What’s Next: The uncertain path forward in the ‘Return to Venues’

When will venues like Ohio State’s ‘Horseshoe’ be full of fans again? Credit all photos: Paul Kapustka, STR (click on any picture for a larger image)

As the world endures the summer of the global coronavirus pandemic, there is only one thing certain in the world of large public venues and mass-attendance events: Nobody, anywhere, has any complete idea what is going on right now, or exactly what the future holds for live audiences at sporting events or concerts.

To be sure, sports of all kinds are starting to test the waters on how they might return to action after the initial coronavirus shutdowns, and eventually how they might start welcoming fans back into their venues. But without any coherent top-down direction from the federal government, and what looks like an even bigger surge of new virus infections, the current state of how fans will return to venues in the U.S. is an uncoordinated chaos, with teams, leagues, schools, governments and fans all trying to find a way forward on their own that balances the need for safety with the desire to see live events in person.

After conducting a wide-ranging series of interviews with subject matter experts, industry thought leaders and representatives from teams, schools, leagues and venues earlier this year, Stadium Tech Report has come to some early conclusions about what the remainder of 2020 and beyond might look like for the world of professional and big-school sports. While all of these are still only best guesses as to what might happen, there are some trends that seem to be the way most operations will proceed as the search for a vaccine or some other type of coronavirus cure or treatment goes on.

1. Get ready for more events without any fans, maybe until next year.

Editor’s note: This profile is from our latest STADIUM TECH REPORT, which is available to read instantly online or as a free PDF download! Inside the issue is a look at a new Wi-Fi 6 network for Dodger Stadium, plus a profile of Globe Life Field! Start reading the issue now online or download a free copy!

In our research partnership with AmpThink (see Bill Anderson column) Stadium Tech Report agrees that the AmpThink-developed theory of a “stages of return” process is what we think most venues will need to go through in order to safely start allowing fans to attend events again. The first two parts of that process, getting government approval to open the doors to crowds and satisfying liability issues surrounding the safety of people in any building, are a combination that we see likely to push many venues into hosting events without fans – or in some cases, with severely restricted numbers of fans – since having only competitors and necessary staff, and perhaps a small number of fans inside the venues is likely an order of magnitude easier (and cheaper) to accomplish.

Granted, there are many sports and concert operations that may not have any incentive to hold events without fans, since their revenue models may lean heavily on game-day spending for food and beverage. However, the bigger sports with big TV deals would at least be able to earn some percentage of their incomes by holding empty-stadium events that would still be broadcast. Some sports, like NASCAR, bull riding and some independent minor-league baseball teams, have had limited-attendance events already. The PGA had proposed letting some fans in to the Memorial Tournament this week, but those plans were scrubbed in the face of the recent virus surges.

Right now the NBA and the MLS are in motion with plans to finish their seasons in a “bubble” type atmosphere in Orlando, where teams would be sequestered and would play at close-by facilities. The NHL and Major League Baseball are also in motion with plans for similar shortened seasons, with NHL teams playing in two cities in Canada (Edmonton and Toronto) while MLB teams will play 60 regular-season games in regional circuits.

College sports, with larger rosters and no ability to enact a pro league-type “bubble,” may not see any sports this fall. Already, the Ivy League has canceled sports for the rest of the year while two Power 5 conferences, the Big Ten and the Pac-12, have eliminated non-conference games in order to provide more flexibility in scheduling. Even then, representatives in those conferences admit that the end result may be fully canceled seasons.

And in the NFL, teams are already publicly planning for reduced-capacity seating if games take place at all, and if so if they are allowed to have fans in the stands.

The key thing similar to all the ideas? Even with contract agreements in place, some of those plans still face huge hurdles when it comes to testing, quarantines and overall health concerns for both participants and guests, factors that may eventually end any or all of the experiments before seasons can be finished. There is also a new growing social concern over pro leagues having instant access to Covid-19 testing while the rest of the nation is starting to struggle again with getting tests and results.

A crowded concourse at Ohio Stadium in 2019. Venues will be challenged to keep fans apart during the pandemic.

Since President Trump’s administration has made no effort to provide any type of national guidance for Covid-19 responses — especially for the re-opening of businesses — the result in sports is an ever-changing overlap of directions, with some governors proclaiming that their states are ready to host big events with fans in stands, while other state and international leaders are saying that they won’t allow big public events like sports and concerts to have fans in attendance until perhaps 2021.

No matter what the state or local governments decide, satisfying the combination of the second stage of the “return to venues” model – addressing the legal liability of the venues – and the third stage, which is gaining confidence of the fans – will likely push many venues to hold fan-free events first, while they work on plans and technology deployments to help get them to a place where they can earn government approval to open, to feel legally confident that they can keep fans safe, and then convince fans of that feeling.

While there will always likely be some fans willing to attend events no matter what the risk is, with national polls showing that a majority of people in the country are still in favor of restricting business activity to keep everyone safe from the virus, it might not make business sense for venues to try to open widely if big crowds don’t want to show up just yet. And events with less than full-house attendance may also not be economically feasible for many venues, given the large costs associated with just opening the doors of a stadium-sized facility; if you can’t make enough money to cover costs with a smaller audience, does it make sense to hold the event at all?

So just from a baseline measure of costs, safety and operational complexity, the feedback we’ve received from our interviews leads us to guess that most “big” events for the rest of the year will have no fans or strictly limited, small amounts of fans in attendance, if the events happen at all.

2. When fans do return to venues, new technologies and processes will be required, especially for venue entry and for concessions.

When it comes to social distancing to keep the virus from spreading, at large public venues it’s all about the lines.

With the prospect of an all-clear vaccine a year away at best, after some time the economic pressures of the current closures may become untenable if teams and venues want to survive as businesses. So, opening venues to some number of fans before a vaccine is available seems extremely likely; and in all discussions we’ve had so far, it’s apparent that venues believe they will need to enforce social distancing among guests, much like we are all doing in various phases of public activity today.

In seating areas, social distancing will be an easier task, given that venues can more easily keep seats unsold or erect barriers to keep unrelated groups apart from each other. The real problem with social distancing in stadiums comes from lines, a historical commonplace occurrence at entryways, on concourses and at places like concession stands and restrooms. To eliminate lines and to keep guests from inadvertently getting too close to one another, venues are likely going to need to deploy some kind of combination of technology and procedures to streamline the logjams we all used to just tolerate as part of the game-day experience.

Venues may require cashless transactions during the pandemic, like this stand at Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium did in 2018.

Since the terrorist attacks of 9/11, entry to almost all stadiums in the U.S. has become a more lengthy procedure than it was before thanks to the use of metal detectors. Physical checks of handbags or large coats have further slowed entry procedures in general, as have newer forms of identification for digital ticketing that required a live network connection at the point of ticket scanning.

Even in the face of all those barriers, many fans at big events still waited until near start time at tailgate parties or other outside-the-venue events, leading to large traffic jams of fans at the entry doors near the starting times. To allow fans to attend large events during a pandemic, however, fans may be asked to arrive even earlier to go through more thorough security checks that may include new procedures for temperature scans and perhaps even blood oxygen-level scanning; some venues may even choose to implement on-the-spot testing for Covid-19, new procedures that will likely force many venues to expand the geographic area needed to support all the new entry procedures.

New technologies, some of which have already been put in use in limited deployments, may offer some help in entryway procedures. The use of near-field communications (NFC) systems to allow personal devices to be scanned for valid tickets without having to present the devices could theoretically significantly speed up entry lines, with the caveat being that fans would have to adopt such payment or ticketing systems before arriving. Other venues are also looking at newer forms of threat-detection devices like metal detectors that can scan groups of people at a single pass instead of the airport-style one-person gate that is currently the de facto standard.

A no-tech additional solution being considered by other venues is the idea of reserved or staggered entry times, which could streamline the process if fans are able to or forced to comply. Similar methods have already been proposed for departure, with fans being instructed by section or row by row when it’s safe to leave.

The idea of entering at any gate and being able to wander around the entire stadium may also be something eliminated during a social-distancing audience phase. Some venues are considering highly regulated “zones” inside venues to keep fans apart. What is true of all plans, technology-aided or not, is that any new measures will require huge amounts of communication outreach to fans, a large amount of training and even new staffing for stadium workforces, and a new level of compliance, regulation and policing, all extra-cost measures during a time of significantly reduced revenues.

The contact-free concessions experience

Over the past year or so, many large public venues have already tested or had small deployments of so- called “contact-free” concessions technologies, where fans could order and pay for concessions via their mobile device, then either picking up orders at a specified window or having orders delivered to their seats. Other stadiums have already experimented with various forms of “grab and go” concessions stands, where pre-made items are offered for fans to take, with some deployments also featuring self-scan payment options.

The general idea of having fewer or no human interactions at all for concessions transactions will likely be the most widespread technology and process change for venues opening up during the pandemic. For most of the venue representatives we spoke to, plans that were already in place for some move to contact-free concessions operations will likely just be accelerated since such deployments will probably remain popular even after concerns about virus transmissions subside.

Grab-and-go concession stands, like this one at Denver’s Empower Field at Mile High in 2019, may be more prevalent in the near future.

Another trend that had already started in some venues and will likely only accelerate due to pandemic concerns is the move to “cash free” operations, where only digital payment methods are allowed. Though some states have laws prohibiting the complete elimination of cash payments inside venues, it will be interesting to see whether security and health concerns about the virus-spreading possibility of exchanging cash will force changes to those regulations. Some stadiums that have started cash-free operations have provided reverse-ATM type machines where cash can be deposited and stored on a machine-produced debit card for use in that venue. But those machines are costly to operate, and may not be necessary if opposition to cash-free operations declines.

One area of food service where there isn’t much consensus yet on what is to come is the area of club and other premium spaces, which in the past few years have mainly trended toward buffet-style offerings, sometimes as part of an all-inclusive cost system. While safety concerns have some observers predicting an early demise for the large-venue buffet, others see possibilities of having more closely staffed buffet operations, like the cafeterias of the past where a server (most likely behind a glass shield) can prepare individual plates. Premium suite services are also seen as an area heading for massive changes, with more prepackaged food and beverage options likely instead of the traditional steam-tray or open-serve catered offerings previously found in most venues.

3. Critical networks will be needed to support everything new and old

If there ever really was a question about whether or not wireless networks were needed inside venues, the advent of the coronavirus pandemic has removed all doubt. According to several sources we’ve talked to, some networking deployments or upgrade plans that had been “on the fence” prior to the outbreak have now been quickly green-lighted, as venues everywhere realize that critical networks will be even more important going forward, as new technologies and new procedures demand increased levels of connectivity.

On the technology side, it is clear that if venues are looking to add new layers of devices like sensors and threat detectors, there is going to be a need for greater wireless connectivity, sometimes in new areas of the venue that may not have previously had a priority for bandwidth. Entry areas in particular, and perhaps also spaces just outside venues, will likely need more carrier-class connectivity going forward, as venues seek to automate more transactions like ticket-taking and parking payments.

Installation of more mobile concessions technology, like kiosks and even vending machines, will also increase the need for overall connectivity, as will a shift to more fans using mobile devices for concessions ordering and payments as described previously. Venues are also likely going to want to increase the amount of digital displays in their buildings, to assist with crowd control, wayfinding and social-distancing policing – again leading to more demand for both wired and wireless connectivity.

Layer in more increases in communication demands just from a fan-education standpoint as well as any growth in demand for public safety and other operational needs and it’s clear that providing or upgrading existing networks to a much more robust state is probably the first to-do item on many venues’ work lists as they seek to support the return to venues. The good news is, from a technology and market perspective, there may not be a better time to be seeking new horsepower and capacity on a wireless-networking front.

On the Wi-Fi side, the advent of Wi-Fi 6 networking gear – now available from most top vendors – should provide a large boost in performance and capacity for venue networks, at costs only slightly higher than the past generation of equipment.

On the cellular side, 4G DAS networks remain a key tool in bringing a multi-carrier solution to providing basic access to most devices, while the arrival of nascent 5G services will enable carriers and venues to bring new kinds of services to guests, including applications with low-latency needs like virtual reality and other high- bandwidth broadcasts. Also, the emergence of networks using the CBRS bandwidth for potential “private” LTE networks may provide venues with an additional method of adding secure, standards-based communications for things like back-of-house operations, in-venue gaming, and Wi-Fi like services or Wi-Fi backhaul to areas where Wi-Fi signals can’t reach.

While budgetary concerns, venue aesthetics and demand for levels of services will still likely make overall networking choices a very local decision, the idea of trying to move forward in a pandemic age without a high level of basic wireless connectivity seems to be a non-starter.

A situation that changes day to day

As we said at the start — right now, the only thing everyone knows for sure is that nobody knows anything for sure. From our interviews, however, it is very apparent that for almost all the people we have talked to, few see standing still as a viable alternative. There are almost assuredly going to be some missteps, some money and time spent on technologies or procedures that don’t pan out, some anger and frustration on all sides, as we all adjust to new ways of doing things we’d long taken for granted. There will also be successful moves, victories small and big, which we hope to share to help accelerate the “Return to Venues” as much as possible.

Here at Stadium Tech Report, nothing has changed in our core directive — trying to help bring the best information possible to our readers so that they can be successful in operating their venues.

Big Ten, Pac-12 move to conference-only schedules for fall sports

In what may eventually be just an interim step before outright cancellations, the Big Ten and Pac-12 conferences both announced this week plans to move to conference-only schedules for fall sports, which in immediate news meant that a significant number of non-conference football games are now canceled.

Both the Big Ten statement from Thursday and the Pac-12 statement from Friday contained language that acknowledged that the 2020-21 sports seasons may not take place at all, due to ongoing concerns related to the coronavirus pandemic. The Power-5 conference moves come on the same week as the Division 1 Ivy League announced its outright cancellation of all fall sports.

“As we continue to focus on how to play this season in a safe and responsible way, based on the best advice of medical experts, we are also prepared not to play in order to ensure the health, safety and wellness of our student-athletes should the circumstances so dictate,” said closing line in the Big Ten’s statement.

“The health and safety of our student-athletes and all those connected to Pac-12 sports continues to be our number one priority,” said Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott in the conference’s statement. “Our decisions have and will be guided by science and data, and based upon the trends and indicators over the past days, it has become clear that we need to provide ourselves with maximum flexibility to schedule, and to delay any movement to the next phase of return-to-play activities.”

MSR Behind the profiles: 2019 Final Four, part 2

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!

(If you need to catch up, here is part 1 of this missive)

Sunday, April 7: Geeking out on Wi-Fi 6

If Saturday had been all about walking around, my Final Four Sunday was all about staying in. But the day of relative inaction on the basketball court played right into my strategy for the weekend, which was: Find a way to maximize my four days in Minneapolis to get the most work done possible.

Sunday, that meant I was all in with the AmpThink team, basically on two levels. One, I wanted to get a real in-depth look at the temporary Wi-Fi network the company had installed at U.S. Bank Stadium to cover the seats that weren’t part of the stadium’s usual football configuration. For the Final Four, that mean extra seats along the courtside “sidelines” that actually were erected over the lower-bowl football seats and then extended out to the edge of the hardwood floor, as well as all the temporary seats in each end zone that stretched the same way out to the basketball court.

An AmpThink under-seat Wi-Fi enclosure at the Final Four.

After a “team breakfast” at a great breakfast-diner kind of place the AmpThink team and I got inside the arena in a break between practices (you are not allowed near the court when practices are going on) and I got an up-close look at how AmpThink stretched the network from the football configuration out to the temporary Final Four floor. Though AmpThink covered most of the bowl seating at U.S. Bank Stadium with innovative railing-mounted antenna enclosures (which Verizon copied when it added DAS capacity ahead of Super Bowl 52, which was held in the stadium the year before), for the temporary seating AmpThink went with an under-seat design, with AP boxes located under the folding chairs and switches located underneath the risers.

The temporary network, as it turned out, worked very well, but the funniest story to come out of the deployment was one of theft — after Saturday’s games the network analysis showed one of the APs offline. Further exploration by the AmpThink team found that the AP itself was no longer around — some net-head fan had apparently discovered that the under-seat enclosures were not secured, and for some reason thought that a Cisco Wi-Fi AP would make for a fine Final Four gift to take home. My guess is that future temporary networks might see some zip-ties used to lock things down.

After a cool tour underneath the temporary stands to see how AmpThink wired things, we spent the better part of the afternoon hanging out and talking about Wi-Fi 6, a topic the AmpThink brain trust was well wired on. Eventually that day of brainstorming, interviewing and collaboration led to the joint AmpThink/MSR Wi-Fi 6 Research Report, which of course you may download for free.

It was the best use possible I could think of for the “day off” Sunday, where if you are involved with the Final Four you are basically waiting around until Monday night. And since the AmpThink team is rarely ever in one place together for a full day — later that year, for example, AmpThink would be busy deploying new networks at Ohio State, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Dickies Arena — it was an extremely cool opportunity to be able to spend time tapping the knowledge of AmpThink president Bill Anderson and his top lieutenants.

Still feeling the physical effects of my Saturday — and knowing Monday would be even more taxing — I headed back to the hotel in the late afternoon, catching the end of the women’s Final Four at the second of the two local brewpubs next to the Marriott. Though the championship game wouldn’t take place until Monday evening, I had an early start ahead to a long day of again, maximizing those stories.

Monday, April 8: Allianz Field, the Mall of America, and the championship game

Every quarter, Mobile Sports Report tries to find a good mix of profiles to educate its readership. Typically we try to keep the profiles in season, for relevance and timing. But other times, you just go get a good story because it’s interesting. Or, if you can, you do multiple stories on one plane ticket, something that speaks to the bottom line of being an entrepreneurial startup that has to keep an eye on the budget.

So while other “media” at the Final Four may have been taking late breakfasts or hitting the gym Monday morning, I was in an Uber out to Allianz Field, the new home of the MLS Minnesota United. Though it wasn’t scheduled to open until later in April, the folks behind the networking technology — a local company called Atomic Data — had agreed to give MSR a look-around at the Wi-Fi deployment, a great opportunity we couldn’t pass up.

An under-seat Wi-Fi enclosure at Allianz Field.

Yagya Mahadevan, enterprise project manager for Atomic Data and sort of the live-in maestro for the network at Allianz Field, met us at the entry gate and gave us the full stadium walk-around, which was great to have, bad hip issues be damned. I really liked the tour and being able to write the story about how Atomic Data got its feet in the door at a major professional venue, and hope the company can do the same for other venues in the future. I’m also hoping to get back to Allianz Field for a live game when such things start happening again, because the place just looks sharp and I am kind of all in on the way MLS teams are tapping into the fan experience without charging hundreds of dollars a seat like some other pro leagues in the U.S.

After an hour or so of touring Allianz Field it was back in another Uber to the Mall of America, where I had scheduled an interview with Janette Smrcka, then the information technology director for the Mall. (Janette is now part of the technology team at SoFi Stadium, and we hope to have more talks with her soon!) Janette, who I had gotten to know while reporting on the Wi-Fi deployment at the Mall of America, had told me about a cool new project involving wayfinding directories at the Mall, a story which fit perfectly with the new Venue Display Report series we were launching last year.

After sitting down with Janette to get the specifics on the display gear I went into the Mall itself and wandered around for a while (OK, I also did stop to get a chocolate shake at the Shake Shack) watching people use the directories. My unscientific survey showed that people used them quite a bit, with all the design elements Janette and her team coming into play, like deducing that people would be more willing to use smaller-sized displays since they could shield them with their bodies, making the interaction more private. Little things do matter in technology, and it’s not always the technology that matters.

In the mall you couldn’t forget what was going on that weekend — as if the fans wandering around in their school gear would let you. I jumped back on the light rail to get back to the hotel and had my media-celebrity moment heading up to my room, when John Feinstein himself held the door to the elevator so I could get there in time.

Wi-Fi, hoops and a brat and a beer

As soon as I got to the stadium on the press bus I skipped the whole press working-room thing and headed up to the football press box to secure a spot. Turns out I didn’t need to worry as most of the media still either wanted to be closer to the court or closer to the workroom to get their stories done on deadline. Fine for all us. By now I had completely learned all the elevator and escalator pathways I needed to know to get around the stadium in record time. I took Wi-Fi speedtests, I took DAS speedtests, I watched the crowd get into the excitement of being at the “big game.”

Some Final Four fans using directories at the Mall of America.

For sure, part of the fun of attending bucket-list events these days is tied to the mobile device. A big part of the fun. I watched many, many people take pictures of themselves and their companions, take pictures or videos of the action on the court, or just (in some cases) walk around with their phones on video broadcast, relaying the live scene to an audience of who knows who. To me that’s one of the main points of these networks our industry sets up and runs — enabling those who are lucky enough to be there live to be able to share that experience, somewhat instantly, with those closest to them (or their imagined wider audiences).

Though these stadium visits can sometimes be lonely and somewhat strange — I mean, who’s there to cheer for the Wi-Fi? — at the Final Four I considered myself part of the general audience, a witness to the fun and excitement of “being there.” And by halftime I had already done all the “work” I needed to do — the Wi-Fi was strong, as was the DAS — so I camped out in the press box and waited for the second half to begin, so I could go out and get the bratwurst and beer I felt I’d earned.

It took a little bit of walking around to find the stands I wanted to hit — I wanted a beverage that was local, not national, and a brat done right — and I found both somewhat fortunately close to the press box. I took my bounty to a stand-up counter space located just off the main upper concourse and for the time of my meal I was just another hoops fan, enjoying the close contest between Virginia and Texas Tech. Then it was back to the press box and more just-fan watching, an exciting finish and then trying to capture the perfect “confetti burst” photo for the cover of our upcoming issue.

After goodbyes to David and his crew and the AmpThink team, since I didn’t have any stories to write I was on the first press bus back to the hotel, where I quickly crashed ahead of my flight back home Tuesday morning. It was a long weekend in Minneapolis and my hip hurt, but I had done what I needed to do, notebook full of stories that I could write while I recovered from the upcoming surgery.


It’s hard to take a photo showing how a Final Four feels in a football stadium, but this isn’t bad

Showtime for the championship game


Any questions that Minneapolis knows how to do brats right?

The big football displays couldn’t be used while game action was in play, but during timeouts they were on, sometimes showing cool social media posts

The well-deserved Final Four MSR approved dinner

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

DIY method brings Wi-Fi to Rutgers basketball arena

The Rutgers Scarlet Knights men’s basketball team takes on the Indiana Hoosiers at Rutgers Athletic Center on Jan. 15, 2020. (Click on any picture for a larger image) Credit: Ben Solomon/Rutgers Athletics

It was a bit more complicated than a trip to Home Depot, but when the Rutgers University IT team wanted to bring fan-facing Wi-Fi to the school’s basketball arena but didn’t have the budget for a big-name contractor or vendor deal, it did what many weekend warriors do when faced with the same build vs. buy decision:

They did it themselves.

By purchasing lower-cost Wi-Fi gear and doing almost all of the design and deployment work in-house, the Rutgers IT team was able to bring a satisfactory level of coverage to the 8,000-seat Rutgers Athletic Center for a total price tag of about $62,000, according to representatives from the school’s athletic IT department. The Rutgers team first told their story at this year’s College Athletics IT peer conference in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and then provided more details in a follow-up interview with Mobile Sports Report.

The success of the DIY Wi-Fi deployment now has the Rutgers IT team looking at a similar method for bringing Wi-Fi to the school’s football stadium, starting with a localized deployment in the student section where it anticipates needs will be the highest. While fans at events in the “RAC” are probably happy for the connectivity, what might even be more important is the confidence and experience gained by the IT team by rolling up its sleeves and finding a way to deliver the network at a very reasonable price.

“The practical experience of doing this ourselves was just so much more interesting than attending conferences or networking classes,” said Jonathan Beal, systems administrator for the Rutgers athletics IT team. “I’d encourage smaller schools to look into something like this.”

Turnkey system prices ‘out of range’

Editor’s note: This profile is from our latest STADIUM TECH REPORT, which is available to read instantly online or as a free PDF download! Inside the issue is a profile of Dickies Arena in Fort Worth and a recap of a record Wi-Fi day at Super Bowl LIV! Start reading the issue now online or download a free copy!

A look at the tilt angles for the Wi-Fi APs. Credit: Rutgers Athletics

Though Rutgers isn’t exactly small (enrollment is just more than 50,000 at the main campus in New Brunswick, N.J.) and while its teams are part of the major Big Ten conference, the school simply doesn’t have the athletic-department budgets that some of its conference brethren do. And while Beal said that the school is regularly approached by technology vendors with stadium Wi-Fi pitches, the million-dollar-plus price tags for deployments are a non-starter for Rutgers.

“We get approached year after year, but the quotes are always out of our [budget] range,” Beal said. But at the college IT conference in 2019, Beal said the Rutgers team was interested in a presentation from the IT department at the University of Virginia, where that school used lower-cost equipment from Wi-Fi gear provider Ubiquiti to bring Wi-Fi to Virginia’s football stadium.

While Beal said the Virginia team detailed some initial failures in their deployment program, eventually they got it on track, and inspired the Rutgers crew to see if they could chart a similar path.

“We took notes, came back to New Jersey, made some phone calls, and asked ‘how far could we go?’,” Beal said. At the beginning, the team guessed they might be able to get the school to “absorb the cost” of a test deployment either in the basketball arena or the football stadium. What tipped the project in the basketball arena’s favor was the existence of some recently installed conduits leading to the rafters, where some biometric tracking equipment and some previous DAS gear had been installed.

“For the football stadium, the [conduit] pathways are challenging – it’s going to be costly when we do that,” Beal said.

After trying out a few test APs sent over by Ubiquiti the Rutgers team felt confident in their choice of hard- ware, and submitted a budget for $60,000 – which was quickly approved. “It was an easier sell than we thought,” said Beal. “They [the administration] trusted us.”

Overhead vs. under seat

Choosing to put Wi-Fi in the rafters pointing down instead of under the seats pointing up was another con- scious choice Rutgers made after noticing a difference between how football fans and basketball fans use in-venue wireless.

“We noticed that at football games fans download [data] and watch stuff, then go back to watching the game,” Beal said. “For basketball it’s a totally different user experience. People aren’t watching things on their phones, but they are uploading to Instagram.”

A look up at some of the Wi-Fi APs. Credit: Rutgers Athletics

So instead of solving for density and coverage (where under-seat offers a generally better experience) the Rutgers team aimed for the best upload experience for the money – which meant they could do top-down APs using line-of-sight tuning.

With a blend of a 3D rendering of the entire seating bowl (done with 360-degree cameras) and some help from Ekahau survey tools, the Rutgers team pinpointed the optimal placement points for the APs in the rafters. Since the seating in “The RAC” is mostly only on the two sides of the court – and not behind the baskets – the deployment became a fairly uncomplicated tale of two halves, with two APs for each sector.

Some tuning revealed a need to tilt the top AP down from a straight horizontal mount top since the tin roof of the RAC (which contributes to the venue’s historic reputation for being loud and an intimidating place to play) also reflects RF signals.

“Everything bounces around up there off the roof, including the RF,” said Beal. With 20 APs in the rafters (and four more down at court level for other areas) Rutgers was able to get the kind of coverage they wanted. After installing the APs with help from campus technicians – including installing backup chains to keep APs from falling onto any guests – it was time for the next step: Seeing what happened when fans joined the network.

Captive portal or free access?

Like almost every other venue that has installed Wi- Fi for guests, Rutgers struggled with how to make access available. Should it just be free to use with no restrictions, or should they try to use some kind of captive portal to get an email address or other identifying information so that the school could market to event attendees?

Joe Vassilatos, unit computing manager for the Rutgers athletics IT team, said there was some favor of a Facebook sign-in method from the Rutgers marketing team, because of the ease of identification. But Vassilatos said the IT team was “wary” of using a Facebook method, something Beal agreed with.

“We got some feedback from other schools that if you put that [Facebook sign-in] in, nobody uses the network,” said Beal.

Instead, the team opted for a sign-in method that uses a one-time SMS code with a 4-digit number that fans must enter to get access to the network. But both Beal and Vassilatos hoped that in the future there might be other ways to monetize the network – like doing offload for cellular carriers – that would allow them to make access even easier.

A top-down look at the mounting solution for the APs. Credit: Rutgers Athletics

With the network in place during this past basketball season, Rutgers saw good numbers on the usage side, with anywhere from 600 to 800 people using the network at games this winter. Beal said network statistics showed that at most games, 20 percent of the visitors connected to the network at least once, with 10 percent having dwell times in the 20- to 50-minute range.

“That shows they’re a real user, and not just a visitor,” Beal said.

For the last three games of the season, the Rutgers network got a promotional boost from a pregame light show that included fans using their mobile devices. Part of the promotion included instructions to log on to the Wi-Fi.

But according to Beal, the network wasn’t ever a secret.

“The first thing people do in any place is check for free Wi-Fi,” Beal said. “And if people are happy with it, it’s good enough.”

Next steps: Planning for football

For this offseason, the new project for the Rutgers IT team is bringing Wi-Fi to the student section of the football stadium, where they are planning to go with an under-seat approach. According to both Beal and Vassilatos deployment there is going to be more of a tuning challenge since Rutgers students rarely sit in one place, but instead crowd the area and even stand on bleachers trying to cram in.

But with a functional Wi-Fi network now inside inside the basketball arena, a place known as “The Trapezoid of Terror” (for its unique sloped-walls architecture), the Rutgers IT team is confident of its deployment chops, and takes great pride in knowing that more events can be held there with good connectivity, including more potential money-making events like career fairs and concerts.

“In the past when we had graduation ceremonies or other events [in the RAC] we had to bring out portable Wi-Fi,” Beal said. “Now we can take that load on the sta- dium network.”

For Vassilatos, the Wi-Fi is a reason for a little bit of chest-beating.

“IT is usually very inward-facing, and this was our chance to utilize our skill set to add to the bravado of the athletic experience,” Vassilatos said. “We took this on our own to implement, and we’re better from the experience.”

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.