Zippin checkout-free system debuts at stadiums in Sacramento, Denver

A Zippin-powered checkout-free concessions stand at Golden 1 Center in Sacramento in 2019. Credit: Zippin/Sacramento Kings (click on any photo for a larger image)

Checkout-free shopping payment systems, where customers simply take items off shelves and are charged automatically as they leave the store, are now arriving in sports stadiums, with startup Zippin leading the way with active installations in Sacramento and Denver.

At the Sacramento Kings’ Golden 1 Center and at Empower Field at Mile High in Denver, trial concession stands powered by Zippin have already opened and been used by fans, both before the pandemic (in Sacramento) and during the past season at Empower Field, where the Denver Broncos had some games this fall with limited fan attendance.

The checkout-free store idea, pioneered by Amazon a few years ago, uses pre-visit payment information (collected either via an app or a credit-card swipe before entry) and a combination of in-store recognition technology — usually a mix of cameras, weight sensors and artificial intelligence software — to “see” what customers are taking off the shelves, and to charge the customers for those items as they leave the store.

While many customers are amazed the system actually works even after they leave a store, the potential checkout-free systems have to solve one of the biggest pain points of stadium visits — waiting in line for concessions — has generated considerable interest among venue owners and operators. And with transaction times in both Sacramento and Denver averaging less than a minute — and some in Sacramento as quick as 10 seconds — it’s a also good bet that fans will quickly embrace more checkout-free operations so that they can get back to their seats to watch the event they paid to attend.

Fans can’t believe it works

“It’s so intriguing to watch a fan go through the [checkout-free] process, and see how they react,” said Jay Morrison, district manager for Aramark, the concessionaire at Empower Field. At one of the Broncos games this fall Morrison was watching fans exit the Zippin-powered concession stand “and they would look around, sort of stand there and say that they can’t believe it,” Morrison said. And then, of course, the fans would share the experience on social media.

“In all my years of being in F&B, I’ve never seen somebody taking a picture of somebody buying a soda,” Morrison said.

Overhead cameras track customers as they select items. Credit: Zippin

While Amazon may have pioneered the checkout-free idea when it opened its first Amazon Go store in 2018, the market now has a growing number of startups seeking to become the back-end suppliers. But Zippin, a San Francisco-based startup with 50+ employees and $15 million in venture funding, is the first to crack into the stadium concessions market, an area that seems ripe for such innovation, especially given the new reality of supporting concession operations during a pandemic.

In Denver, Aramark had already decided to trial the Zippin technology at Mile High well before the pandemic put a premium on less human contact for transactions.

“The unintended benefit is that [checkout-free] fits perfectly with Covid and beyond,” said Aramark’s Morrison.

John Rinehart, president for business operations with the Sacramento Kings, noted that the Zippin system’s entry gate inherently delivers a way to enforce social distancing by limiting capacity inside the store as necessary.

Getting fans back to their seats

Like in Denver, Sacramento had decided to try the Zippin system well before the pandemic hit — at Golden 1 Center a Zippin-powered store was opened in September in 2019, as part of what Rinehart said is a continued desire to use technology to improve the fan experience.

“It’s kind of in our DNA to look out for these things,” said Rinehart of the arena that opened in 2016 with some of the most advanced wireless networking and display technologies, as well as one of the most innovative stadium apps.

Entry gate at Zippin stand at Empower Field. Credit: Zippin

At Golden 1 Center, the Zippin store was an open area on the main concourse, and in addition to coolers with drinks it also had an assortment of snacks, as well as a way to use Zippin to pay for hot food items like popcorn or pizza. According to Rinehart a customer would purchase a ticket for the hot items inside the Zippin store, and then go next door to a hot-food stand where their order would be fulfilled.

In Denver, Aramark added the Zippin technology to one the “Drink Market” stands it had opened at the stadium the year before, which were basically walk-through stands with self-serve glass-door drink coolers. In 2019, those stands used a unique visual-scanner system from Mashgin where fans would place items to be scanned and priced. The only staffing needed was one person at the end of the line to check IDs and to open cans and bottles before fans left.

With the Zippin technology, fans can either download an app or use their credit cards at the entry gate. Once they are authorized, they enter the store, select their items and simply walk out through the exit gate (again, where they would encounter one staffer for ID check and bottle/can opening).

According to Aramark’s Morrison, having support both for an app as well as walk-up credit card access was a key selling point for Zippin, since many fans have historically proven “resistant” to downloading and registering through an app.

While education on how the store works is necessary — in Denver and Sacramento both stadiums had signage as well as email instructions for the systems — Morrison also said that fans seem to learn the system quickly and are happy to tell others how it works.

And in both stadiums, operators saw fans coming back for repeated visits during a single game, since they knew they wouldn’t have to wait long.

“If you know what you want, you can get in and out in less than 10 seconds,” said the Kings’ Rinehart. Both Denver and Sacramento operators said they saw average visit times of around 45 seconds, an unthinkable speed for anyone who’s ever spent an entire baseball inning or half a football quarter waiting for a hot dog and a beer.

Minimal reconfiguration needed

According to Zippin CEO Krishna Motukuri, the Zippin-powered stands don’t need a lot of technology or networking support. The camera systems, he said, only use about 15-to-20 Mbps of network bandwidth, and the AI computations are done on the edge modules Zippin installs on the site.

Ceiling cameras seen in Zippin Denver stand. Credit: Zippin

Motukuri said Zippin operates under a software-as-a-service module, charging venue owners and operators a monthly fee and a per-transaction fee. According to Aramark’s Morrison the cost of a Zippin deployment is far cheaper than buying similar technology from Amazon, which Aramark had initially considered.

At Golden 1 Center Rinehart said the Zippin system was fairly easy to deploy, since the open-concourse setting allowed them to bring cameras down from above. In Denver, Aramark and the Broncos actually had to raise the ceiling on the area used, so that the Zippin cameras could have a better range of focus.

And according to Aramark’s Morrison the Zippin system reduced the needed real estate for checkout, using less than a third of the space required by the Mashgin systems. “That let us put four more beverage coolers into the space,” Morrison said. In addition to the cameras, a Zippin system also requires entry and exit gates, as well as sensors for all shelves holding items.

Using the pandemic to ‘leapfrog’ to the future

Zippin’s Motukuri, who founded the company in 2015, said that the Covid pandemic has exposed some of the issues that still plague other concession systems, the fact that there still may be a wait to purchase items.

“Self-checkout doesn’t get rid of lines,” Motukuri said. “Our system is not just frictionless, it’s contactless. It offers venues an opportunity to leapfrog ahead.” According to Zippin, a new Zippin-powered concession stand is set to open at the San Antonio Spurs’ AT&T Center when fans are allowed back in that building.

In Denver, Aramark’s Morrison said that the speed enabled by the Zippin system was part of the process that allowed the venue to re-open with limited attendance.

“The state of Colorado [regulators] observed us, and we had to deliver on the commitment [to safer operations],” Morrison said. “Having the self-order system was part of what enabled us to get back to having fans.”

(Zippin promotional video below)

Vaccination sites popping up at stadiums across the country

A first responder gets a Covid vaccination shot at Gillette Stadium. Credit: Screenshot from Boston Globe video

While fans are still not allowed to attend events at most stadiums in the U.S., sports venues across the country are now being pressed into service as mass vaccination sites in the latest step in the battle against the coronavirus pandemic.

From Gillette Stadium, home of the NFL’s New England Patriots, to Dodger Stadium and Disneyland in Southern California, the wide-open indoor spaces and easy drive-up and parking lots found at most large public venues are now being used as staging grounds for initial deployments of the vaccines being used to fight the spread of the pandemic.

According to various reports, vaccination sites at stadiums are ramping up with plans to innoculate thousands per day. State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Ariz., home of the NFL’s Arizona Cardinals, expects to soon be administering more than 6,000 shots per day, according to an NPR report. According to a report in USA Today, Houston’s Minute Maid Park saw 4,000 vaccinations last weekend.

Other well-known venues also looking to ramp up vaccination sites or already providing such services include PNC Park in Pittsburgh, Petco Park in San Diego and the Oakland Coliseum. In New York, Mayor Bill de Blasio said that Citi Field — home of the New York Mets — will soon be able to vaccinate between 5,000 and 7,000 residents per day.

Already during the pandemic, sports venues across the country have used their unique characteristics — easy access and wide-open covered spaces with the ability to host large numbers of people with social distancing — to act as temporary Covid-19 test centers or overflow hospitals, and also as voting registration and voting sites. Those same characteristics, plus the availability of power, running water and other amenities, also makes them perfect sites for pop-up vaccination centers, which will be necessary as the country tries to get as many people vaccinated as possible in the shortest amount of time.


Ribbon boards at Gillette Stadium tout the vaccination services. Credit: Boston Globe video screenshot

New Report: AT&T Stadium rewrites the DAS playbook

Stadium Tech Report is pleased to announce our Winter 2021 issue, with an in-depth profile of the new, groundbreaking distributed antenna system (DAS) recently installed at AT&T Stadium, home of the Dallas Cowboys. With its super-dense deployment of approximately 670 network zones and use of cutting-edge MatSing Lens antennas, the new cellular network is designed to handle the biggest demands from the largest crowds at what is probably the busiest football-sized arena anywhere.

We are also debuting some of our new, expanded areas of content coverage, with an in-depth look at how a converged compute infrastructure can help venues recover leaseable space and reduce operating expenses. Also look for our inaugural “Design Vision” interview, where we talk to Chris Williams, president of WJHW, to get his insights on stadium design and on two of his company’s recent projects, SoFi Stadium and Allegiant Stadium.

Also, please make sure you read my “letter from the editor” at the start of this issue, as it describes the business and strategic changes taking place here at Stadium Tech Report.

We’d like to take a quick moment to thank our sponsors, which for this issue include Corning, Boingo, MatSing, Cox Business/Hospitality Network, Comcast Business, American Tower, CommScope, AmpThink, ExteNet Systems and Ventev. Their generous sponsorship makes it possible for us to offer this content free of charge to our readers. We’d also like to welcome readers from the Inside Towers community, who may have found their way here via our ongoing partnership with the excellent publication Inside Towers.

READ THE REPORT NOW, no email or registration required!

SoFi Stadium’s videoboard takes technology to new heights

SoFi Stadium’s oval videoboard is the visual centerpiece of the new venue. Credit: Jeff Lewis/LA Rams

Once just a vision captured by artist renderings, the main video board at SoFi Stadium is now a stunning reality, showing what’s possible when you combine a powerful idea with the technology, construction expertise and the will to make it so.

While fans will have to wait for the pandemic to subside before they can fully enjoy its attributes, like its full 4K resolution, the 120-yards long double-sided oval videoboard from Samsung – which is as tall as four stories high at its largest points – has been providing “wow” moments all fall to TV audiences who get glimpses on-screen of the board in action. But take their word for it, those who have seen it in person are generally in awe.

“It’s absolutely fascinating – I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Skarpi Hedinsson, chief technology officer for SoFi Stadium and Hollywood Park. The stadium is home to two NFL teams, the Los Angeles Rams and the Los Angeles Chargers. Early this fall at a team scrimmage, the board was lit up and Hedinsson walked all around the stadium for looks from as many vantage points as possible, and came away stunned.

“It’s everything we had hoped for,” Hedinsson said. “It’s exactly what it was designed to do.”

Vision of Kroenke

When the idea of what would become SoFi Stadium was being developed, several sources we talked to pointed to Rams Owner/Chairman and SoFi Stadium and Hollywood Park developer Stan Kroenke as the visionary for a videoboard that had never been done before.

The videoboard in Chargers configuration for a home game this fall. Credit: Los Angeles Chargers

“I have to give full credit to Mr. Kroenke for the vision,” said Hedinsson. “He sat down with HKS, our architects, and asked what was the ‘art of the possible.’ It was all part of how to innovate for the guest experience, and how to approach it.”

The evolution of videoboards in large NFL-type venues has become an interesting trend to watch, with highlights along the way including the massive centerhung screen at the Dallas Cowboys’ home, AT&T Stadium, and the circular “Halo Board” that sits below the outside edges of the camera shutter-like closable roof at the Atlanta Falcons’ Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

At SoFi Stadium (and the adjacent Hollywood Park), where various reports estimate that Kroenke has spent somewhere north of $5 billion in development costs, the needle of innovation has now been moved in a much different direction. Originally nicknamed the “Oculus” (a term no longer used by the stadium) the double-sided oval board hangs from the stadium’s cable-supported roof in a manner designed to present a clear video view to any seat in the house, from the field-level seats all the way up to the highest decks. Capacity for SoFi Stadium is estimated at approximately 70,000 for NFL games, and up to 100,000 for special events, like the Super Bowl.

So what are the stats?

According to figures provided by SoFi Stadium and by Samsung, the videoboard sits 122 feet above the playing field and 70 feet below the roof canopy; at 120 yards it is longer than the field of play, and it is also wider than the field. According to Samsung, its outdoor LED products were used exclusively to build the 70,000 square-foot dual-sided screen, which contains nearly 80 million pixels at a spacing distance of 8 millimeters from center to center.

The board is not symmetrical in shape for a reason: According to Samsung, the different sizes are part of the strategy of making the board visible to all seats in the venue. Mark Quiroz, Samsung’s vice president for sales, marketing and business development, said the company did virtual simulations of the screen’s visibility angles to all the seating sections to help determine the best final shape.

“It was all about getting the best views for the fans,” Quiroz said of the virtual testing.

The videoboard was first assembled on the field level, then raised up later. Credit: Jeff Lewis/LA Rams

At its tallest points, the board’s largest panel is approximately 40 feet tall; at the smallest points it is approximately 20 feet tall. According to Samsung, fans seated in the lower bowl will view the inside of the videoboard, while fans in the upper bowl areas will view the outer panels of the videoboard.

According to SoFi Stadium, the videoboard not only features the most LEDs ever used in a sports or entertainment venue, but it also has the first 4K end-to-end video production in a stadium, one that has 12 Gbps connections between cameras to ensure enough band- width for the higher-resolution content. The videoboard also has a JBL audio system that is home to more than 260 of the stadium’s approximately 4,500 loudspeakers.

According to Hedinsson, the videoboard will also eventually house 5G cellular antennas, since the location of the board gives it a perfect line-of-sight mounting position for the seating bowl.

If Hedinsson’s initial impression is correct, it would seem that all the partners involved in the board’s construction and deployment nailed Kroenke’s original vision, and made it come to life. But it was far from an easy task.

How to build ‘the art of the possible’

According to Hedinsson, the uniqueness of the videoboard and its structural size dictated that all design had to start by thinking about the board first.

“It [the videoboard] needed to be part of the earliest discussions – you have to design around an idea like that,” Hedinsson said. Since the 2.2-million-pound board would rely on the stadium’s cable-net roof for support, it was both one of the first structures to be designed, and one of the last to be put in place. The board was actually assembled on the ground inside the venue, and then hoisted into place after the roof was built.

According to Samsung’s Quiroz, the final installation of the board involved a lot more than just pulling on some cables.

A field-level view of the board in action. Credit: LA Rams

“The most challenging aspect [of the construction] was the tolerance levels in the seams,” said Quiroz, talking about the tightness needed to keep screens close together so that the video output does not have any visible breaks.

“Getting the seams right on the ground was one thing, and then keeping it together until you get it in the final resting place was another major challenge,” Quiroz said.

As if the construction team needed any more difficulty, during the final months of building the project had to deal with the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. While admitting that Covid was “kind of a cloud that loomed over everything,” Quiroz said that since the overall project was a closed situation in a fairly large space made it somewhat easier to deal with safety requirements like social distancing.

Using the new canvas

When fans finally are allowed in the venue, the final chapter of the SoFi Stadium videoboard will be written – or, more accurately, shown in 4K resolution, as game information and sponsor messages make use of the one-of-a-kind screenscape. With the circular shape, all the potential providers of content – from the teams to the potential sponsors – seem excited about the possibilities.

“With the custom shape, there are probably things that still need to be developed,” said Samsung’s Quiroz, about the need for new design tools and new ways of thinking about what types of content might be possible. “We provided the template, so now it’s all about how you can use the capacity.”

According to Hedinsson, the SoFi tenant teams – both the Rams and the Chargers – have actively been working on building content for the board since December of 2019. With various “modes” available for display
– including full 360-degree perspectives and “full takeover,” where the Ross Video and Cisco Vision display management systems in tandem will allow a single message across not just the video board but over all the 2,000-plus smaller displays in the venue – Hedinsson is looking forward to times when the video board fulfills its promise of being able to amplify the atmosphere.

“The teams have really embraced [the board’s possibilities],” Hedinsson said. “We’re going to see some really interesting uses of the space.”

Converged innovation: SoFi Stadium’s networks break new ground

SoFi Stadium’s integrated technology is designed to elevate the fan experience at all levels. Credit: Jeff Lewis/LA Rams

When you spend more than $5 billion building a revolutionary-looking new sports and entertainment venue, it’s a good bet that the technology found inside is the best that can be found.

What’s truly innovative at the new SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles is not just the quality and functionality of the technology’s pieces and parts, but also the venue’s embrace of a converged network design, where all network-attached devices connect to a single Cisco Catalyst-based network.

Led by Skarpi Hedinsson, chief technology officer, SoFi Stadium and Hollywood Park, and master technology integrator AmpThink, the networking and compute environment deployed inside the building (as well as in Hollywood Park’s neighboring retail, commercial and residential area) is unlike most large venues, where different systems typically exist in their own silos, often with their own separate and different network.

Instead, the SoFi Stadium network brings all building functionality – including the wireless networks (among the largest built anywhere), the server compute platform, the telephone system, the IPTV network, the indoor and outdoor digital signage (including the massive oval dual-sided 4K main videoboard), the television broadcast systems, and the building management systems – into one converged platform, with a single vendor/single format structure.

“What we delivered is a scalable platform that simplifies Day 2 operations on Day 1,” said AmpThink president Bill Anderson.

Over the coming months, Stadium Tech Report plans to do deep technical dives on each segment of the stadium’s different technology deployments. Consider this story a sort of “executive summary” that will attempt to at the very least introduce all the technology elements that are part of the stunning new venue, which hosted its first NFL games for both stadium tenants, the Los Angeles Rams and the Los Angeles Chargers, in early September.

Converged network a revolution for stadiums

Editor’s note: This story is from our recent STADIUM TECH REPORT Fall 2020 issue, which you can read right now, no email or registration required! Also in this issue is a profile of the technology behind Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas. START READING NOW!

If the stunning architecture of SoFi Stadium and its innovative elements like the oval, dual-sided videoboard represent the realization of Rams owner and Hollywood Park developer Stan Kroenke’s “art of the possible,” then the converged network and its interlocking technologies perhaps represent “the art of the practical,” at a scale somewhat unprecedented inside a large public venue.

If you poke your head inside older sports venues, you are most likely to see separate networks and operation centers for many of the different systems – wireless, wired networks, broadcast, and building operations. Historically the case has been made that those who know those systems best are responsible for building their operations – but the silo approach often brings headaches to those in charge of overall operations for the venue as a whole, as they deal with the proliferation of different systems to operate and manage.

Digital technologies helps SoFi Stadium be able to rebrand for each of its two “home” teams. Credit: Ty Nowell/Los Angeles Chargers

AmpThink, which has deployed networks in more than 70 venues across the country, pioneered the idea of a single, converged stadium network when it built the prototype at the 14,000-seat Dickies Arena last year. But the size and scope of the converged network project at SoFi Stadium – which will hold 70,000 fans for NFL games and up to 100,000 for special events like the Super Bowl – was much larger. Still, according to AmpThink’s Anderson, the planned outcome was the same: to deliver the best outcome for the customer.

“It all works together, because it’s designed to work together,” said Anderson. “Instead of fighting to see if one switch works with another, you can focus on the business.”

With 120 separate remote telecommunications rooms – including some hardened for hot weather conditions in the outside areas of Hollywood Park – the SoFi Stadium converged network is designed to present a “single pane of glass” management structure, where there are no “islands” requiring special attention.

Even the live video production system, usually a completely separate entity, is run on a connected Cisco Nexus switched environment. Every telecommunications closet or cabinet is directly connected via fiber to the campus core. According to AmpThink, all the telecom rooms have edge switches that use 25 Gbps optics and a minimum of two connections per closet/cabinet to provide an aggregate of 50 Gbps of campus interconnectivity.

The blanket of Wi-Fi and cellular coverage

On the Wi-Fi side, the SoFi Stadium network is the biggest AmpThink has built in a stadium, with approximately 2,400 APs inside the venue and another 300 in the surrounding Hollywood Park area. For the full Wi-Fi 6 Cisco deployment, AmpThink used an under-seat deployment in the main bowl. Before expanding to include full stadium technology integration, AmpThink made its name in successful big-venue Wi-Fi network design and deployment, with networks built most recently at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, and last year at Ohio State and Oklahoma University, the first two large-stadium networks to move exclusively to the new Wi-Fi 6 standard.

An outside view of the stadium. Credit: SoFi Stadium/LA Rams

In a commitment to offering the best possible connectivity to consumer devices no matter which network they use, the Wi-Fi and cellular distributed antenna system (DAS) at SoFi Stadium were both designed to each provide 100 percent venue coverage. The DAS, designed and deployed by DAS Group Professionals using gear from JMA Wireless, is the largest ever deployed. According to Hedinsson, the network has 2,400 antennas and 3,200 remotes, and is capable of covering all licensed spectrum bands between 600 MHz to 6 GHz.

As cellular carriers move toward the 5G future, the DAS is capable of supporting all the low- and mid-band spectrum currently planned for use. According to Hedinsson, there will also be millimeter-wave 5G services in the stadium, from a carrier to be named later. The stadium networks are supported by 50 Gbps backbone links.

Bringing data center strategies to the stadium

While hyper-convergence of server use is common in the data center space, that has traditionally not been the case in sports and entertainment venue operations. But the eventual compute network built for SoFi Stadium’s operations even surprised AmpThink’s Anderson, whose company originally estimated a compute environment with perhaps 20 to 30 virtual machines.

As it stands now, Anderson said the compute environment has almost 100 VMs, which host applications for all the network operations as well as varied building management needs like power, light, HVAC, security, and even specialized systems like irrigation and seismic monitoring. Instead of a mix of servers running siloed applications on separate physical machines with different operating systems, the SoFi Stadium compute environment is a unified platform and includes a seamless integration into Google Cloud, allowing it to be easily scaled to meet current and future needs.

A digital stadium with displays big and small

Any discussion of digital displays at SoFi Stadium has to start with the main videoboard, a one-of-a-kind design of a 120-foot long oval that circles the playing field, with dual-sided 4K screens, some 40 feet in height. (Please see our detailed profile of the main videoboard in our recent Venue Display Report.)

The digital display footprint goes far beyond the main screen, with some 2,600 other smaller boards deployed throughout the venue and in Hollywood Park. According to Hedinsson, the ability of the Cisco Vision display management system is a key part of the “digital stadium” design, especially when you consider that the venue has two main tenants, each with their own branding and look and feel.

“Being digital means we can switch over the branding [by changing displays] instead of physically having to move signs,” said Hedinsson. “That’s why we have Cisco Vision. We have digital ‘playbooks’ for the different scenarios, and we can just push them out as needed.”

Innovation and experience leads the technology deployment at Raiders’ Allegiant Stadium

Allegiant Stadium reflecting the evening sky in Las Vegas. Credit: Matt Aguirre/Las Vegas Raiders (click on any photo for a larger image)

If it looks somewhat like a spaceship, perhaps that’s appropriate since the arrival of Allegiant Stadium has brought to Las Vegas something alien that residents thought they might never see: live NFL games, happening just off the city’s famed Strip.

As befits its futuristic appearance, the new home of the newly named Las Vegas Raiders is also fitted with the latest in fan-facing technologies, deployments that will have to wait a bit before their potential can be realized.

Though the $1.9-billion, 65,000-seat stadium “officially” opened on Sept. 21 with a 34-24 Raiders victory over the New Orleans Saints, a decision made by the team earlier in the year meant that no fans were on hand to witness the occasion. But when fans are allowed to enter the building, they will be treated to what should be among the best game-day technical experiences anywhere, as a combination of innovation and expertise has permeated the venue’s deployments of wireless and video technologies.

With a Wi-Fi 6 network using equipment from Cisco, and an extensive cellular distributed antenna system (DAS) deployment by DAS Group Professionals using gear from JMA Wireless and MatSing, integrated fiber, copper and cable infrastructure from CommScope, backbone services from Cox Business/Hospitality Network, digital displays from Samsung, and design and converged network planning directed by AmpThink, the Raiders have used an all-star team of partners to reach the organization’s desire to provide what Raiders’ vice president of IT Matt Pasco calls “a top-notch fan experience.”

Finally getting to build a stadium network

Editor’s note: This story is from our recent STADIUM TECH REPORT Fall 2020 issue, which you can read right now, no email or registration required! Also in this issue is a profile of the technology behind SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles. START READING NOW!

For Pasco, who is in his 19th year with the Silver and Black, the entity that became Allegiant Stadium was the realization of something he’d never had: A stadium network to call his own.

From 1995 until the end of last season, the then-Oakland Raiders played home games in the Oakland Alameda County Coliseum, where they were tenants and shared the building with MLB’s Oakland Athletics.

According to Pasco, since the Raiders didn’t have the ability to direct capital improvements, “we never got to build a sufficient DAS, and we never got to have sufficient Wi-Fi for all our fans.”

MatSing Lens antennas look down from the catwalk. Credit: Matt Aguirre/Las Vegas Raiders

Fast-forward to the plans that eventually took shape with the move of the team to Las Vegas, and for a change Pasco was able to start thinking about what that meant from a technology perspective. With his long tenure and relationships around the league, Pasco said he embarked on a several years-long “stadiums tour” of accompanying the team for road games, looking at what other teams had done at their venues.

“I kept a big notebook on what I liked, and what didn’t seem to work,” Pasco said. “I sat down with a lot of my counterparts and talked about what worked well, and what they had to spend time with. So I got a really good sense of what was possible.”

Wi-Fi 6 arrives just in time

One fortunate event for Allegiant Stadium’s wireless deployment was the 2019 arrival of equipment that supported the new Wi-Fi 6 standard, also known as 802.11ax. With its ability to support more connections, higher bandwidth and better power consumption for devices, Wi-Fi 6 is a great technology to start off with, Pasco said.

“We were very fortunate that Wi-Fi 6 was released just in time [to be deployed at Allegiant Stadium],” Pasco said. “The strength of 802.11ax will pay off in a highly dense stadium with big crowds.”

The Raiders’ choice of Cisco as a Wi-Fi provider wasn’t a complete given, even though Pasco said that the team has long been “a Cisco shop” for not just Wi-Fi but for core networking, IPTV and phones.

“We did look at Extreme [for the new build] but Cisco just has so many pieces of the stack,” Pasco said. “Things like inconsistencies between switch maker A and IPTV vendor B are a little less likely to happen. And they’ve done good things in so many buildings.”

Pasco also praised the Wi-Fi network design and deployment skills of technology integrator AmpThink, which used an under-seat deployment design for Wi-Fi APs in the main seating bowl. Overall, there are approximately 1,700 APs total throughout the venue.

“I am thrilled with the work AmpThink has done,” said Pasco, who admitted that as a network engineer, he had “never done” a full stadium design before.

“They [AmpThink] have built networks at more than 70 venues, so they came highly recommended,” Pasco said. “And meeting their leadership early on sold me pretty quickly.”

Part of what AmpThink brought to the stadium was a converged network design, where every connected device is part of the same network.

Innovation abounds in the DAS

If the Wi-Fi world is already moving forward with general availability of Wi-Fi 6 gear, the cellular side of the equation is in a much different place as carriers contemplate how to best move forward with their latest standard, 5G.

For venues currently adding or upgrading a DAS, the 5G question looms large. One of the hardest things about planning for 5G is that the main U.S. cellular carriers will all have different spectrum bands in use, making it hard to deploy a single “neutral host” DAS to support all the providers. Currently, all previous 5G deployments in stadiums have been single-carrier builds – but that won’t be the case in Allegiant Stadium, thanks to some new gear from JMA.

JMA DAS gear in the roof structure. Credit: Matt Aguirre/Las Vegas Raiders

Steve Dutto, president of DGP – which used JMA gear at many of its other stadium DAS installations, including the San Francisco 49ers’ Levi’s Stadium and most recently at the Texas Rangers’ new home, Globe Life Field – said the DAS deployed at Allegiant Stadium “is like no other” NFL-venue cellular network.

“By selecting JMA DAS equipment we were able to deploy a [5G standard] NR radio capable system from day one,” Dutto said. “This means that all carriers can deploy 5G low- and mid-band technology without any additional cost or changes to the DAS system.”

According to Dutto and JMA, the JMA TEKO DAS antennas cover all major licensed spectrum used, from 600MHz to 2500 MHz. and will provide ubiquitous coverage over the entire stadium.

“Carriers will be able to deploy their 4G technologies along with their low- and mid-band 5G technology over all of the stadium coverage area,” Dutto said. “No upgrades will be required. All carriers will need to do is provide their base radios in the headend.”

According to Todd Landry, corporate vice president, product and market strategy at JMA, the TEKO gear used at Allegiant Stadium “employs an industry unique nine-band split architecture, placing lower frequency bands in different radios than higher frequency bands.” This approach, Landry said, lets the stadium “optimize the density of higher band cells versus lower bands” while also reducing the total number of radios needed for low bands by half.

Landry said the JMA gear also has integrated support for the public safety FirstNet spectrum band, and is software programmable, allowing venue staff to “turn on” capabilities per carrier as needed, eliminating on-site visits to install additional radios or radio modules. According to DGP the DAS has 75 high-band zones and 44 low-band zones in the main seating bowl, with a total of 117 high- band and 86 low-band zones throughout the venue.

Adding in the MatSing antennas from above

One twist in the DAS buildout was the addition of 30 MatSing lens antennas to the cellular mix, a technology solution to potential coverage issues in some hard-to-reach areas of the seating bowl. According to Pasco the Raiders were trying to solve for a typical DAS issue – namely, how to best cover the premium seats closest to the field, which are the hardest to reach with a traditional top-down DAS antenna deployment.

“We looked at a hybrid approach, to use under-seat [DAS] antennas for the first 15 or 20 rows, but the cost was astronomical,” Pasco said. “We also heard that [an underseat deployment] may not have performed as well as we wanted.”

The roof structure provided a perfect mounting place for the MatSing Lens antennas. Credit: Matt Aguirre/Las Vegas Raiders

The MatSing antennas, which are ball-shaped and support greater distance between antenna and end-device, were already designed for use in the Allegiant Stadium “Peristyle” gathering area, where there is a large open space where fans are expected to gather – with a large top-down distance between the area and the struc- tures where antennas are mounted.

“I had heard about the full MatSing deployment at Amalie [Arena] and wondered if we could do that,” said Pasco. Fortunately for the Raiders, the architecture of the stadium, with a high ring supporting the transparent roof, turned out to be a perfect place to mount MatSing antennas, which use line-of-sight transmission to precisely target broadcast areas. For Pasco, a move toward more MatSings was a triple-play win, since it removed the need for other antennas from walkways and overhangs, was less costly than an under-seat network, and should prove to have better performance, if network models are correct.

“It is the perfect marriage of cost reduction, better performance and aesthetics,” said Pasco of the MatSing deployment. “We even painted them black, like little Black Holes,” Pasco said. “It’s one of the most innovative decisions we made.”

“We are excited to be part of the Allegiant Stadium network,” said MatSing CEO Bo Larsson. “It is a great venue to show the capability of MatSing Lens antennas.”

Supporting wireless takes a lot of wires

Behind all the wireless antenna technology in Allegiant Stadium – as well as behind the IPTV, security cameras and other communications needs – sits some 227 miles of optical fiber and another 1.5 million feet of copper cable, provided by CommScope.

A good balance of the 100 Gbps fiber connections are used to support the stadium’s DAS network, with the capacity built not just for current needs but for expected future demands as well. According to CommScope senior field applications engineer Greg Hinders the “spider web of single-mode fiber” includes multiple runs of 864-strand links, which break out in all directions to support all the networking needs.

For the cable connections to the Wi-Fi gear, CommScope’s design went with Cat 6A cable, which has double the capabilities and a longer reach than standard Cat 6.

“The new APs really require it [Cat 6A] so we went standard with Cat 6A throughout the building,” Hinders said.

A view from the stands. Credit: Michael Clemens/Las Vegas Raiders

And if the job wasn’t tough enough – limited construction space at the stadium required that CommScope and its distribution partner Anixter had to stage its network in an offsite warehouse – CommScope also had to make sure that exposed wiring was colored silver and black to match the stadium design and the team’s colors.

While single-mode fiber is usually colored yellow, Hinders is enough of a football fan to know that Pittsburgh Steelers colors wouldn’t fly in the Raiders’ home.

“It all had to be black and grey,” said Hinders. “Black and yellow isn’t good for the Raiders.”

The MatSing antennas also posed a challenge for CommScope, since each MatSing antenna requires 48 individual connections for all the radios in each device.

“It was [another] logistical challenge,” said Hinders. “But it was great to see [the entire network] all come to fruition. It’s nice to know we had a part in putting it all together.”

Providing enough backbone bandwidth

To ensure that Allegiant Stadium had enough backbone bandwidth to support all its communications needs, the Raiders turned to Cox Business/Hospitality Network, a partner with considerable telecom assets in the Las Vegas area.

Jady West, vice president of hospitality for Cox, noted that not only does Cox have experience in providing data services to high-demand venues (including State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Ariz., which routinely hosts big college games and the Super Bowl), it also has a wealth of resources in and around Las Vegas, providing services to the big casino hotels and the Las Vegas Convention Center.

With a 100 Gbps regional network, West said Cox is able to bring “quite a bit of power and flexibility” to the equation. Having supplied services to big events like CES at the LVCC, West said, “takes a specialized skill, and that’s what my team does. This is what we do.”

Display technology and POS gear at a concourse lounge. Credit: Dan Grimsley/AmpThink

Specifically for the Raiders, Cox built two 40-Gbps redundant pipes just to serve the needs of Allegiant Stadium. Additionally, Cox built a 10 Gbps metro Ethernet link between the stadium and the team’s headquarters and practice facility in nearby Henderson, Nev., a connection that Pasco said would be essential for stadium operations as well as the on-field football business.

“Both the video production staff and the football staff can now push information back and forth like we’re in the same building,” said Pasco, who gave high praise to Cox’s work. From a production side, crews at headquarters can create content for videoboards and displays, and have it at the stadium instantaneously; similarly, video from the stadium’s field of play or from practices can be shared back and forth as needed, in a private and real-time fashion.

West said Cox, which also provides game-day network support and a “NOC as a service” solution, knows that the data demands of the big-time events that will likely be held at Allegiant Stadium will only keep increasing, and it built its systems to support that growth.

“The most demanding events are things like CES, and NFL games,” West said. “This network is built for the future, to hold up for all those events.”

Videoboards to fit the design

Last but certainly not least in the technology arsenal at Allegiant Stadium are the Samsung videoboards. Above the south end zone, the largest board measures approximately 250 feet long by 49 feet high, according to Pasco. Two identical sized boards of 49 feet by 122 feet are in the corners of the north end zone. Including ribbon boards, Pasco said there is a total of 40,000 square feet of LED lights inside the seating bowl.

On the stadium’s exterior there is another large videoboard, a 275-foot mesh LED screen that fits in perfectly with the bright lights of the city’s famed Strip. Inside, the venue will also have approximately 2,400 TV screens for information and concessions, with all the systems controlled by the Cisco Vision display management system.