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!

Wells Fargo Center gets new LED boards for concourses

New LED screens in the atrium area of Wells Fargo Center. Credit: ANC/Wells Fargo Center

Joining what looks like a developing trend for stadiums and arenas, the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia will have new LED boards in much of its atrium and concourse area this season, thanks to an ongoing partnership between signage and design provider ANC and Comcast Spectacor, the owner and operator of the venue.

According to a recent press release, ANC recently finished a “complete digital media transformation” of Wells Fargo Center, including replacing static signage with LED displays in the arena’s atriums, which are among the highest-trafficed zones in the building, according to ANC. Last year the San Jose Sharks went down a similar path, bringing LED boards to many of the internal concourse areas, replacing static signage or blank walls.

ANC, a Learfield company, said the new LED displays at the joint home of the NHL’s Flyers and the NBA’s 76ers (which include highway signage outside the stadium) can be controlled through a single management system, offering a powerful way to convey synchronized messages across all digital displays in the building. Atlanta’s new Mercedes-Benz Stadium has a similar system, where it can “take over” all digital displays to provide a powerful, full-stadium look at either highlights or a sponsor message.

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