by Mark Gillis CTS-D, Principal Consultant

With insightful commentary, dozens of camera angles for replay of every critical event and affordable hyper-real 4k televisions, TV gives the sports fan an “up close and personal” viewing experience. Why would anyone leave the comfort of his or her own living room to attend a live sporting event?

This question is driving sport franchises (and the architects and engineers that design sporting venues) to create an in-person experience that goes beyond the game itself.

The experience begins by making it easier for the spectator. Virtual ticketing gives secure authorization to the stadium. Parking is simplified with an app on a smart device that shows the closest available spot and then helps guide fans to their seats. At the club level, those fans don’t even need to leave their seats for snacks — food and drink are delivered.

The desire to create excitement within the venue has led to extraordinary pre-game entertainment with laser light shows, projection mapping across the arena floor, and other highly-produced events. LED lighting is becoming more prevalent as the cost has continued to fall, and the ability to tie the control and color of the building lighting has become part of the palette of the entertainment design, as well as providing the energy savings so critical to the owner.

Medlar Field at Lubrano Park Baseball Stadium, which opened in 2006, began a relationship between The Sextant Group and Penn State that now spans ten sports projects. One of the most exciting projects is a renovation of the iconic Beaver Stadium, the second largest football stadium in the Western Hemisphere, now featuring more than 10,000 SF of high definition video displays. It is emblematic of the escalating battle to provide larger displays with more resolution than ever before. The big screens have become a source of fans’ social media interaction with twitter feeds, kiss cams, live video games and prize contests offering immense entertainment value to spectators.

Fan expectations are also driving the design of ever higher fidelity audio systems with installed speaker systems that are far beyond the public address systems of the past. The sensory impact of music helps build excitement for the fans, and some players even personally select music for their introductions.

High-Definition is the name of the display game. Sports venue operators are currently installing the latest 4K ultra high definition displays, and 8K resolution is on the horizon.

Almost everyone carries some type of ‘smart’ device with them, and many sports organizations are creating custom applications to augment the fan experience. ColosseoEAS is an international company based in Bratislava, Slovakia that specializes in LED design, multimedia and statistics solutions for sport venues. The company’s smartphone technology enables fans’ Wi-Fi connected devices to download apps which allow access to multiple camera angles, instant replay and real-time statistics.

Recent advances in Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality (VR/AR) are now providing the extra content that patrons are looking for. The Golden State Warriors Oracle Arena in Oakland, California created Fannovate allowing fans in attendance at the game to experience pre-game rituals and warm-ups through the eyes of the players.

The Capital One Arena in Washington DC (formerly The Verizon Center) is one of many facilities employing different facets of cutting edge technology to enhance the fan experience. Through the use of custom apps, meta-data and deep analytics they are building deeper fan profiles with insights that allow them to better cater to the preferences of individual fans.

In 2016, the venue introduced a photo app that enables fans to simply enter their seat number and have photos delivered in real-time to their cell phones which they could then instantly share on social media channels. The application uses multiple camera units installed throughout the arena, capturing candid moments throughout the game in real-time. Each image tells a story by providing a description of the fan’s moment alongside curated images of the action on the court or the ice.

Future platforms based around head-mounted optical displays, like Google Glass, will provide a heads-up display of player stats, the ability to select a replay from any one of multiple camera angles or experience a 240 degree view of the playing surface from the sideline of a football or soccer game or just above the dasher board at the red line of the hockey game between the benches.

That same technology can take the most passionate and tech savvy fan inside the cockpit of the Indy car with the drivers-eye-view as it speeds around the track at 200 mph.

Spectators at any sporting event want to share their excitement and what is currently happening in the venue with the hope of creating their own viral event; however, accommodating hundreds or thousands of users’ connectivity to either Wi-Fi or cellular service will strain a typical Wireless Access Point (WAP) system or Distributed Antenna System (DAS). The result can be limited bandwidth for accessing social media or an inability to connect at all.

The Golden 1 Center in Sacramento, California, as part of a recent technology investment, has installed more than 1,000 next-generation Wi-Fi access points and has one million square feet of Wi-Fi cellular coverage. They have embraced the idea of a “Real World Web” (RWW) platform which is similar to the augmented reality experience from the popular game Pokémon Go. Both overlay a digital game in the real world using software called Geotrigger which makes something digital happen when a person is in a particular place. These triggers can help incentivize people to go to a certain location and perform an action, such as going to a specific restaurant or purchasing a specific item.

The proliferation of “fantasy sports” leagues has created opportunities for venue operators and their teams. They create large lounges with full amenities similar to a sports bar, complete with high-density Wi-Fi, specialized menus and offer access by any ticketed fan. Banks of monitors showing multiple live game feeds allow fans to track their fantasy players’ progress while simultaneously watching their local team.

A contemporary sports venue features thousands of square feet of video display. The control room for live production can rival a full blown television production studio or truck. Wall-mounted monitors displaying windows full of camera shots, graphics and other content are driven by multiple production positions including producers, technical directors, camera shading, computer graphics, slow-motion replay, scoreboard operator and audio mixers. Depending on the number of simultaneous activities, multiple positions for the same function may be required.

The control room can be located in a variety of places within the building, but there are certain positions that require direct access or sight lines to the main seating area of the venue. Although it can be done remotely via camera, a line of sight to the scoreboard is extremely beneficial and generally required by the scoreboard operator. The live audio engineer also needs open access to the main part of the venue and located in an area that allows real time monitoring of the audio quality, sound levels and overall audience response. Windows between the production room and the main seating area should have operable partitions.

Equipment rooms housing racks of electronics need stable power and more cooling capacity than is typical along with space to allow access to both the front and rear of the racks with enough square footage for future upgrades. Technology is also a part of successfully addressing accessibility issues, as venues deal with not just physical challenges but other sensory challenges as well, such as hearing and sight.

Aimed at enhancing the experience of attending matches for partially-sighted and blind fans, FIFA and the Brazil 2014 Local Organizing Committee (LOC) provided match commentary audio service in four stadiums at the last World Cup. This required commentators with their own space and equipment to describe in great detail the action and the surrounding environment to paint a vivid picture of the stadium and all the proceedings. Although similar to radio commentary, there is a greater emphasis on describing the overall atmosphere with additional information about all of the significant visual details inside the venue.

Michigan State University’s Breslin Center improved its sound system in 2010, and as part of the overall improvements, upgraded the traditional FM assistive listening systems to a high quality induction hearing loop system. This technology can be used by the majority of hearing aid systems used by fans without the need to pick up a special tuned receiver from the venue. This upgrade meets the IEC 60118-4 International Loop Standard, and at Michigan State basketball games, people with hearing loss have a much clearer audio experience.

Cutting edge sports technology projects have been part of The Sextant Group since 1995. Sportvision, one of the co-creators of the now ubiquitous “1st & Ten®” technology, engaged The Sextant Group to design its prototype broadcast truck. At the time, the technology was considered revolutionary, especially so because it was the last element in the broadcast chain and presented a potential critical point of failure. Several years later, the PGA Tour contracted The Sextant Group to design its first ever “ShotLink” broadcast truck. Utilizing lasers, GPS and high speed networking, the “ShotLink” technology provides the statistics and analytics that underpin the broadcast of PGA Tour events. Not long afterward, NEP Productions, the largest mobile production company in the United States, engaged The Sextant Group to assist with the design of its first ever high definition mobile unit, NOVA. Recognized by Broadcast & Cable in 2003 as “High Definition Truck of the Year,” NOVA revolutionized the producing Monday Night Football experience.

Designing a venue with any or all of these types of fan engagement experiences requires carefully thought out infrastructure that is both flexible and scalable. Future technologies continue to push the envelope and will require significant investments in electronics, application development, production facilities and skilled personnel.