NHL takes first steps toward possible return to action; baseball players don’t like proposed salary cuts

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman announces the league’s ‘Retun to Play Plan’ in a video.

It’s just the beginning of the beginning, but progress of some kind toward a return to live sports action surfaced this week as the National Hockey League made an initial, official step toward that possibility.

On Tuesday the NHL announced is Return to Play Plan, which is centered around a direct move to the playoffs with 24 teams involved. Though many details of the idea are still to be determined, the plan is to have the first two rounds take place in two “hub cities,” where teams will be housed in a virtual bubble to try to make safety procedures easier. The idea is for players to come back for training in mid-July, but as many outlets noted, whether or not players agree to the idea is just one part of the work yet to be done.

In a short video announcing the plan, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman emphasized that nothing would take place without the approval of “civil and medical authorities.”

MLB, meanwhile, finally sent an economic plan for its idea of a shortened season to the players, and reaction so far is in the negative category, as perhaps expected with the salary cuts the owners have deemed necessary. What that means is more negotiations ahead as players and owners try to find a way to salvage the 2020 season in a way both sides can agree upon.

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.

Sharks, Earthquakes may see games without fans due to coronavirus event ban

UPDATE, 3/11/20: Sharks say upcoming games will be played without fans.

SAP Center, home of the San Jose Sharks. Credit: SanJoseSharks.com.

There’s no official word yet from the teams, but the San Jose Sharks and the San Jose Earthquakes could be among the first U.S. sports teams to have games take place without fans due to a ban on large events instituted by Santa Clara County in its efforts to fight the coronavirus.

The ban, which takes effect Wednesday in the county at the south end of the San Francisco Bay, will ban gatherings of more than 1,000 people for three weeks to help prevent the spread of the disease. It follows Santa Clara County’s first reported death from coronavirus.

The NHL’s Sharks, who are scheduled to play at home at the SAP Center against the Montreal Canadiens on March 19, have two other games that could be affected, a game against Boston on March 21 and a game against Arizona on March 29. According to a page on the Sharks website that the team says will be constantly updated, the team made the following statement Monday night:

SAP Center at San Jose is aware of the County of Santa Clara’s Public Health Department order to prohibit public and private mass gatherings through the end of March. We will adhere to the mandated guidelines. No events are scheduled at SAP Center until Tues., March 17. We will be reviewing each scheduled event due to take place for the rest of the month and provide an update in the coming days. We appreciate the understanding and patience of our fans, guests and partners during this unprecedented time.

Major League Soccer’s Earthquakes, who have a home game at Earthquakes Stadium scheduled for March 21, have not yet posted any information regarding the event ban. Prior to last weekend’s home game, the Earthquakes did take precautionary measures to limit any chances of the disease spreading but still hosted a game against Minnesota.

The BNP Paribas Open tennis tournament was the first large U.S. sports event to be canceled due to coronavirus concerns. In Europe, soccer games have taken place in front of empty stands because of coronavirus concerns, a practice also employed by other countries hit hard by the disease.

UPDATE: The Earthquakes tweeted that there will be more information soon:

Closer Look: MatSing ball antenna deployment at Amalie Arena

Amalie Arena, home of the NHL’s Tampa Bay Lightning. Credit all photos: Paul Kapustka, MSR

Taking advantage of a cross-Florida drive, Mobile Sports Report finally got a live look at the MatSing ball antenna deployment at the Tampa Bay Lightning’s Amalie Arena, part of a new neutral-host DAS being built by AT&T. Some early returns on the MatSing ball network performance have gained a lot of attention, with rumors floating around this summer of multiple MatSing deployments either in the offing or already underway.

Since our visit was in the hockey offseason we didn’t get to test the DAS in action, but thanks to the hospitality of new Tampa IT director Andrew McIntyre (who recently left a similar position with the Chicago Cubs) we got to look around the arena at the MatSing deployment, which by AT&T’s count uses 52 of the distinctive round-ball antennas mounted in various places in the rafters.

We hope to return sometime this fall or winter to witness the network in action, but for now take a look at some of the peculiarities of the deployment, including the very specific angles for pointing the antennas toward very specific parts of the seating area.

What’s the buzz behind MatSings? Here is a bit of explanation from an earlier MSR story:

Why use MatSing antennas? What sets MatSing ball antennas (also called “Luneberg Lens” antennas) apart from other wireless gear is the MatSing ball’s ability to provide a signal that can stretch across greater distances while also being highly concentrated or focused. According to MatSing its antennas can reach client devices up to 240 feet away; for music festivals, that means a MatSing antenna could be placed at the rear or sides of large crowd areas to reach customer devices where it’s unpractical to locate permanent or other portable gear. By being able to focus its communications beams tightly, a MatSing ball antenna can concentrate its energy on serving a very precise swath of real estate, as opposed to regular antennas which typically offer much less precise ways of concentrating or focusing where antenna signals go.

What should bear watching in Tampa is the progression of the Water Street Tampa project, which includes Lightning owner Jeffrey Vinik and Microsoft’s Bill Gates as investors. Water Street, right outside the arena’s doors, is going to be yet another near-the-stadium downtown development area, though this one seems more ambitious than some of the stadium-centric plans around other new arena builds. We will of course keep track on how the wireless coverage goes from arena to outdoors. For now, enjoy some more close-ups of the MatSings:

Espo, or Phil Esposito, stands guard over the arena’s plaza

A look up from ice level. See how many MatSings you can count!
A little fuzzy, but you can see the different tilt angles here
MatSings and regular DAS antennas side by side
A look just outside the arena, where the Water Street Tampa development is underway

Little Caesars Arena revs the engine on wireless

Little Caesars Arena in Detroit is revving its engine with wireless deployments of Wi-Fi and DAS. Credit all photos: Terry Sweeney, MSR (click on any picture for a larger image)

Detroit has made an ambitious bet on the sports entertainment model with its 50-block District Detroit development – which embraces Ford Field (where the NFL’s Lions play), Comerica Park (MLB’s Tigers) and most recently, Little Caesars Arena (NBA’s Pistons and NHL’s Red Wings).

In fact, Motor City might just as easily be renamed Stadium City as Detroit looks to professional sports as one cornerstone of economic re-development.

The city has all four major pro sports teams competing within a few blocks of each other, noted John King, vice president of IT and innovation for Olympia Entertainment and the Detroit Red Wings. District Detroit plays host to more than 200 events, welcoming some 3 million visitors annually – not bad for an area that’s barely 18 months old.

Detroit’s hardly alone in riding this development wave. Sports entertainment districts are a proven engine to boost local economies and are popping up all over the country:
–Los Angeles’s LA Live complex uses the Staples Center as its hub but includes restaurants, hotels and plenty of retail;
–Houston Avenida gangs together Minute Maid Park, BBVA Compass Stadium and NRG Stadium, along with a convention center and hotels;
–Battery Atlanta houses the Atlanta Braves’ SunTrust Park and a Coca-Cola entertainment facility, along with retail, residences and hotels;
— Westgate Entertainment District in the greater Phoenix area houses State Farm Stadium (NFL’s Cardinals) and Gila River Arena (NHL’s Coyotes), plus the obligatory retail, restaurants and hotels.

San Francisco, Kansas City, Cincinnati and Sacramento and other cities are all building out similar sports entertainment developments in their downtown areas that encourage sports fans to make a night of it, or even a weekend. Even venerable venues like Green Bay’s Lambeau Field and Chicago’s Wrigley Field are also getting in the act of trying to build areas outside the parks to keep fans engaged (and spending) before and after events, or even when there’s no games being played.

Robust DAS, Wi-Fi in LCA

Editor’s note: This report is from our latest STADIUM TECH REPORT, an in-depth look at successful deployments of stadium technology. Included with this report is a profile of the new Wi-Fi and DAS networks being planned for the University of Colorado, as well as a profile of Wi-Fi at Vivint Smart Home Arena in Salt Lake City! DOWNLOAD YOUR FREE COPY now!

John King oversees the IT operations at Little Caesars Arena

King is pleased with the performance of the IT infrastructure at Little Caesars Arena since the $863 million venue opened in the fall of 2017. With a backbone of two 100-Gbps fiber connections, the arena counts more than 700 Cisco Wi-Fi access points. There are 364 APs in the bowl itself; the bulk of those – 300 APs – have been installed under seats to get the signals closer to where the users are.

Mobile Sports Report put LCA’s Wi-Fi network and DAS system to the test this season during a Red Wings home game against the New York Rangers. Due to personal technical constraints, we were only able to test Verizon’s portion of the DAS deployment; the Wi-Fi network tested was the District Detroit Xfinity SSID.

The good news is that both network types performed admirably. No surprise that bandwidth was most plentiful and speeds were fastest on concourses near concessions, as well as in the private clubs parceled around LCA. Fastest measured speeds: 139.68 Mbps download/33.24 Mbps on the DAS network outside the MotorCity Casino Club. The Wi-Fi was also well engineered there – 51.89 Mbps download and 72.34 Mbps upload were plenty fast for hockey’s power users.

We measured comparable speeds by the Rehmann Club with 134.4 Mbps/36.25 Mbps on the DAS, and 21.56 Mbps/120.8 Mbps on Wi-Fi. Similarly, connectivity was not an issue while standing in front of the impossible-to-miss Gordie Howe statue in LCA’s main concourse, where we clocked DAS at 102.95 Mbps/22 Mbps, and Wi-Fi at 43.34 Mbps/43.72 Mbps.

Speeds around the arena were generally in double-digit megabits, both for Wi-Fi and DAS. The Wi-Fi signal got a little sluggish in Section M7 (0.79 Mbps/3.03 Mbps) and Section M33 (1.68 Mbps/29 Mbps). Lowest measured throughput on the DAS network was in Suite 17 with 16.18 Mbps/17.41 Mbps, still plenty fast to handle most fan requirements.

Lighting Things Up in District Detroit

In tandem to LCA, there are approximately 1,000 APs also attached to the network that either handle District Detroit’s public Wi-Fi or connect to 34 parking lots and garages.

Wireless gear painted to blend in

“Our goal is to bring life and excitement throughout the District and not just focus on Little Caesars Arena,” King said. Video and digital signage are essential to that effort, both inside and outside LCA. The network enables more than 1,500 IPTV connections distributed across the arena, but also externally to LED boards and electronic parking signs. “We want to take the excitement from the event and run it out to the city – ‘5 minutes to puck drop’, on all those signs as one example,” King explained. “We can leverage [signage] for more than just the price of parking.”

The network uses the Cisco Vision IPTV digital display management system to control display programming, including advertising that appears on video screens in LCA’s many hospitality suites. With five TV screens per suite, LCA deploys an L-shaped “wrapper” around the main video image used for advertising. “We rotate that content in the suites and run loops in concourse before and after events,” King said. “It allows us to put scripting in different zones or post menus and dynamically update prices and items for sale.” LCA’s concessionaires can change the price or location of food and beverage items, all through the networked point-of-sale system.

Tune-able Wi-Fi

The District Detroit app is divided into three “buckets,” according to King: Detroit Red Wings, Detroit Pistons and 313 Presents — all the events and entertainment outside of sporting events (313 is Detroit’s area code). When configured for hockey, LCA can accommodate up to 19,515 Red Wings fans; as a basketball arena for the Pistons, LCA holds 20,491. But some events may draw fewer people and King and his team adjust accordingly.

“We’re an arena for 20,000 fans and as we looked at that density, we found that 10,000 fans behave differently and we’ve had to tune the arena differently based on traffic flows,” he said. When completely full, Wi-Fi signals must pass through so many “bags of water,” as RF engineers sometimes describe human spectators. Half as many fans means that Wi-Fi signals behave differently, consequently, a fan may connect to an AP that’s less than ideal, which can affect both user experience and system performance.

An under-seat Wi-Fi enclosure

“We’ve looked at some power tweaks and tuning; we also have the ability to tune [the arena] on the fly,” King said, but emphasized that the venue’s Wi-Fi doesn’t get re-tuned for every event. “We try to find the sweet spot and not do that too much. On an event day, we try not to touch anything that isn’t broken,” he said.

Previews of coming attractions

Like any sports and entertainment IT exec, King is looking at ways to improve the fan experience and derive more performance and revenue from Olympia’s IT investment. Buoyed by the success of mobile ticketing at LCA, King said he’d like to find some way to use biometrics to help speed up transactions at counters and pedestals throughout the arena. And he’s excited about 5G cellular deployment, which he believes could compete with Wi-Fi if 5G delivers on all that’s been promised by carriers.

LCA’s app uses Bluetooth for navigation, letting fans input their seat information for directions. “Right now, we have pre-order pickup, but in-seat service is something we’re looking at. What other line-busting technologies can we do?” King said.

And while fans can pre-order food and beverages at LCA, King also wonders if pre-ordering of team merchandise (“merch”) is something that would appeal to fans and be easy to execute. “We’re looking at a Cincinnati venue where they have compartments for food, hot or cold, that’s been pre-ordered,” he said, wondering if a similar compartmentalized pickup system be used for merch.

King sees plenty of room for improvement in overall management reporting across IT systems at LCA and the 12,000 active ports that keep systems humming.

“Everything is connected and our electricians can use their iPads to dim or turn on lights anywhere in the building,” he said, adding that everything’s monitored — every switch, every port. “It would be nice to see more information around traffic flow and performance patterns. We’re seeing a little bit of that. But I’d like to see network information on people tracking and doors, and correlate visual information with management data.”

Another set of metrics King can’t get at the moment: Performance data from AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon about LCA’s 8-zone DAS system. King said he’s talking with Verizon, the lead DAS operator at the venue, about getting autonomous reports in the future, but for the time being King and his team don’t have much visibility there. The DAS uses the Corning ONE system.