Dickies Arena: Raising the fan experience to the highest level

The opening parade sets the rodeo tone at Dickies Arena. Credit: Phil Harvey, MSR (click on any photo for a larger image)

Without a professional or major college sports team as a main tenant, it’s somewhat of a wonder that Dickies Arena in Fort Worth, Texas, got built at all. But once you step inside and attend an event there, the wonder shifts to the sheer excellence that surrounds you, in what may be simply the best-built arena-sized venue, anywhere.

It might seem like a Texas-sized stretch to make such a claim, but any other basketball-sized stadium similar to 14,000-seat Dickies Arena would be hard pressed to top the amenities, infrastructure and operations installed inside the new gem of Fort Worth. While first and foremost the venue serves as home of the annual Fort Worth Stock Show & Rodeo, a three-week-plus extravaganza that held its maiden run there earlier this year, when it’s safe to allow events to return Dickies Arena will also host concerts, ice shows and other sporting and non-sporting events, saving local folks from having to drive east to Dallas for a big-time experience.

But it’s opulence, comfort and service that will be the hallmarks of a Dickies Arena experience going forward, with those attributes far outweighing the convenience of just having a world-class venue in Fort Worth. During a visit by Mobile Sports Report during the middle of this year’s rodeo program (which ran 23 straight days from Jan. 17 to Feb. 8) we saw not just the visible attributes of perhaps the most polished finish of any arena ever, but also the underpinnings of important infrastructure assets like the wireless networks and video operations, and the intense level of attention to detail in food and beverage operations, all aimed at raising the fan experience to the highest level.

The opera house meets the rodeo

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 recap of the record-breaking Wi-Fi usage at Super Bowl LIV, and a recap of a DIY Wi-Fi deployment at Rutgers University! Start reading the issue now online or download a free copy!

Fine dining is just one of the premium seating options at Dickies Arena. Credit; Paul Kapustka, MSR

When we last visited the under-construction Dickies Arena in the fall of 2019, the finishing touches weren’t in place yet, even though we could see hints of what it was shaping up to be. For our late-January visit for a night of rodeo, we got to see the finished product in all its glory, and all we can say is, it may be some time before another venue even approaches the level of cosmetic finish achieved at Dickies Arena.

To be sure, not many venue ownerships may have the financial resources or the certainty of what they want out of a finished product as the team behind the creation of Fort Worth’s newest centerpiece. If you’re not familiar with the Dickies Arena story, the arena is part of a public-private venture between the city of Fort Worth and a consortium of investors and donors led by local Fort Worth philanthropist Ed Bass. As the home of Fort Worth’s namesake rodeo, Dickies Arena is clearly meant to be that and so much more, cementing in place a building where people who know what they want got exactly what they wanted – and more.

While we didn’t get to speak with Bass directly, his presence is felt in all areas of operation of the facility, with multiple stories of his direct involvement in making sure the smallest of details were adhered to. Even a first-time visitor to the rodeo could see and feel the devotion of leaders like Bass to their signature hometown event, from his riding a horse at the front of the event-opening parade to his video-board cameos of slapping bundles of cash into the hands of the event winners as the night progressed.

Behind the scenes, we heard stories about how Bass and the leadership team wanted very specific things done cosmetically – like making sure that no antennas for either the Wi-Fi or DAS networks were visible in any of the main public areas. To meet that challenge, main technical integrator AmpThink had to go outside the norm to design (and in some cases, custom-build) enclosures to hide the gear. Walking through the main concourses and seating areas, the only hint that wireless equipment might be overhead was the outline of flush-mounted panels, a design theme that even carried out to outside-wall mounting areas in the plaza areas around the arena’s exteriors.

Once inside Dickies Arena, visitors may feel like they are in somewhere more like an opera house than a multi-purpose venue (which on this night had a “playing floor” of some finely raked dirt). Floors of decorative tiles are underfoot, and railings on the staircases enclose sculptures of a distinctive local grass plant. That same design is reflected on the plates used in one of the premium seating areas, where the dining choices include a sit-down, white-tablecloth experience that looks like a four-star steakhouse inserted into the concourse.

A rafter deployment of DAS and Wi-Fi gear. Credit: Paul Kapustka, MSR

Bill Shaw, the assistant general manager for Dickies Arena, was courteous enough to give us a directed tour of the venue before the night’s activities, pointing out things we might have noticed but not really realized, like the different tones and types of wood used for paneling, which changed as you moved from a higher premium seating area to a more general admission space. In the suites, Shaw showed us some especially comfy leather stadium chairs, which he said were the end result of a long process of determination to find out the best way to pad and tan the chair’s components.

Even the construction of the wheeled chairs in the loge box where we were the guest of AmpThink for the night were subject to scrutiny by Mr. Bass, we were told, with a story about him using tape measures to ensure the seat width was correct, and discussions about having the proper types of armrests that wouldn’t inadvertently snag the handles of a handbag.

“Mr. Bass spent a lot of time on all of that,” said Shaw. “His fingerprints are everywhere.”

To be sure, the somewhat unique ownership structure and the recurring revenue from the rodeo – which has sold-out status for all the premium seating spaces thanks to the families who have been supporting the event for generations – means in part that Dickies Arena doesn’t have to saturate its public spaces with advertising. While its digital display arsenal includes striking elements like curved LED screens from LG and menu boards and other displays running the Cisco Vision dynamic signage system, Dickies Arena only has a small number of partner-sponsors whose messages run somewhat discreetly compared to other arenas that may have more need to have a higher number of displays and advertisements.

The layout of the arena in general also takes its cue from how the premium seating space is used for the rodeo. Instead of a normal sort of top-down arena seating with “courtside” seats being the most desired, the wide space needed for rodeo events and the family atmosphere (most premium packages, according to Shaw, are bought by families and not corporations) means that there are “boxes” of seats ringing the lower bowl, with a wide walkway behind them to facilitate the meeting and greeting (and the seeing and being-seen) that is part of the rodeo culture. Thanks to some very clever architecture and movable stands technology, the mid-bowl walkway can disappear for events like concerts and other sporting situations like basketball; but good luck trying to figure out how that works by walking by the stands, since all the moving parts are, of course, hidden from view.

While a ring of suites provides another premium seating option a bit higher up, at either end of the venue are two more unique gathering areas, with belly-up bars that stretch almost the full width of the space, providing a place for the premium box-seat patrons to mingle while still having a clear view of whatever action is taking place. Shaw noted that at one end of the arena the seating can collapse back to almost a straight line, providing ample space for concert stages that also gives Dickies Arena a concert-seating total that Shaw said is comparable to American Airlines Center in Dallas, which seats 20,000 for NBA and NHL games.

Then there are some more touches you can’t see, like the bass-sound traps installed in the roof area to improve acoustics – and those you can see, like the soaring rooftop that is meant to mimic the open sky of Texas. As more fans attend different events scheduled in the future they are no doubt going to be impressed and perhaps surprised by the “opera house” where boots and Stetsons are the local fashion of choice.

Well wired for wireless

In our early fall visit to Dickies Arena we detailed the single, converged fiber network that supports all network operations, including the cellular DAS, the arena Wi-Fi and the IPTV operations, in an orderly, future-proofed way.

Built by AmpThink for the arena, the network is a departure from what has long been the norm in venue IT deployments, where multiple service providers typically build their own networks, with multiple cabling systems competing for conduit space. At Dickies Arena, AmpThink was able to control the fiber systems to follow a single, specific path, allowing the company to save costs and space for the client while building out a system with enough extra capacity to handle future needs for bandwidth, according to AmpThink.

According to AmpThink president Bill Anderson, one of those future needs became necessary this past fall, when Verizon wanted to bring its 5G millimeter-wave services as a late addition to the arena. To support the four 5G antennas that are now mounted up in the catwalk, Anderson said AmpThink was able to just allocate some of the spare optical fiber it has in place throughout the building, making it possible to bring in the service “in a very affordable way.”

In addition to the numerous custom enclosures used throughout the venue, Anderson said AmpThink also designed a pre-fabricated combination Wi-Fi and DAS antenna unit design that it could then hoist up into the rafters in a single pull. By having the green light to lead and innovate, AmpThink was able to develop and learn things it will draw on well into the future, Anderson said. “This is really our master class [on stadium network design],” Anderson said.

An under-seat Wi-Fi enclosure. Credit: Dickies Arena

Since we spent most of our January time at the venue touring the spaces and talking to different representatives, we didn’t have that much time for network speed tests but the ones we did get showed the typical strong performances of an AmpThink-built network. On one of the concourses behind the suite levels we got a Wi-Fi speedtest of 67.0 Mbps on the download side and 65.0 Mbps on the upload.

Up at the highest level of seating, which is served from the rafter-mounted APs, we got a speedtest of 28.3 Mbps / 39.5 Mbps, during the night’s final event.

Though we didn’t get down there for a speedtest, the lower-bowl seats are served by under-seat Wi-Fi enclosures. According to Anderson there are approximately 550 Cisco Wi-Fi APs used throughout the venue, all of which are now the latest versions supporting the new Wi-Fi 6 standard. The DAS, which is overseen by ExteNet Systems, uses the Corning ONE DAS hardware system with approximately 258 active antennas in 11 zones for the DAS.

Keeping video and food and beverage operations in-house

Having never been to a live rodeo event before, Mobile Sports Report was somewhat in awe of the video production inside the arena, with multiple camera angles repeatedly in use on the large-screen centerhung videoboard. With no pauses, halftimes or timeouts, action was constant, and reflected as such on the main video screens.

We are simply going to have to revisit the arena for a more in-depth exploration of the video production operation itself, which is run entirely by the Dickies Arena team and even provides live feeds itself to cable channels covering rodeo. One of the more innovative twists inside the building is a concourse-level fan booth, where a large interactive video board can serve up multiple instant replays of rodeo action by clicking and dragging screenshots to the main display area.

The three-plus weeks of back to back rodeo action was somewhat of a stress test for the video crew, since almost every night there were different types of competitions (for instance, the night we attended there was a team competition, with scores from multiple events tabulated into a final team score) requiring custom programs to populate the video board displays. According to the video team there were no fewer than seven different scoring programs in play each night, but they were able to coordinate the results so quickly that they actually had to introduce a time delay into the reporting from judges to the video screens, so that the announcers could add some drama to their live play-by-play.

On the food and beverage side of operations, the do-it-ourselves theory of Dickies Arena meant that the arena controls all aspects of F&B operations, instead of contracting much of the work to a third-party caterer.

Families are a big part of the rodeo crowd. Credit: Paul Kapustka, MSR

Julie Margolin, director of food and beverage operations at Dickies Arena, said it starts with little things, like not having to live with a certain brand of hot dog because that is the brand a caterer carries. But then it expands into what is possible, and why you would try to do things like provide in-seat delivery service to 4,000 premium seats while also balancing the F&B needs for a diverse operation that includes white-tablecloth dining, suite operations, high-end bar areas, and mobile point-of-sale to support cotton-candy sales on the concourses.

“We do everything we can to make sure every experience is the best,” said Margolin. “That’s a task not a lot of people are willing to take on.”

But Margolin, who previously held a similar title at the Honda Center in Los Angeles, is like other top performers who found the opportunity and challenge presented by Dickies Arena too good to pass up.

“This building is very different than others in the industry,” said Margolin, citing the close working atmosphere that rapidly built between operations and construction and information technology teams as the building opened late in 2019 ahead of the real debut, the rodeo season.

“If something needed fixing, nobody went home until it was done,” Margolin said. And while like others she’s always looking for ways to improve, Margolin said the whole idea of a venue owning and operating its own F&B was an exciting challenge.

“If you go with someone else’s [catering] model, you’re serving two masters,” Margolin said. But trying to meld numerous different types of fan experience operations, she said, is a challenge worth pursuing.

“If you stick with the status quo, you’re going backwards,” she said.

Dickies Arena: As good as it gets?

Standing outside the arena on a clear-sky night, from one of the outdoor plazas, fans have a pleasing view back toward the lighted buildings of downtown Fort Worth. Legend has it that Ed Bass purchased the land Dickies Arena sits on more than three decades ago, with the vision that someday he would help build an arena with that signature view back toward downtown. Now that that dream is reality, the sky’s the limit for what Dickies Arena future may be.

Though the coronavirus has effectively put all arena schedules somewhat on hold, prior to the outbreak Dickies Arena had already announced future bookings for big-name concert acts as well as family events like Disney on Ice, Cirque du Soleil and even the U.S. Gymnastics Championships. Clearly, the events market will make use of a venue of Dickies Arena’s size and stature.

According to Shaw, patrons with rodeo season tickets get first dibs on other events, but it’s a good bet that the diversity of action inside the Dickies Arena walls will mean that a wide number of fans will be able to experience the wide range of seating options available. But even those attending on the least-expensive tickets will still be able to experience the overall quality of all aspects of the arena, which will be hard for other venues to match.


A panoramic view of the Dickies Arena seating bowl. Credit: Phil Harvey, MSR


A sunny-day view of the arena’s exterior. Credit: Phil Harvey, MSR

Super Bowl LIV recap: Big jump in per-device usage fuels record Wi-Fi mark

Miami’s Hard Rock Stadium hosted Super Bowl LIV this year, where the new single-day Wi-Fi record was set. Credit: Brian Nitenson, MSR

The big game is back on top of the unofficial Mobile Sports Report single-day Wi-Fi rankings, with a mark of 26.42 terabytes of data used at Super Bowl LIV in Miami, according to figures reported by Extreme Networks.

What’s most interesting (to us) about the number is that it was generated in a venue that had approximately 8,000 fewer fans in attendance than last year’s Super Bowl (70,081 in Atlanta for Super Bowl 53 vs. 62,417 for Super Bowl 54). It was also the second-lowest Super Bowl attendance figure ever, just above the 61,946 fans who attended Super Bowl 1.

So not surprisingly the fans who connected to the Wi-Fi network at Miami’s Hard Rock Stadium also set a new record for average data consumed per connected user, at 595.6 megabytes per user — a big jump from last year’s average data per user total of 492.3 MB. Going forward, we here at MSR think this statistic is even more important than the overall data-used or total tonnage mark, since it more accurately reflects how the network is performing for fans.

“I think the average [data] per user is the metric we’re most proud of,” said John Brams, director of sports and entertainment for Extreme Networks. Extreme, which has a sponsorship deal with the NFL to provide network statistics from every Super Bowl, was also the gear provider for the network at Hard Rock Stadium, the first Super Bowl for Extreme gear since Super Bowl 51 at Houston’s NRG Stadium back in 2017. According to Extreme, the Wi-Fi setup at Hard Rock Stadium uses some 2,000 APs, many of which are deployed in under-seat enclosures in the bowl seating.

The average data used per device, Brams said, is to Extreme the proof of how well each user is served by the network, and is perhaps a more important metric than the simple total of data used.

“If you are asking what is the health of a network, the average [data used] per user is a good metric for that,” Brams said. Brams, like MSR, also believes that the average data used per user is a metric that can be used to compare network performances between different-sized stadiums, like football stadiums and basketball arenas, which might be very far apart in total data used simply because of the capacity differences.

Verizon autoconnect helps out on the Wi-Fi usage

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 DIY Wi-Fi deployment at Rutgers University! Start reading the issue now online or download a free copy!

With a reported 44,358 unique devices connected to the network this year’s Super Bowl also set a new mark for Super Bowl take rate at 71 percent; the top overall take rate mark still belongs to Ohio State, which saw 71.5 percent of its fans connected when Ohio Stadium saw 25.6 TB of Wi-Fi used this past fall during a game against Michigan State. It’s worth noting that the average data per user mark from the Ohio State game was 341.6 MB.

Wi-Fi ‘coaches’ helped fans connect at the big game. Credit: Extreme Networks

Like at Ohio State, at Hard Rock Stadium fans whose devices were on a Verizon cellular subscription could be automatically connected to the Wi-Fi network, a factor that often results in high take rates. Verizon has similar deals with a number of NFL stadiums and some large college venues, including Ohio State, Florida and Brigham Young. Verizon would not reveal what percentage of its customers were included in the overall unique Wi-Fi connection number at Super Bowl LIV.

Peak network usage hits 10 Gbps

Some more info from the great list put together by Extreme: The peak concurrent user number of 24,837 devices was seen during pre-game activities; the peak network throughput of 10.4 Gbps also occurred before the game started, according to Extreme. Of the final data total, 11.1 TB was used before the game started, with the balance of 15.32 TB being used after kickoff.

“We’ve seen the highest data rates right before the game started at the last four Super Bowls,” said Brams. According to Brams, this statistic may be caused by the fact that people at Super Bowls tend to arrive very early for the games, and by the NFL’s attempts to keep things interesting with plenty of pregame entertainment.

The most used streaming apps by fans at Super Bowl LIV were, in order of usage, Apple iTunes, Apple Streaming, YouTube, Spotify and Netflix; the most used social apps in order of usage were Facebook, Instagram, Twit- ter, Snapchat and Bitmoji. For sports apps, the most used in order of usage were ESPN, NFL, NFL OnePass, CBS Sports and ESPN Go.

When reading through the list of apps, MSR wondered out loud who would be watching Netflix at a Super Bowl. But Brams thinks Extreme’s network statistics have an answer.

“It’s amazing how many people bring kids to a big game,” he said. “And those kids may not be that interested in everything going on at the game, so in between they are streaming shows [on Netflix].” Brams said the Netflix-at-games is a trend at NFL games in general, with Netflix consistently showing up in the top 5 of apps used on a stadium network.

A view of the field just before kickoff. Credit: Brian Nitenson, MSR

Friday links: More Wi-Fi spectrum, Apple SE has Wi-Fi 6 and CBRS

Apple’s new $399 iPhone SE supports both Wi-Fi 6 and CBRS. Credit: Apple

If you need some pointers on things to catch up on this weekend here are some links to recent news that will likely have future impact on the stadium technology world, including new Wi-Fi spectrum, Apple’s support for Wi-Fi 6 and CBRS in its new phone, and Apple and Google working together on contact tracing.

FCC ready to clear 6 GHz band for unlicensed Wi-Fi

This surfaced a couple weeks ago but it’s worth revisiting as venues plan their Wi-Fi networks of the future. In a vote expected to take place next week, the FCC looks ready to approve pretty much the entire 6 GHz band for unlicensed use, a big win for the Wi-Fi industry. Monica Alleven over at FierceWireless has a good recap, we will of course follow up as this moves along to see how venues and equipment providers plan to take advantage of the roughly 1,200 MHz of new spectrum. Can you say bigger channel sizes? Yes you can. The new spectrum will be extremely powerful when combined with the technical advances of Wi-Fi 6 — which you can read about in the report we put out last year in partnership with AmpThink.

Apple supports Wi-Fi 6, CBRS in new iPhone SE

Keeping pace with the wireless support it placed in the iPhone 11 line that came out last fall, Apple’s new iPhone SE will have support for both Wi-Fi 6 and for CBRS (LTE band 48), which should mean that our opinion that Apple may hasten acceptance of Wi-Fi 6 gets a turbo boost. At just $399, the new smaller form-factor phone is already being praised as a good value. Since venues regularly still report iOS devices as the majority of in-stadium network users, it’s a good bet the lower-priced iPhone will show up in big numbers in the near future. That also means that venues planning on Wi-Fi 6 networks or CBRS deployments will have more clients sooner rather than later.

Apple, Google partner on COVID-19 contact tracing technology

It’s still very early days for venues trying to figure out which technologies they might need to adopt to help them re-open, but one development that bears close watching is the partnership between Apple and Google to work together on COVID-19 contact tracing technology. Again, no real plans yet on how venues might use this technology, but it’s a smart guess that some kind of tracking application will be needed to ensure people coming into stadiums can feel safe about being part of a crowd. The Markup has a good take on some of the pros and cons of the technology; we’ll be following this closely going forward as well.

How will touch screens work when people are wary of touching things?

As we pay more attention to concessions technology one question we’ve been wondering about is: What happens to touch-screen concessions technology in the era of COVID-19? Our pal Dave Haynes over at 16:9 has a virtual roundtable scheduled for next week Tuesday that will focus on that topic. Registration is free.

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

Remote worker support at forefront for venue IT during coronavirus shutdowns

With almost all work now being done remotely, it’s no surprise that team and venue IT staffs have virtual operations support at the forefront as the coronavirus shuts down most business operations.

In emails and calls to a small group of venue, team and school IT leaders the task of making sure that staffs could work online in a virtual fashion was the one common response from every person who replied to our questions. According to our short list of respondents that task included getting mobile devices into the hands of those who needed them, and setting up systems like virtual private networks (VPNs) and virtual desktop environments (VDI) so that work could proceed in an orderly, secure fashion.

Since many of the people we asked for comments couldn’t reply publicly, we are going to keep all replies anonymous and surface the information only. The other main question we asked was whether or not the virus shutdowns had either delayed or accelerated any construction or other deployment projects; we got a mix of replies in both directions, as some venues are taking advantage of the shutdowns to get inside arenas that don’t have any events happening now. In addition to some wireless-tech projects that are proceeding apace, we also heard about other repairs to systems like elevators and escalators, which are more easily done when venues are empty.

But we also heard from some venues that shutdowns right now will likely push some projects back, maybe even a year or more. One venue that is largely empty in the summer will have to skip a planned network upgrade because it expects that normally empty dates in the fall and winter will be filled by cancelled events that will need to be rescheduled. Another venue said that it has projects lined up ready to go, but has not yet gotten budget approval to proceed.

Following our editorial from earlier this week, when we encouraged venues to make their spaces available for coronavirus response efforts, it was clear that many venues across the world had already started down that path. One of the quickest uses to surface was using venues’ wide-open parking lots as staging areas for mobile coronavirus testing; Miami’s Hard Rock Stadium, Tampa’s Raymond James Stadium and Washington D.C.’s FedEx Field were among those with testing systems put in parking lots.

Some venues have already been tabbed as places for temporary hospitals, with deployments at Seattle’s CenturyLink Field and New York’s Billie Jean King National Tennis Center already underway. Other venues, including Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse in Cleveland and State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Ariz., have hosted blood drives.

Using venues to support coronavirus response efforts is a worldwide trend, with former Olympic venues in London being proposed as support sites, as well as former World Cup venues in Brazil. Perth Stadium in Australia is also being used, as a public safety command center, like Chicago’s United Center, which is being used as a logistics hub.

Many other venues are stepping forward to offer free public Wi-Fi access in parking lots so that people who don’t have internet access at home can safely drive up and connect. Ball State University and the Jackson Hole Fairgrounds are just two of many venues doing this.

Venues are also offering their extensive kitchen and food-storage capabilities for the response effort. The Green Bay Packers have been preparing and delivering meals for schools and health-care workers, while the Pepsi Center in Denver offered cooler space to store food. Many other venues have contributed existing stores of food to charitable organizations and support efforts, since those items won’t be used at any of the many cancelled events.