of stadium technology. Included with this report is a profile of a new MatSing ball DAS deployment at Amalie Arena, a new under-seat DAS deployment for the San Francisco Giants at AT&T Park, and a look at the new DAS at Wrigley Field! DOWNLOAD YOUR FREE COPY now!

No doubt where you are at. Welcome to LA… FC.

The foundation for LAFC’s networking is a gigabit passive optical network (GPON) backbone with two chassis, plus fiber links from two service providers, AT&T and Crown Castle. The stadium backbone is 10-Gbps fiber with 100-Gbps dark fiber in place, Lau explained. LAFC is one of just a few sporting venues using GPON, along with Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, and Texas A&M’s Kyle Field in College Station. Perhaps not coincidentally, the technology contractor for all three projects was IBM.

Wi-Fi was an obvious requirement for BofC Stadium; back-of-the-house networks support ticketing processes at the gates, along with POS applications and LAFC administrative needs. Fan-facing Wi-Fi (“LAFC Guest”) blankets the venue with 487 access points; Lau’s leaving open the door to add more APs as requirements dictate. About 60 percent of the existing APs are installed under seats in the stands. Ruckus Networks is the Wi-Fi AP vendor and helped with system engineering and tuning.

While engineered for 70,000 users, the venue’s Wi-Fi has been averaging about 8,700 simultaneous users, according to Lau. The LAFC Guest network has no landing page since at some venues, loading times for landing pages can be long, leading to frustrated users abandoning the Wi-Fi. Users have also come to consider Wi-Fi a de facto amenity, so LAFC wanted to ensure its guest Wi-Fi network was easily and quickly accessible, Lau said.

The DAS details

On the cellular side, LAFC called on wireless services and engineering firm Mobilitie to pull together the distributed antenna system (DAS) for BofC Stadium. The venue’s DAS network consists of 25 zones powered by Ericsson gear; there are 160 antennas and over 7 miles of cabling to handle nearly 1.5 million square feet of DAS coverage.

Wireless gear covers the concessions areas

All four of the major wireless carriers — AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile and Sprint – have signed up for BofC’s DAS network. Verizon was on air for the first game; Sprint was scheduled to fully integrate into the DAS network by the end of June, according to Stephanie Gray, senior director, wireless coverage solutions for Mobilitie.

LAFC was looking something transformative in its use of technology that would set BofC stadium apart from other stadiums, Gray told Mobile Sports Report. LAFC wanted seamless wireless especially in transition zones, part of strict requirements for the DAS network.

“They wanted a high percentage of coverage throughout the venue, particularly where people are using SeatGeek and wireless/paperless ticketing at the gates,” she explained. “We needed optimum coverage that could handle the stadium under load.”

Mobilitie brought engineering know-how to deal with the inevitable onsite quirks unique to every venue. In the case of BofC Stadium, the overall design aesthetic is modern and slick. The ceiling materials in many parts of the stadium – clubs, suites and some concession areas — are sheathed in metal, which presents an RF propagation challenge for RF, reducing signal strength.

On-field DAS coverage was also challenging, according to Jamie Witherspoon, director, technical solutions, for Mobilitie. Antennas had to be mounted on stadium trusses before the trusses were craned into place, an unusual technical cart-before-the-horse process. The reason? Cherry-picker equipment couldn’t be on the field or its freshly laid sod to adjust DAS antennas. In addition, Witherspoon reported lots of negotiations with the architecture firm, Gensler, to ensure the DAS antennas were as unobtrusive as possible and to preserve the stadium’s design aesthetic.

“With DAS, we’re more accustomed to building out a pre-existing venue, coming in after the fact,” Witherspoon explained. “This was brand new construction, so we had to work around multiple construction teams.”

Bandwidth snapshots

Mobile Sports Report put the fan-facing Wi-Fi and DAS to the test at BofC Stadium’s opening day, a match between LAFC and the Seattle Sounders. We sampled upload and download speeds around the stadium using the Speedtest app to measure performance. All our tests are only from Verizon’s services inside the venue.

Underseat mounts for Wi-Fi

In general, the BofC wireless services appear well engineered and cover the stadium’s common areas effectively. As to be expected, bandwidth performance was higher in the areas around the suites and clubs, where Wi-Fi downloads clocked in anywhere from 12.38 Mbps in the Sunset Loge on the west side of the stadium to 15.26 Mbps in the Founder’s Club. Wi-Fi upload speeds came in at 63.92 Mbps and 71.94 Mbps, respectively, the highest speeds measured in our tests at BofC Stadium.

Verizon’s DAS wasn’t as fast as the guest Wi-Fi. Highest DAS download speed at the south concessions was 37.67 Mbps; Section 123 on the southern side of the bowl came in at 35.43 Mbps. Highest upload speed for DAS service was 21.42 Mbps in the southeast concession area, followed by 20.92 Mbps around the southwest concessions.

A couple areas were less robust from a wireless bandwidth perspective. The DAS performance in the concession area outside the Figueroa Club on the east side of the stadium measured 9.4 Mbps download/10.97 Mbps upload; guest Wi-Fi in the west concessions area came in at 8.58 Mbps/1.93 Mbps, while Wi-Fi in the south concession wasn’t much better at 8.27 Mbps/1.98 Mbps. But generally, the guest Wi-Fi outperformed Verizon’s DAS and most Wi-Fi download/upload speeds were in the double-digits of megabits per second.

Prepping the LAFC app

LAFC worked with mobile integrator Venuetize to build out the team’s app, using the MLS team app template as its foundation. As a new team and one that started its season with a succession of away games, there was no reason to have stadium-based features in the app’s first iteration, said Lou Fontana, vice president of project management for Venuetize. The earliest iteration of the LAFC app concentrated more on content pieces, followed by the BofC Stadium-specific features.

LAFC’s app features both mobile ticketing and a sophisticated digital wallet for making onsite purchases for food or team merchandise. LAFC’s Lau volunteered that the organization is looking to have totally digital ticketing by 2019 – no paper, no PDFs to print out. Venuetize did some backend integration with payment processing partner Vantive; the ticketing part of the app works with ticket marketplace and aggregator SeatGeek.

Wi-Fi APs point down from the rafters

The LAFC app also uses and artificial intelligence-powered chatbot named Otto to help with stadium info, developed by Satis.fy. A future iteration of Otto will take it out of the Web’s view and make it a native view, incorporating elastic search. “That will enable fans to ask about players and the team schedule, and will replace search function in the app,” Fontana said, adding the upgrade could come sometime this summer.

The current version of the app has video, served up from MLS’s site. Immediate replay is something Venuetize will work on with LAFC. “When is the video content source available? That’s an issue,” Fontana said, adding that scoring plays make it out of the MLS server within about 25 minutes. While Venuetize could take that content and make it native, it’s not a top priority for the team at the moment.

BofC Stadium has installed Bluetooth beacon technology. “We haven’t gone through process of dialing in beacons, but wayfinding and navigation are on the list” for the LAFC app, Fontana said.

The integrator is also looking at GameChanger MVP, an augmented reality game developer, for a scoreboard game to fold in. “AR gaming will be the next interesting thing” for sports apps generally, according to Fontana.

Stadium Tech Report: Wireless connectivity brings fans and business benefits to the Palace at Auburn Hills

The Palace at Auburn Hills. Credit all photos, Palace at Auburn Hills (click on any photo for a larger image).

The Palace at Auburn Hills. Credit all photos, Palace at Auburn Hills (click on any photo for a larger image).

Not too long ago, a marketing executive who was new to the Detroit Pistons’ ownership team tried to post a tweet during a game at the Palace of Auburn Hills. But to get the message to send, he had to … step outside the building.

Fast forward a few years, and the situation is completely reversed. Not only is there a storm of wireless connectivity inside the Palace, that same Wi-Fi and cellular traffic is keeping fans inside, bringing new fans in and giving the Pistons management team better insight into what all those fans want.

Using technology as an “accelerant,” the Pistons have changed the game for the fans and for themselves, seeding a process that seems destined to help the team build business success as their fan base evolves into one that expects and delights from an always-connected experience.

In a story-telling twist, we’ll tell you one of the early ends to this tale now: Even though the Pistons have suffered on the court of late, finishing the 2013-14 season with a 29-53 record, the team this year had a season ticket renewal rate above 80 percent, according to the Pistons management. Either there’s massive optimism in Motor City, or the Pistons ownership team is doing something very right in making the game-day experience something fans want to keep experiencing.

If you want to believe more in the latter reason, then listen to what Dennis Mannion, president and CEO of Palace Sports and Entertainment and the Detroit Pistons, has to say: There are a lot of smart programs now in place and some that are just starting to take off, but none of it happens, he said, without a solid communications core.

“It always comes back to the great accelerator, technology,” Mannion said.

Building the network inside the building

Editor’s note: This profile is part of our new Stadium Tech Report HOOPS AND HOCKEY ISSUE, available for free download. In addition to this story it contains additional profiles and team-by-team tech capsules for all 30 NBA teams. Download your copy today!

Mannion, who joined the Pistons in 2011 following a long career in sports management that included time as the Los Angeles Dodgers’ president and COO, and stints with the Baltimore Ravens, Denver Nuggets and Philadelphia Phillies, said the new commitment to technology started at the Pistons’ ownership level, where they knew things needed to change.

“When I came in to the job we knew there needed to be some technology improvements [at the Palace],” Mannion said. “We needed to make games more of a happening for our fans.” As part of an overall stadium renovation project that cost somewhere between $13 and $15 million, the Pistons started bringing the Palace into the world of wireless connectivity.

Screen shot of Pistons app

Screen shot of Pistons app

For help, Mannion and the Palace team enlised a Detroit sports-stadium technology consulting firm called Nuvuz Sports, run by CEO Scott Wruble, a former tech exec with the NBA and MLB, and chief marketing officer Jim Wolski. According to Wolski, when the technology revamp of the Palace started in 2012, there was a bit of a connectivity hill to climb.

“The entire building had nine cable modems, total,” Wolski said.

The first step was to start with a DAS, or distributed antenna system, to make sure cellular carriers could connect with their customers. The Palace team wound up picking Verizon Wireless to act as lead on a neutral-host DAS deployment, which is currently in the process of adding AT&T and Sprint to its system.

Opened in 1988, the Palace had some physical challenges when it came to wireless technology, including the omnipresent question of retrofits — where do you put the DAS head end? In the Palace’s case, the solution was a new building built outside, in a Palace parking lot.

Verizon helped on the next step in the deployment process by bringing in their longtime technology partner Ericsson to deliver the gear for the building’s Wi-Fi network. Though somewhat of a newcomer in the stadium Wi-Fi space, Ericsson’s long history in telecommunications equipment showed through with the Wi-Fi deployment, according to Mike Donnay, vice president for brand networks at Palace Sports & Entertainment.

“The performance from the Ericsson [Wi-Fi] equipment is super high,” said Donnay, who was the exec who had to leave the building to send the tweet before the renovation happened. Now, with 238 Wi-Fi access points in the venue (which seats 22,076 for basketball) Donnay doesn’t have any problems tweeting.

Nuvuz’s Wolski said that in addition to providing fan Internet access, the internal Wi-Fi network also powers the game-day ticketing operation as well as concession point of sale. It also is the base for a large suite of fan engagement platforms, which are hyper-targeted to the many different types of Pistons or other event fans who walk in the doors.

Clusters within the clusters

Kevin Grigg, vice president of public relations for the Pistons, said Mannion’s “big picture” ROI is to use technology to engage fans in a one-on-one relationship.

“The biggest challenge [in the past] has been if you are a fan and you buy a ticket, we didn’t know who you are,” Grigg said. “Now, we’re in a position to identify people during the engagement.”

Nuvuz’s Wolski concurs.

“It chages the game when you know who they [the fans] are,” Wolski said.

Mannion said the Pistons’ IT team is already well into the implementation of an elaborate fan-engagement system that breaks the fan base into multiple segments that can each be targeted with programs tailored to their wants and needs.

palace2a“We have different fan bases, from those who buy courtside seats, to those in corprate suites to families,” Mannion said. “We have affinity groups, like ‘future Pistons,’ women’s groups, and people interested mainly in attending concerts. We have clusters within clusters. And we use a combination of media, memories and merchandise for each cluster.”

On the team side, Mannion said that “even perceived ‘inside access’ is a real turn-on. Fans like to join, belong and brag.” Some ways fans can get “closer” to the team is to use the stadium app’s seat-upgrade feature (powered by partner PogoSeat) to purchase seats closer to the action, or by special access like post-game shootarounds on the court floor.

There is also a big focus on Pistons-related content, both from the team as well as from fans themselves. And increasingly, fans are turning to social media to share this content. The Pistons have responded with tricks like putting selfies tagged with the #pistonspride hashtag right onto the new huge center court video board.

The tech team also just added beacon technology to the Palace, and are already offering beacon-powered features like seat upgrades to fans who have seats in the upper levels, and discounts on merchandise to fans who are walking right outside the team shops. There are also scoreboard trivia contests and real-time fan polling, all of which keep fans engaged with the team and game even as they stare at their mobile devices.

“We wouldn’t be able to do all this without a connected arena,” Donnay said.

Connected now and for the future

Right now, Donnay said that approximately one-third of a regular Pistons game audience uses the Wi-Fi network, a take rate among the higher of reported crowd participation numbers. The Palace team also uses the Wi-Fi network to connect to 30 “smart carts,” which are mobile food carts that can be moved around (even outside the building) to take advantage of being where hungry fans are.

“It’s interesting to watch the heat maps of how the building is filling, and being able to tell concessions where to beef up,” Mannion said. In the past, he noted, many such game-day operations were decided by “gut feelings,” which could be right or could be wrong. Now, he said, there are facts and figures to back up the guesswork.

“Now you can still act on gut feelings, but you also have ways to prove what’s going on,” Mannion said. “You can do a digital promotion for food and beverage, and immediately measure the impact. That’s really fascinating.”

Even as they build on early successes, the team behind the Palace’s new tech operations knows that these are early days, and much work lies ahead. One current “big drag,” Mannion notes, is the plethora of social-media sharing platforms, a mix that includes Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Vine, Snapchat and others, almost too many to track coherently.

There’s also a big challenge to keep pace with all the potential partners and digital features that could be added, like instant replays or food ordering for the stadium app; Mannion noted: “The question is, how do you create the right kind of [feature] incubation system, without spending too much money?”

At the very least, the Pistons team has grabbed a leading position in the connected-arena future, one where having advanced connectivity and engagement programs is table stakes to attract new potential season ticket buyers.

“We’ve seen colleges experience heartaches” when their fans leave because the stadiums don’t have connectivity, said Donney. “That’s the fan base that’s coming to the NBA. They’re going to expect that technology, so we’re going to have to be very good at it.”

So far, the Pistons and the Palace seem to be ahead of the curve of the new era of connected stadiums and the fans who fill them. Mannion, for one, knows he’s now in a much different business than the one he’s spent most of his career in.

“It’s a lot different now,” he said, “than just opening up the window and selling tickets.”

HP buys Wi-Fi gear maker Aruba Networks for $3 billion

An Aruba AP inside the Moda Center

An Aruba AP inside the Moda Center

The rumors from last week were confirmed Monday, as computing giant Hewlett-Packard (aka “HP”) announced it was acquiring Wi-Fi gear vendor Aruba Networks for $3 billion. After cash and debt are accounted for, the actual value of the transaction is $2.7 billion, but what’s $300 million between friends?

Though the headline of the HP release pegs the reason behind the deal as the desire to “create an industry leader in enterprise mobility,” the acquisition will likely cause a lot of business activity in our corner of the world, namely wireless network deployments for large public venues, like stadiums. Over the past year, Aruba has been making a name for itself with high-profile Wi-Fi deployments in venues like the San Francisco 49ers’ new Levi’s Stadium, Texas A&M University’s Kyle Field, and the Dallas Mavericks’ American Airlines Center, among others. Perhaps the most interesting question from a business perspective is whether being part of HP will help or hurt Aruba when it comes to making stadium deals, and whether or not using HP core networking gear will become a required (or preferred) part of prospective stadium Wi-Fi deals.

On a business-wide view, the second $3 billion acquisition this year in the DAS/Wi-Fi space (following CommScope’s $3 billion purchase of DAS and networking supplier TE Connectivity) is perhaps a signal that consolidation is upon us in the greater Wi-Fi and local networking marketplace. Though we didn’t know exactly how and when such deals would shake out, on one hand it’s not that much of a surprise to us since we have always believed that the stadium networking market is really just a precursor to what will eventually happen in other large public venues as well as in large public places like cities and towns: Wi-Fi, which already carries more wireless data than cellular, will continue to expand and appear in more places, generating new business ideas like Wi-Fi phones and Wi-Fi first wireless plans.

The appearance of IBM as a strong entrant in the stadium wireless space can also be looked at as another signal that bigger players are entering the market, which usually means that smaller players — like the Arubas of the world — get snapped up, like a star player being traded mid-year to a team seeking a championship. Cisco, which is no stranger to acquisitions, has been quiet of late, and we are noticing that telecom gear giant Ericsson is making more moves toward Wi-Fi, especially in the arena of small cells and the idea of bringing LTE to Wi-Fi frequencies. Sounds like the Wi-Fi market is moving up from the $10 tables into the green- and black-chip territory.

Who’s next in the Wi-Fi world as an acquisition target? The easy picks are players like Ruckus Wireless and Aerohive Networks, given their ability to conduct their own IPOs. But we’re also guessing there may be some digesting of other smaller concerns in the Wi-Fi DAS food chain as the bigger players seek to add skills, customers and technology via purchases. Stay tuned for what should be an exciting year in the enterprise and stadium Wi-Fi business arena.

Wednesday Wi-Fi Whispers: Brocade, Niners Make it Official

After hinting about a relationship earlier this year, the San Francisco 49ers and networking vendor Brocade made it official Tuesday, announcing Brocade as the “exclusive and official network solutions partner of the San Francisco 49ers.” Though no details on the exact buildout are yet available, Brocade Chief Technical Officer Dave Stevens told MSR in a phone interview Tuesday that Brocade will be responsible for the “entire wired and wireless network infrastructure” for the new Niners stadium currently being built in Santa Clara.

We’ll break out more details from our interview with Stevens next week but the bottom line is, he says Brocade knows that this stadium will have to live up to a higher standard because of its location smack dab in the middle of Silicon Valley. That means the Niners and Brocade will aim for building the best Wi-Fi and cellular fan network that can be built, as well as a wireless network to run other stadium apps like signage, ticketing, security and more.

“The Niners and Brocade are looking for an unprecedented network experience,” Stevens said. What that will be is a bit of a moving target, since the stadium won’t be ready for a couple years at the earliest. While technology changes and improvements will affect deployments some, Stevens said you can probably count on Wi-Fi equipment that embraces the nascent 802.11ac standard, which supports much higher data rates than current Wi-Fi gear. As we said, more from our interview next week.

If there’s a loser right now in the game it’s Cisco, which like Brocade has its headquarters in the same San Jose/Santa Clara neighborhood as the stadium. (Cisco’s HQ is literally just down the street.) With a business unit dedicated to building out stadium networks, Cisco might have been seen as a lock for the bid and even earlier this month had hinted rather strongly that they wouldn’t be shut out of the Niners’ new stadium, which has a long list of corporate sponsors on its roster, like SAP, whose name is on the practice center. Maybe there will be some room for Cisco on the digital signage part of the buildout? Cisco reps contacted Tuesday had the “no comment” light on, but from the looks of it this Brocade deal doesn’t seem to leave much room for any Cisco gear. But it ain’t over until the access points get connected, or something like that.

Ericsson Intros Stadium-Specific Wi-Fi Gear

Telecom supplier Ericsson Tuesday announced a set of stadium-specific Wi-Fi gear, the first new products coming out of the company’s acquisition of Wi-Fi specialist BelAir Networks earlier this year. According to the press release, Ericsson now has a Wi-Fi access point and a Wi-Fi controller designed specifically for stadium use. Since Ericsson sells mainly to big telecom companies like Verizon and AT&T, look for this year to be used side by side with small-cell cellular technology as the big carriers continue their quest to make fans’ phones work in stadiums worldwide.

(hat tip to Phil Harvey at Light Reading for alerting us to the news release. Phil and his crew cover Ericsson… a lot.)

AT&T Adds 4G LTE DAS to… Some Stadium in Foxboro

From the “we can’t tell you but you can figure it out file” comes a press release from AT&T today telling us of the company’s newest DAS upgrade, a 4G LTE implementation that will make fans’ cell phones work better in… a football stadium in Foxboro, Mass. Yep, because of stadium naming rights AT&T apparently can’t use the name of the place but… we are under no such restrictions. So unless there is a spaceship stadium that landed during the night we are guessing that New England Patriots fans will find their AT&T iPhones connecting a bit better now.

Ericsson Study Shows Mobile Will Rule Internet

People always say that it’s a small world, and with the Internet it seems smaller as everyone appears to be connected in one manner or another. Now Ericsson has taken the time to quantify how well connected everybody is in a recent report.

The company has just released its second annual “ Traffic and Market Report-On the Pulse of the Networked Society” that shows how connected the world is now and makes some predictions as to where it is headed.

There is way too much information to provide any sort of thumbnail here but I will mention a few interesting factoids, at least ones that are interesting to me. Not too surprising is the growth of mobile subscriptions which will grow to 9 billion in 2017. How many people will there be at that time I wonder?

Anyway a few other interesting facts is that 50% of the world’s population will have access to 4G and 85% access to 3G by 2017, with 3 billion smartphone users in that year as well. Mobile data traffic is just booming and double from Q1 2011 to Q1 2012, with primarily video driving the growth. The report estimates that mobile data traffic will grow by 15 times between 2011 and 2017.

The overall conclusion of the report is that mobile is the wave of the future and that it s being driven by users that want anywhere, anytime connectivity to video, music and the Internet. This is great news for developer of mobile apps that are targeting sports fans. I suspect that in many ways sports fans are at the foprefront of this move and expect to see a growth in the number and quality of apps as opportunities in this space appear to be growing at a very good rate.