Mercedes-Benz Superdome’s Wi-Fi upgrade ready for college championship game

The Mercedes-Benz Superdome, home of Monday’s college football playoff championship game, has had a recent upgrade to its Wi-Fi network. Credit all photos: Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

You didn’t have to strain to detect the air of renewal in New Orleans this past fall. By the river, in the French Quarter and surrounding neighborhoods there’s been construction cranes, scaffolding and fresh paint.

Drive by the skyline-dominating Superdome at night, and you’ll see a three-point star projected on its façade. Known as the Mercedes-Benz Superdome since 2011, it’s more visual evidence of how New Orleans has fought its way back since Katrina tried to drown the city in 2005.

Inside the Superdome, a technology renewal has been in progress this past football season. New Wi-Fi access points have been installed; the venue’s IT managers don’t just want to deliver more bandwidth – they want to manage it intelligently and wring maximum return from their investment. Which helps explain why they’ve embraced under-seat APs throughout most of the Superdome, shedding the previous back-to-front/blast ’em with bandwidth approach that sporting venues once widely embraced.

“We pay attention to what the NFL needs, what the New Orleans Saints require and what the fans expect,” said Dave Stewart, ASM New Orleans’ manager of the Mercedes-Benz Superdome (ASM is the entity that resulted from the September 2019 merger of Anschutz Entertainment Group and engineering firm SMG). “That’s why we make incremental improvements and as needs change, we want to be responsive.”

Keeping up with devices and demand

And wireless technology has evolved since the previous system was installed in 2012. While the number of smartphone users coming to the Superdome seven years ago was relatively low, they’re now the norm, Stewart said. “Year over year, take rates have increased, as have expectations and utilization,” he added. With more users and higher bandwidth consumption, the back-to-front deployment model struggled to keep up; Stewart and his colleagues started looking at other AP solutions like handrail encasements, under-seat APs, or some kind of hybrid.

Under-seat AP enclosure

The Superdome now features under-seat APs on its terrace level, with custom enclosures supplied by Airwae and is moving to under-seat APs in its lower bowl. For concerts or spectacles like Wrestlemania that require seating on what might otherwise be the Saints’ 50-yard line, ASM sets up folding chairs on the floor, and zip-ties AP enclosures beneath them. Cable runs between the APs and the network ports are never longer than 50 feet, Stewart explained.

“Covering the floor is always difficult,” he added. “But deploying portable networks designed specifically for an event is something every multi-event venue must do.”

All told, the Superdome is up to 2,027 APs across the complex, which includes 410 newly installed APs in the lower bowl of the Superdome, all under seat. The upgrade is a sizeable increase from the previous 1,400 APs, which translates to approximately $7 million for the upgrade (Stewart wouldn’t divulge the exact amount). But he did say that physical infrastructure, cabling pathways and manpower account for 60 percent of a new install budget; 30 percent is typically hardware and licenses, and 10 percent goes to project management and design configuration.

Unlike most AP enclosures, those in the Superdome don’t rest on the ground; they’re bolted to the riser with about an inch of clearance at the bottom. Though most open-air venues power-wash their stands after an event, standing water doesn’t work inside the Superdome — moisture and its companions, rust and mold, are big issues. So Superdome officials procured an AP enclosure design that could be mopped under.

Keeping fans connected while they roam

Another aspect of the Superdome’s Wi-Fi installation is its focus on roaming, similar to the way cellular users get passed from antenna to antenna as they traverse an area. “We’ve designed Wi-Fi networks that onboard you, and the APs hand you off to the other APs,” Stewart explained. If users had to be re-associated with the Superdome’s Wi-Fi each time they activate their phone or move around the venue, that reduces airtime availability for them and the people around them, he added.

New APs were also added outside the stadium

Regular Wi-Fi tuning is also essential to ensure efficiency and quality; the Superdome uses use Cisco’s adaptive radio management (ARM) to help tune and optimize its Wi-Fi for crowd sizes, event types and different locations around the dome. “We assign different power ranges and different channels or available sets of channels to each access point or group of APs,” Stewart said.

The new APs have already spurred an uptick in connectivity and usage. Take rates are up to 70 percent with the under-seat APs according to Stewart. And about half of those users are actively uploading and downloading data, quadruple what he saw two or three years ago – and those numbers are climbing.

The Superdome is a Cisco shop; Stewart and his crew have been installing the vendor’s 4800 series APs and using the 802.11ac standard, also known as Wi-Fi 5. Next-generation APs, 802.11ax or Wi-Fi 6, are on Stewart’s radar and there’s a longer term transition strategy. While he sees Wi-Fi 6 as the future, he also knows the move will require a back-end upgrade, since legacy controllers don’t support an .ax solution.

“Since the pathway is such a high percentage of the cost, those AC enclosures will be re-useable,” Stewart said. The new enclosures are also designed to accommodate a larger cable size if needed.

Stewart likes the efficiencies that Wi-Fi 6’s OFDMA feature can wring out of the radio spectrum, coupled with its multi-user scheduling of the same frequencies, all of which will make a big impact on airtime performance. But Wi-Fi 6 benefits won’t truly be realized until most user devices support the standard. Right now only a small handful of devices (including the Apple iPhone 11 line) support Wi-Fi 6.

But Stewart and his team have a carrot to motivate them toward Wi-Fi 6 APs. A couple carrots, in fact: The NCAA Men’s Final Four in 2022, then Super Bowl 58 in 2024 (the fourth time the dome will host the NFL championship). They’re looking to ensure the best fan experience possible and that means plentiful bandwidth and seamless connectivity.

Stewart said it will take about 18 months to start the Wi-Fi 6 design and procurement process; they expect to start the project in 24 months and have it completed a year later, well in time for the Super Bowl.

“Part of our strategy is to have phased upgrades year by year to stay relevant and improve the customer experience,” Stewart explained. “Digital menus, better DAS, better Wi-Fi – we have to be attentive to what our fans want and deliver it year after year.”

Self-serve concession kiosks seem set to arrive in more stadiums

Appetize self-serve concession kiosks at LSU. Credit: Appetize (click on any picture for a larger image)

In what might seem like an overdue no-brainer strategy shift, it’s a good bet that more stadiums are going to start adding self-serve concession stand kiosks, where fans can use digital display systems to order and pay for food more quickly than standing in a human-powered line.

Some recent news and analysis from two of the top operators in the venue concessions point-of-sale systems arena — Oracle Food and Beverage and Appetize — offers some positive proof points in concession kiosk use, with Appetize reporting higher and bigger sales at some of its customer sites for kiosks vs. human stands, while Oracle F&B (the new name for the company formerly known as Micros) has released a fan survey showing that 71 percent of interviewed fans said they’d use a self-service kiosk while at the game.

From where we sit here at Mobile Sports Report, more self-serve kiosks can’t arrive fast enough. While it’s interesting to sift through some of the replies to the Oracle survey, it doesn’t take any research to guess that if you offer fans a faster way to get concessions and get back to their seats, they’re going to be in favor of it. Likewise, while the sample size of results offered by Appetize is somewhat small (its percentage gains are based on install numbers of just a few stations in each of the venues it mentions), the hard data does show that kiosks can produce double-digit gains in per-order sizes, a goal appealing to any concession operation.

“There’s no stadium that doesn’t want more food and beverage money,” said Jeff Pinc, AVP of sales for Oracle’s Food and Beverage division, in a recent phone interview. Adding self-service kiosks, he said, is an easy decision for many venues since fans are “sort of demanding it.

“Fans see these systems already in use everywhere else, and they’re asking ‘how come they’re not here?’ ” Pinc said. For the stadium owner and operator, Pinc said the self-service systems have already established their worth in many fast-casual dining establishments, and the benefits should pass over to the sports venue world.

“Fast-casual has been doing this [self-service kiosks] for some time now and it’s known that the basket size (per order) gets bigger,” Pinc said. Digital kiosks, he added, can also be more efficient at upselling customers, something that human employees may forget to do.

LSU, AT&T Center see kiosk gains

Appetize’s news announcement said that the eight kiosks installed at LSU’s basketball arena, the Pete Maravich Assembly Center, produced a 16% increase in average order size and 25% more items per order compared to human-operated terminals at point of sale counters. At the San Antonio Spurs’ AT&T Center, an initial test in the stadium’s Rock & Brews location was positive and led to the installation of six of the Appetize “Interact” kiosks, where the stadium saw an 18 percent increase in order size.

Self-serve kiosks in the Denver Broncos’ club-area food court. Credit: Paul Kapustka, MSR

“The Appetize Interact platform offers a modern and dynamic digital experience for guests while driving increased share of wallet for the business,” said Max Roper, co-founder and CEO at Appetize, in a prepared statement. “In the past six months, over 45% of our deployments have included self-service kiosks, and we expect this trend to continue as businesses require more automation and consumers desire a more frictionless experience.”

Oracle’s Pinc, whose company uses its Simphony POS system to help enable all operations including kiosk support, said that small, proof-of-concept deployments are a good start for any stadium interested in kiosks, since there are real-world details that need to go along with the automated systems.

“There’s a lot of thought that needs to go into a kiosk install, from educating the customer to where you put it, to where you go to pick up the food,” Pinc said. “There’s a lot of trial and error.”

Last fall MSR did a profile on how the Seattle Seahawks were using the Clear system to speed up beer-line payments, and also did some hands-on driving at a self-service POS terminal at the Denver Broncos’ Bronco Stadium at Mile High, where a system developed by Centerplate and PingHD was used to let fans order from individual chef stations in the club-level food court. Though Centerplate is no longer the concessionaire at Mile High, it’s just another sign that self-service is increasing inside stadiums, which is good news for fans tired of waiting behind the guy ordering 20 different things.

Big Online Crowds Expected for CBS Live Stream of LSU-Alabama Matchup

Live broadcast of College’s #1 vs #2 could change the market.

One of the biggest college football games of the year, regular season edition, is coming this weekend in the LSU-Auburn matchup, and in a sign of the growing importance of presenting sports in all mediums it will be available as streaming media from an online source.

In addition to presenting the game on regular broadcast television, CBS is pulling out all the stops by not just putting the game live online, but also by beefing up its social-media efforts, soliciting fan reactions both prior to and after the Saturday contest.

CBSSports.Com has said that it will be streaming the game that pits No. 1 LSU versus No. 2 Alabama, with the game being presented at CBSSports.com/SECLive. The live streaming video is also available via the Internet to iPhone and iPad users who have downloaded the free CBS Sports app available at cbssports.com/mobile.

Fans can comment online and send tweets while watching from a computer or an iOS device

The broadcast is the centerpiece of CBSSports’ aggressive weeklong coverage of the matchup. That included daily coverage at the Alabama/LSU Central page or the CBSSports.com’s Eye on College Football Blog.

CBSSports has streamed SEC games in the past as well as conference championships on both its website and to iOS devices, with an audience that hovers around six figures — but this is different. Jason Kint, senior vice president and general manager of CBSSports.Com told Fierceonlinevideo.com thats “It’s the biggest football game across all platforms,” and added that he sees this event as a breakthrough for streaming media.

While over the years many big matchups have been touted by the networks only to have them come up short, CBS is playing this one like it could be a preview of the BCS Championship game. The amped-up buildup, plus the stature of the SEC (and its five consecutive BCS championships) should make this online broadcast a far cry from the ho-hum acceptance that many streaming events have received in the past.

Second tier Olympics events, often broadcast at odd hours have garnered little attention and even smaller audiences and have in some ways turned people off to using mobile and handheld devices for watching sporting events, although MLB.com and the NFL have been aggressively pushing out into some segments of this market.

CBSSports will not stop its coverage with the game but will also have its usual postgame show, “5th Quarter with Gary Danielson” as an interactive afterparty. This site can be found at cbssports.com/gary.