MSR Behind the profiles: 2019 Final Four, part 1

On the press bus to the stadium for the semifinals. Credit all photos: Paul Kapustka, MSR (click on any picture for a larger image)

Over the course of the last year, I’ve had several requests from readers to shed more light on what goes on “behind the scenes” on my various stadium visits. Here’s the first in a planned series I’m calling “Behind the profiles,” giving you some flavor of the fun and interesting things and people I experience on my trips to check out stadium technology deployments. In honor of the basketball tournaments we are all now missing, here is my “trip diary” from my visit last year to Minneapolis to see how U.S. Bank Stadium’s Wi-Fi networks held up under the big-game stress — along with some other interesting side trips! Please let me know if you find these interesting or fun to read and I will write some more… 2019 was a true banner year for MSR visits!

Friday, April 5, 2019: Getting to the Final Four, and a Prince tribute

If there was a recurring personal theme to my Final Four trip last year it was: dealing with my hip. After almost a year of putting up with various hip-related pains in November of 2018 my situation went “off the cliff” as one doctor said, rendering me unable to do much walking or any other activity. A subsequent MRI revealed that I had almost zero cartilage left in my right hip, which meant — after other MRIs confirmed it wasn’t a problem with my back, on which I had surgery 10 years ago — that I needed a hip replacement. The good news? It would turn out to be the most pain-free major surgery I’d ever had or heard of. It was done in an outpatient procedure and I was walking without crutches five days later.

The bad news? The surgery didn’t happen until late May. In early April I was still hobbling around in a sidewinder motion, slapping lidocaine patches on and taking anti-inflammatories to make it through each day. But with the downtime associated with the surgery ahead, I had to get enough stories in my notebook to fill our spring issues — so off to Minneapolis I went.

Not all displays are digital. At MSP airport.

I can’t thank the NCAA folks enough for granting MSR a credential (they had also done so the previous year) for the Final Four. There is nothing like being on site for an actual game to see how the networks and other technologies perform. While sometimes vendors and teams are able to find us some kind of pass to get stadium access, at the biggest events having a standard media credential just makes life easier for all involved. The trick is, convincing the powers that be that MSR’s coverage is beneficial to a sports audience. (Someday, Super Bowl, someday.)

After landing at MSP airport I got an almost instant dose of what is generally called “Minnesota Nice.” I had just started ambling up the concourse toward baggage claim when a nice gent pulled up beside me in one of those golf-cart things and said, “I can spot a bum hip a mile away. Get in!”

One of the numerous airport volunteers, the “Minneapolis ambassador” spared me about 15 minutes of pain-walking, a break I welcomed. “When’s your surgery?” he asked. I told him and he replied, “you’ll kick yourself after it’s over for waiting so long. But you’ll love it.” Correct on all counts. As I got out of the cart to go down to baggage claim, a local cheerleading group was doing their moves in the airport’s main atrium. I did a quick check of the Wi-Fi (good signal) and got my bag.

The other nice thing about a real media credential is having a real room at one of the official media hotels. You do pay for it — and are required to pay for four nights no matter how many nights you are actually there — but it’s worth it. Even though our Marriott (sports writers practically live in Marriotts) was close enough to walk to the stadium (about a half-mile or so), in my condition I needed the saturation of shuttles and free rides that are de rigeur for any big event like the Final Four. After checking in I took one of the shuttles provided by Buick (NCAA sponsor) over to the stadium to get my credential and lucked out as there was no line at all, allowing me to get my badge in just a few minutes’ time.

When the Timberwolves honor local legend Prince, they get purple.

Instead of trying to find where the shuttles picked up I tapped my “insider knowledge” of Minneapolis (which I had visited several times over the past couple years) and took the light rail from right outside U.S. Bank Stadium back toward the hotel — there was a station just about a block away. Walking back I noticed one other great maybe-not-a-coincidence about the location of the media hotel I was in: There was not one, but two local brewpubs on the separate street corners from the hotel entrance. And yes, over the weekend I visited them both. Good local beer and good pub-fare food. And of course, friendly people working there.

As if I wasn’t going to see enough basketball, on Friday night I went to the Target Center to watch the Timberwolves play the Miami Heat. It was a great way to relax into the weekend, and for a change I didn’t even go around and test the Wi-Fi (we had done a profile of the arena’s new technology the year before). And the game was one of the several “Prince tribute” events the Wolves had last year, where they wore purple jerseys and a band played Prince tunes at halftime. Very cool, very Minneapolis.

Saturday, April 6: Semifinals and Sally’s Saloon

With the semifinal games not starting until early evening, there was time to kill — so I hopped on the light rail again and crossed the Mississippi River over to the University of Minnesota area, where I had a late lunch at Sally’s Saloon, one of the several iconic U of Minn watering holes. Since it was rainy and chilly out I went with a good bowl of chicken soup while I watched the end of the inaugural women’s tournament at Augusta National — what a great way to get psyched for the Masters. And what great golf! Would love to come back and tip one at Sally’s pre- or post-football game. It just has that perfect college-bar feel.

Would love to get back here to see a Minnesota hockey game. Sieve!

After the local-scene interlude I went back to the hotel and boarded an early bus to the stadium, more to get the lay of the land than to file any stories. The great thing about my work as opposed to most writers there is that I wasn’t on deadline — my profiles wouldn’t appear until our June issue. After finding my assigned seat — way back in the back row of the press area behind one of the hoops — I went down to the floor to walk around before it got closed off. It’s cool to see the setup up close, the raised playing court, the band areas and wander right up to the NBA on TNT set in one corner, where Ernie, the Jet and Chuck (no Shaq that day) were holding court, live.

The terrible sight lines from my seat were not an issue — after all, my work was not to watch the game but to wander the stadium as the games went on, testing the wireless networks while the fans gave them the ultimate selfie workout. It’s just nice to have a place to rest (especially if your hip hurts), so it’s a nice perk. As it turns out, my seating arrangement was about to get much better (for me) in short time.

I did make it back to the “press working room,” a cordoned-off wide space in the bowels of the building. Think: concrete floors, hanging-drape walls, plastic row tables and folding chairs. Those are the typical conditions for big-time sports writers, photogs, bloggers and others at the big events. With something like 2,000 credentialed media, a standard press box won’t do.

During pregame, pretty much any press pass gets you close to the floor.

While spartan, the press rooms do have everything you really need to get the job done: Nearby access to interviews (a separate stage where they bring players and coaches in), power strips everywhere for laptops and phones, and serious Wi-Fi coverage in the form of temporary antennas on poles throughout the room. There’s also a basic but efficient food and drink service, which I avoided other than getting sodas and coffee. I’d just rather get stadium food instead of steam-tray stuff, to get a sense of the venue’s “flavor” if you will. Plus as I said earlier I’m not on deadline and usually not sitting in a seat so it’s easier to just grab something as I walk around.

I next went to find my networking types and was directed to the football press box, where David Kingsbury, director of IT for the stadium, had set up the NOC HQ in what looked like a coaches’ box. Like any good general David had set up his troops for success with a wide array of healthy and not-so-healthy snacks, which I was allowed to partake in. I did enjoy my fair share of Kind bars over the weekend, and was reminded (after a taste test) just how tooth-twistingly sweet a Twinkie is. (Rejected after one bite.)

While waiting for David and his team to find some time for a quick interview I noticed that the football press box was completely empty — and thought, why not set up here as a base for my stuff and to watch the games when I needed a break? For someone who wanted to spend the day roving around the venue, the football press box was a much better base location than my official press seat (which involved a series of tunnels and stairs to get to). Plus it had comfy office-chair type seating and lots of room to spread out. Sure the court was far away, but all the multiple TVs in the press box were live, giving you as good a view as anyone’s living room couch.

The press working room was well covered by temporary Wi-Fi APs.

Sometime during the night the press folks let the rest of the media know they could sit in the football press box on a first-come, first-serve basis, and while some others eventually joined me the place never got full. While there was none of the food or beverage service usually in place for Vikings games, the added bonus of the football press box was that it has its own restrooms — something not available near the courtside seats. And in the temporary official press room, the facilites were a trucked-in port-a-potty trailer.

Since I had only made it to the final game of last year’s championship I was interested to see what the crowds would be like for the semifinals — would the second game fans skip the opener and arrive after halftime? The answer — not a chance. If you’re at the Final Four, you do the Final Four, and the stadium was packed by tipoff of game 1. And for the first time, the Final Four was allowing alcohol sales, and beer was very popular at the many concession stands and kiosks around the venue. AmpThink, which in addition to having done the regular stadium Wi-Fi had also constructed a temporary Wi-Fi network for the additional courtside seats, put all the switches it used under the stands inside waterproof cases — in part to protect from inevitable beer spills.

Over the course of the first game, I wore myself out completely, overdoing it a bit with stadium laps to see if the network held up everywhere, from the courtside seats to the highest seats up in the rafters. What impressed me was how many people were really into the games, even from far-away seats. I tried to find the perfect picture from behind, of a fan using a phone to record the action, but truthfully my opportunities were few and far between, as most people really paid attention to the action on the court. One thing that surprised me was how fast the Final Four gear sold out: There was one hat I thought was really neat, and thought “well, I’ll get one Monday.” Rookie move. By the second game Saturday, there were almost no hats at all of any kind available, with the design I wanted long gone. Next time, I’ll buy any swag on Friday at the media hotel, where there was a pop-up stand for one day only.

In between games I retreated to my football press box seat, and found some time to interview David Kingsbury and his staff about not just the Wi-Fi and DAS but the displays as well, including the temporary centerhung board which was pretty amazing for a once-only apparatus. In addition to multiple screens it also had the capability to project images onto the court itself, an extra kind of screen that really brought pregame ceremonies to life.

With the games finally over and Monday’s championship between Virginia and Texas Tech set, I walked out with the AmpThink team, skipping the masses that formed a huge line at the light rail station outside the stadium. However, we didn’t do much better trying to hail an Uber or Lyft, having to walk nine blocks away from the stadium before we could get clear enough from crowds to get an SUV driver to pick up all seven of us. A late-night dinner at an excellent brewpub capped a great night of hoops and networking. More later this weekend on the rest of the weekend, including trips to a soccer stadium and the Mall of America!

Here’s the link to part 2 of the story.

More photos below!

Up close and personal with the NBA on TNT crew

The good, bad and the ugly at the NOC HQ snack table


Some of the $5 million in curtains U.S. Bank Stadium had to set up to keep the light out


Kept trying to find the perfect ‘fan with a camera’ shot. Bonus geek points if you can spot the MatSing ball antennas


Republic, one of the two brewpubs on either side of the media hotel


My football press box perch

The crush at the light rail station after the semifinals

Chicago’s United Center to serve as Covid-19 logistics hub

It seems like many venues are already stepping up to assist with the public battle against the coronavirus, something we wondered about in an editorial on Monday. In Chicago, the United Center — home of the NHL’s Blackhawks and NBA’s Bulls — will act as a logistics hub for first responders and for food distribution.

According to a post on the United Center site, “Our arena and outside campus will be transformed into a logistics hub where we will be assisting front line food distribution, first responder staging and the collection of critically needed medical supplies.”

Minutes after we posted this, saw another item: Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse in Cleveland will be hosting a blood drive on Friday.

Any other venues doing anything similar? Let us know if you know and we will add to the list.

NCAA cancels March Madness; MLB, NHL, MLS susupend schedules

In another somewhat inevitable decision, the NCAA on Thursday announced it was canceling the men’s and women’s Division I basketball tournaments, “as well as all remaining winter and spring NCAA championships.” After the NBA suspended its season Wednesday night and most conferences canceled their year-end tournaments in progress, it was quickly apparent that the NCAA’s Wednesday decision to hold games without fans was not going to be a good enough measure given the seriousness of the growing coronavirus pandemic.

Also on Thursday all of the other top professional sports with active schedules announced postponements to games, including Major League Baseball’s decision to postpone opening day by at least two weeks and to cancel spring training; the NHL’s decision to postpone its current season; and Major League Soccer’s decision to suspend its season for 30 days.

Statement tweets below.

NBA suspends season after Jazz’s Gobert tests positive for coronavirus

In yet another of seemingly endless unprecedented moments in sports Wednesday, the NBA postponed a game about to start and then announced it was suspending the entire season after a Utah Jazz player tested positive for coronavirus. Here’s the entire explanation on the NBA website:

NEW YORK — The NBA announced that a player on the Utah Jazz has preliminarily tested positive for COVID-19. The test result was reported shortly prior to the tip-off of Wednesday’s game between the Jazz and Oklahoma City Thunder at Chesapeake Energy Arena. At that time, Wednesday’s game was canceled. The affected player was not in the arena.

The NBA is suspending game play following the conclusion of Wednesday’s schedule of games until further notice. The NBA will use this hiatus to determine next steps for moving forward in regard to the coronavirus pandemic.

The announcement was made after players had already been introduced at a game between the Jazz and the Oklahoma City Thunder in Oklahoma City. From the Washington Post report:

Members of both the Thunder and Jazz went through warm-ups and starting lineup introductions at the Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City before the three game officials huddled shortly before tip-off. After a brief conversation, the officials sent both teams back to their locker rooms. During the delay, which lasted approximately 35 minutes, the Thunder proceeded with their halftime entertainment. Finally, the Thunder’s public address announcer informed fans that the game would be postponed.

According to the Washington Post story, The Athletic broke the news that the positive test was Gobert:

Later Wednesday night, the Sacramento Kings game was also canceled:

Update: NCAA cancels Final Four

UPDATE, March 12: The tournaments have been canceled>

In a decision that came to be somewhat inevitable, the NCAA on Wednesday announced that due to concerns about the coronavirus, all its championship events, including the men’s and women’s division 1 basketball tournaments, would be held “with only essential staff and limited family attendance,” meaning that regular fans would not be allowed in the venues.

Though many sports teams are being dragged grudgingly into such bans, the overwhelming advice from medical experts in the past few days has been that “non-essential” large public gatherings like sports events should be canceled or closed to fans, to help combat the spread of the disease. As reports of new cases of Covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, continue to expand, many cities, states and other governing bodies are already taking matters into their own hands and prohibiting any large-crowd events.

What remains to be seen with other sports, especially professional leagues like the NBA, NHL and Major League Baseball, is whether games will be canceled, moved, or played in place without fans. Also not yet known is whether the NCAA will move its Final Four games from the large arenas where they are scheduled to be played (the men’s Final Four is supposed to take place in Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, with capacity for more than 70,000 fans) to smaller arenas. In an tweet from an AP reporter, apparently the NCAA is already considering such moves:

Here’s the full Covid-19 statement from NCAA president Mark Emmert:

‘Best of Breed’ wireless drives Chase Center experience

An under-seat Wi-Fi AP enclosure at Chase Center, foreground, with a DAS enclosure visible to the left. Credit all photos (except where otherwise noted): Paul Kapustka, MSR (click on any picture for a larger image)

As stunning as Chase Center is visually, what you can’t see is equally powerful in adding to the fan experience. Namely, the wireless networks, and the gear that supports the connectivity.

Inside the shiny new home of the NBA’s Golden State Warriors, which sits on the edge of the San Francisco Bay, is a cellular DAS deployment from Verizon using Corning gear that may be the new forward-thinking model for cellular infrastructure for large public venues like stadiums and arenas. The 18,000-seat arena also has a Wi-Fi network using gear from Aruba, a Hewlett Packard Enterprise company, which supports the emerging Wi-Fi 6 standard for communications inside the main seating bowl.

But if you’re attending a Warriors game, or one of the many concerts scheduled at Chase Center, you may not ever see the equipment that brings the world-class connectivity to the fans. Both the DAS and the Wi-Fi networks utilize an under-seat antenna deployment method, just part of an aesthetic plan that does its best to minimize the visual impact of antennas and other wireless gear. Even deeper into the building is all the optical fiber supporting the networks, with capacity for future needs already in place.

During a mid-October 2019 visit before all the networks were fully tuned, Mobile Sports Report still got strong test results from both Wi-Fi and DAS networks in most areas in and around the arena, clear confirmation that the Warriors’ goal of having excellent wireless connectivity at their new home was right on track. And with the Corning ONE system in behind a DAS design built from the ground up with future needs in mind, as well as the expected capacity gains coming from Wi-Fi 6, the Warriors and their partners are confident they’ve built a wireless system worthy of their world-class venue goals.

“We feel extremely proud” of the venue’s wireless systems, said Brian Fulmer, director of information technology for the Golden State Warriors. Though the inevitable construction delays led to some late nights heading up to the arena’s Sept. 6, 2019 public debut, according to Fulmer all wireless systems were fully online for the opening Metallica concert, where the arena saw 2.58 terabytes of data used on the Wi-Fi network with another 2.69 TB used at another Metallica show a couple days later.

“It was a race to the finish line but we did it, and the performance speaks for itself,” said Fulmer.

Searching for ‘Best in Breed’

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 are profiles of the new Wi-Fi deployment at the University of Oklahoma, as well as profiles of wireless deployments at Fiserv Forum and the University of Florida! Start reading the issue now online or download a free copy!

If there was ever a chance to build the best-ever new arena, Chase Center was probably a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. When you combine the championship run of the team on the court with a devoted fan base centered in one of the hottest economic markets ever, you have the liberty to search for quality instead of bargains on every level.

A Wi-Fi AP hovers over a concourse gathering area.

(Case in point: The Warriors were able to sell out of their new court-level luxury suites, which have rooms just under the stands that include private wine lockers and can cost up to $2 million per year. Clearly, this is a model that may not work in places that aren’t Silicon Valley.)

For the privately financed $1.4 billion building, the Warriors turned to consulting firm Accenture to help determine the “best in breed” technology partners, especially on the wireless front. Several Warriors executives interviewed for this story did all agree on one main point: The team was not trying to install any technology to win imaginary awards for being the best or fastest building out there. Instead, it was all about how technology, especially wireless, could help bring about a world-class experience during every visit.

“Nobody shows up [at an arena] just looking for fast wireless speeds,” said Mike Kitts, the Warriors’ senior vice president for partnerships. “They want to interact. We wanted to create unforgettable experiences in an engaging environment. With the end in mind of a world-class experience, we knew great technology would absolutely play a role.”

Like a team drafting top players, the Warriors ended up choosing Verizon to lead the distributed antenna system (DAS) for cellular wireless, and Aruba for Wi-Fi. To build its neutral-host system, Verizon chose Corning and the Corning ONE platform, with an installation led by Communication Technology Services (CTS).

“We certainly leveraged the expertise of Verizon, as well as AT&T (which is also on the DAS as a client),” said Fulmer. “They’ve done this countless times, and they have the lessons learned of painful experiences.”

Building a DAS that can handle growth

Anyone in the stadium business in Northern California doesn’t have to look too far or remember too long ago to recall one such example of the pain that the nonstop growth in cellular demand can cause. After the San Francisco 49ers’ brand-new home, Levi’s Stadium, opened in 2014, the also brand-new DAS had to be upgraded the very next season to ensure it had enough capacity for the upcoming Super Bowl 50. Verizon, which basically invented under-seat DAS antennas for that deployment, said it had a goal at Chase Center to build a DAS that didn’t need upgrading for at least a few years.

A Wi-Fi AP painted to blend into the outside facade.

Terry Vance, senior manager for Verizon’s Pacific market network performance group, said “the plan from day 1 was to build a DAS with capacity for today and tomorrow. We needed to build this DAS so that for the next 3 to 4 years, we won’t have to touch it.”

Verizon also had to build the DAS in a way that complied with the Warriors’ stringent requirements for clear sight lines, especially in the main bowl seating area. According to the Warriors’ Fulmer, the team “looked at handrail [enclosure] designs,” but rejected them in favor of an under-seat approach. Though more costly in both equipment and construction, the under-seat approach was Verizon’s favored method as well to get more density in the arena.

What Verizon ended up with was a design that currently uses 71 active sectors, with 42 of those in the seating bowl. According to Vance, all the sectors in the bowl area can basically be split into two parts if needed, for a total of 84 potential bowl sectors. Currently, Vance said there are 598 under-seat DAS antennas in use.

According to Vance the Corning ONE system’s extensive use of optical fiber makes it easier to add capacity to the system as needed.

“The fiber to the edge [in the Corning system] is especially useful as you go to 5G,” Vance said. Though it’s not part of the shared DAS system, Verizon also has full 5G bowl coverage at Chase Center, one of the first arena deployments in California. Verizon also is using a couple of MatSing ball antennas, mounted in the rafters to provide cellular coverage to the floor area for concerts and other non-basketball events.

Right now AT&T is the only other carrier on the DAS, with participation from T-Mobile and/or Sprint pending depending upon the outcome of those two companies’ potential merger.

A Verizon 5G speedtest. Credit: Verizon

Jessica Koch, sports and entertainment director of business development for Corning optical communications, gave praise to integrator CTS for its deployment know-how, which she said was “critical to the success of this project.” Corning, Koch said, knows that for fans in large venues like Chase Center, “reliable connectivity without restriction – all the time, at full speed, on any device, from anywhere – has become the expectation in our connected world.”

For Warriors president and COO Rick Welts, the best wireless system is one fans don’t see or worry about, but just use without concern.

“The best thing is if the phone just works, and I don’t have to think about it,” said Welts, who led a stadium tour during MSR’s October visit.

Though Verizon said the system went through some necessary optimization during the hectic early events schedule at Chase Center, Verizon engineers in December were getting DAS speed tests in excess of 100 Mbps for both download links in most locations, according to Philip French, vice president of network engineering for Verizon. Download speeds for 5G connections, he said, are breaking the 1 Gbps mark.

“This DAS is unique since it was the first one we’ve built with 5G in mind from the ground up,” French said. “It’s a very robust design, and for us this is the design of the future.”

Leading the way with Wi-Fi 6

Like several other stadiums that were being finished this past summer, Chase Center was able to take advantage of the release of Wi-Fi equipment that supports the emerging Wi-Fi 6 standard. Though all the new capabilities won’t be fully realized until most end-user devices also support the new version of Wi-Fi, having support for the technology inside the arena was key for the Warriors’ plans.

“You can never really be ‘future proofed’ but we were extremely fortunate with the timing [of Wi-Fi 6 gear arriving],” said the Warriors’ Fulmer. “We were right in the sweet spot for an initial deployment.”

Wi-Fi and DAS gear on the catwalk.

According to Aruba, Chase Center has approximately 250 Aruba 500 Series APs (which support Wi-Fi 6) deployed in the main seating bowl, mostly in under-seat enclosures. Overall, there are approximately 852 total APs used in the full Chase Center network, which includes coverage inside the building as well as in the connected outdoor plaza areas.

During our October visit, MSR got Wi-Fi speedtests of 27.3 Mbps on the download side and 18.2 Mbps on the upload side while standing outside the east entry doors near the big mirror balls that are selfie central for fans visiting the new arena. Inside the doors, our speedtest in the lobby got a mark of 55.8 Mbps / 68.6 Mbps.

On one upper concourse area, near several concession stands outside portal 57, we got a speedtest of 10.5 Mbps / 11.2 Mbps. In the seats in upper section 220 just before tipoff we got a mark of 46.0 Mbps / 28.0 Mbps, and in a lower-bowl concourse area outside portal 9 we got a test mark of 53.7 Mbps / 71.5 Mbps.

According to Aruba, several events other than the Metallica concerts have passed the 2 TB Wi-Fi data mark so far, with several events seeing more than 8,000 unique clients connected and marks of 6,000+ concurrent connected devices and 2.6 Gbps of throughput.

The Warriors’ Fulmer praised not just the Wi-Fi gear but the full “end to end network solutions” available from Aruba as well as from parent Hewlett Packard Enterprise, which is a founding partner at Chase Center.

“We’re still only three months in, and there’s a lot more that we want to do,” Fulmer said. “It was not a small undertaking. But I think we can let the technology speak for itself.”