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.

New Report: Inside the technology at SoFi Stadium and Allegiant Stadium

Stadium Tech Report is pleased to announce our FALL 2020 issue, with profiles of two of the most innovative new venues to open – SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles and Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas! While neither venue will host fans this NFL season, our profiles will dig in-depth to tell you about the technologies in place to make these stadiums the most advanced when it comes to the game-day experience. We also have a substantive news analysis story about how venues and product and service suppliers are planning to tackle two of the biggest venue issues when it comes to hosting fans during a pandemic – venue entry and concessions operations.

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 and ExteNet Systems. 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. We’d also like to thank the SEAT community for your continued interest and support.

We would like to take a moment here and give some special thanks to the people at SoFi Stadium and at Allegiant Stadium, and to all the other subjects we interviewed for this issue, for their extra help when it came to providing interview time and especially photos to help bring our publications to life. We quite literally couldn’t have done this without your help, and we look forward to visiting venues again in the near future!

Montreal Impact picks Aruba for new Wi-Fi network at Saputo Stadium

When fans are allowed back into Saputo Stadium, home of Major League Soccer’s Montreal Impact, at some future point they will be able to connect to a new Wi-Fi network using gear from Aruba, a Hewlett Packard Enterprise company.

The ongoing deployment, announced today in a press release, will use approximately 250 802.11ac Wave 2 (aka Wi-Fi 5) APs to cover the 19,000-plus seat venue, according to Aruba. In the metal-framed sections of the venue, Aruba said 128 of the APs will be deployed in an under-seat enclosure.

“Though the pandemic has caused us to have to delay the start of our home game play this year, engaging with fans and allowing them to share their experiences with each other and via social media is still one of the main hallmarks of the in-stadium experience,” said Roger Miron, IT director for Saputo Stadium, in a prepared statement. “Implementing a reliable, high performing Wi-Fi network is the first step in our multi-phase initiative to enable extraordinary experiences, as well as improve our own stadium operations.”

According to the release, Saputo Stadium is working with Canadian telecom partner Vidéotron to deploy Aruba access points, mobility controllers and Aruba core and access switches, as well as Aruba’s Airwave network management system. In addition to fan-facing Internet access, the Impact and Saputo will look to use the new network to power new types of concession features, including mobile ordering, and will also look to debut a stadium app with mobile ticketing capability.

Boingo to bring Wi-Fi 6, DAS to Austin FC’s new stadium

Artist rendering of the under-construction stadium for Austin FC, which begins MLS play next season. Credit all photos: Austin FC

Austin FC has selected Boingo to deliver a neutral-host distributed antenna system and a Wi-Fi 6 network for the club’s new stadium, which is slated to open next year during Austin FC’s inaugural season in Major League Soccer.

While all scheduled things for sports and stadiums are currently “pending” due to the coronavirus pandemic, for right now the new venue located in the north-central part of the booming west Texas metropolis is still slated to open next year, according to Andy Loughnane, Austin FC President. And in a phone interview this week Loughnane said that when the stadium does open up, it should have the kind of connectivity that Austin’s tech-savvy populace will expect — namely, strong Wi-Fi and cellular.

According to Loughnane, Boingo emerged as the winner of a “competitive process” to choose the technology supplier for the venue. While some of the details of the networks have not yet been announced — including hardware vendors for both the DAS and the Wi-Fi networks — Loughnane and Boingo are confident that the stadium will have more than enough bandwidth to keep a full house of 20,500 soccer fans (or 22,000 concertgoers) well connected no matter where they are.

No matter which Wi-Fi vendor is selected, Loughnane said that using Wi-Fi 6 APs will be a performance key for what he hopes will be fully packed stands (if and when fans are allowed to attend large events again). Boingo senior vice president and general manager Doug Lodder said that the Wi-Fi network will use a combination of under-seat and overhead AP deployment, with “hundreds” of APs throughout the venue.


A construction cam shot shows the current state of the Austin FC stadium.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The contact-free concessions experience

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A situation that changes day to day

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

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