A view of tomorrow: technology and the venue experience

In a world of burgeoning technological development, with high-speed internet access driving digital consumption and OTT platforms making it possible to watch sport when and where the need arises, creating a rich enough experience for the fan at an event is increasingly a challenge. But as the old adage goes, necessity is the mother of invention, and so venues are turning to technology themselves in order to develop the matchday of the future and keep live sport in the game.

A view of tomorrow: technology and the venue experience

Sight and sound

Fans watching sport on a screen can see action from multiple camera angles, with replays, visualisations of technology and live data breakdowns. In order to compete with this, venues must ensure that a live sporting experience is giving the spectator the same calibre of high-quality viewing experience. LED video boards that can broadcast content, showcase notable moments in the game, give viewers access to real-time data, or even show live social media feeds, have long been prevalent in venue designs in response to this need.

“Video has helped us make sure the game remains exciting and accessible; you can get replays and close-up action, and we can ensure that where you’re sitting isn’t any sort of hindrance to your experience of every element of the game,” says David Manica, lead architect at Manica Architecture, which led the design of the new home of National Basketball Association (NBA) champions Golden State Warriors. “The scoreboard at the Chase Center will be one of the biggest and the brightest in the world. The video boards are a way to bring action closer to everyone in the building.”

The Chase Center, set to open in 2019, will feature 32 club lounges under the seating bowl. An entire wall of each lounge will be comprised of LED video boards that give fans to access the game wherever they are in the stadium, mixing the comfort of the hospitality areas flawlessly with the excitement of the live action. The arena’s control room will be furnished with broadcast equipment that allows programmers to deliver content in numerous formats around the building, from managing social media feeds, replays and graphics on LED boards, to providing data and controlling advertising.

On the same theme, the National Football League’s (NFL) Atlanta Falcons’ new US$1.5 billion Mercedes-Benz stadium, which opened in August, features a 63,000 square foot, 360 degree high-definition LED board  large enough to fly a helicopter through, making the game accessible from anywhere around the venue. On top of that, 3,200 speakers and 2,000 monitors provide surround-sound systems, with more than 20 cameras giving fans numerous angles to view the action, creating an immersive experience for each guest.

Aside from enhancing fans’ sensory experience inside the venue, technology is also being used to hone the design of buildings’ infrastructure. “We’re using technology to really fine-tune the way sound is controlled and reverberated in there,” Manica says. “In the design stages, we used special programmes to understand how loud the building would be based on the size and shape of the seating bowl, and that helped us hone the design to make sure this was a very loud and exciting building to be in.”

The distinctive retractable roof and video ring in operation at the Atlanta Falcons' new Mercedes-Benz Stadium

Navigation

If going to watch live sport means battling the hordes and your own road rage for hours in a tin box, the temptation might not be enough to tear you away from the sanctity of your living room. Improving access to the venue before arrival, either through better integration with public networks or by assisting those who choose private transport, is a significant priority for any new project.  

“It’s getting more and more important to make sure that the experience of sport is as comfortable as possible, since people have more options now than they ever had to have a great at-home experience,” says Manica.

The Atlanta Falcons’ new stadium, for example, provides details of transport routes delivered to a mobile app which has schedules and maps built in, as well as an option to pre-purchase a parking slot.

It’s getting more and more important to make sure that the experience of sport is as comfortable as possible, since people have more options now than they ever had to have a great at-home experience.

“Technology extends way beyond the walls of the building,” Manica explains. “We’re studying the way people come to and leave the building as it relates to computer-moderated systems for transportation. The most obvious is ride-share technology – so with Uber, we have a plan for people to use the app to ride in and leave in the most comfortable way possible.”

The Internet of Things

Navigational technology is not only limited to the logistics of arrival and departure for the newest venues, but is being brought to fans’ smartphones to allow them to find their way around a building, cross to rest-rooms and refreshment areas, and upgrade seating options.

Premier League soccer outfit Tottenham Hotspur have plugged their new stadium, which is due to open in 2018, as an ‘intelligent’ one. In order to make good on that promise, the north Londoners are partnering with IT specialist Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE) to provide networking and wireless infrastructure for mobile phones and other connecting devices that will deliver facility management, building control, and fan services.

HPE is introducing what it calls an ‘intelligent edge’, which the company describes as defining any place that can be incorporated into an ‘Internet of Things’ (IoT) system whereby a network of physical devices connected to the internet can communicate to exchange data and facilitate action.

“Digital strategy is a non-negotiable business fundamental if you want to compete in the marketplace,” says Mark Waters, managing director for Ireland the and the UK at HPE. “And an intelligent edge becomes an increasing differentiator. Ultimately an intelligent edge becomes a mobile delivery platform for applications, for data, and a collector of data. Devices all become more intelligent and more connected, and therefore the opportunity for what you can do with that technology increases.

The new home of Premier League side Tottenham Hotspur will feature a retractable pitch for NFL games

“We’re able to use some of the information we get from the hardware in some of the software that we’re going to be applying. We live in a software-defined world – everything we use today touches some form of software and all of that data connects to something, and in a stadium experience this is really important to our guests. We want to provide the best user experience for someone outside the stadium, but also as they enter into the stadium. This can be from utilising apps but also from a connectivity point of view so you can use connectivity to work on a social aspect. This means you’re able to have the 60,000 users all tweeting the goal that was scored or providing information to friends that they’re talking to through the various apps out there. It’s all about creating a seamless user experience.”

This ‘seamless’ user experience extends, as with navigation, out of the venue walls. “We’re doing a lot of work on the infrastructure and operations, which are effectively your access structure to get into the venue,” explains Waters. CCTV will be connected to Wi-Fi and building control systems to deliver a high-security experience. “Then we’ve got TVs and sound systems all built on to an internet network. We want to deliver an experience without you even having to touch technology. It’s the environment that technology enables rather than simply an interaction with that technology.”

We want to provide the best user experience for someone outside the stadium, but also as they enter into the stadium.

“We want to provide the most secure connectivity,” adds Eugene Berger, chief technology officer for Aruba UK and Ireland, an HPE company. “Every single one of the access points from the controllers has a built-in firewall. That means you can make contextual decisions based on who the user is, what application they’re using and the location they’re in.”

Like Spurs’ stadium design, the Falcons’ venue has an emphasis on connectivity. Three fan applications have been designed in partnership with tech sponsor IBM to serve fans, providing transport navigation, ticket purchasing, navigation through the facility, and answers to event and venue questions. Fans can upgrade their tickets and access promotional offers when in the building through the apps, which generate data collected through fan use to target further promotions and create a personalised experience.

Connectivity has been a notorious bugbear for venues in a more data-hungry age so in order to facilitate these efficient app services, the Mercedes-Benz Stadium has an all-fibre, 4,000-mile-long optic network allowing fans to get online and stream content from their devices. The stadium will also have its own IoT network that connects concession stands, and operates digital turnstiles, security cameras and giant video screens, integrating fan comfort on all fronts and maximising operational efficiency.

Meanwhile, spectators at the Golden State Warriors’ current ground, the Oracle Arena, have been trialling tech giant Apple’s ‘iBeacons’, which use Bluetooth to send notifications to smartphone users so as to interact with fans and offer seat upgrades, promotions and concessions when in the venue.

Spurs envisage their stadium having a transformative effect on their corner of north London

VR and AR

Virtual reality and augmented reality technologies are both beginning to be brought into the fan experience in sport, though so far their major use has been for fans at home; Intel’s True VR platform, for example, gives users access to live player and team stats throughout the match and the option to personalise their camera angle through the app. 

Guests at the Warriors’ Oracle arena, however, are trying out virtual reality shooting data that shows up on Google Glass or a smartphone screen once the user points their device in the direction of the player, bringing fans more accessible information during the live moment. As well as enhancing moments within the live sporting experience, however, VR is also being used as a sales technique.

Echoing a process that is becoming increasingly common throughout the world of commercial and large-scale residential property development, particularly at the luxury end of the market, prospective season ticket and hospitality buyers are being given a virtual look around the Chase Center. 

“We’re using VR to help sell the Warriors’ building,” Manica says. “It helps to bring it to life before it actually exists, and we’ve used it with the contractors to have them understand what we intend to build, and in sales for people to understand what opportunities there are to buy into the building before it opens.”

The Chase Center, with an estimated cost of US$1 billion, is the most expensive privately funded arena of all time, making big returns on sales more vital than ever. “Without the sales, the building doesn’t exist,” Manica points out. “So we’ve been very careful to make sure that we are leveraging technology to make the building actually possible.”

Making multi-use easy

With the incorporation of more technology driving up the cost of each build, sports venues are increasingly looking to generate revenue from as many streams as possible. “The word flexibility is key here,” explains Manica. “Venue operators are looking to generate revenue from as many different events as possible throughout the year, and of course the building has to respond to that. It has to meet the needs of a bunch of different stakeholders. Those needs don’t all always practically align so it’s a real challenge to create something that can do all of those things at one time.”

The Chase Center is being built to accommodate not only the Warriors’ games, but also concerts, family shows, and even conferences. “We are making sure the building is optimised for concerts, because there’s a lot of stuff that needs to move in and out from trucks for those types of events, and not a lot that needs to for basketball games, so we are making sure there’s easy loading access,” Manica explains. “We have also specifically located clubs on the opposite end of the building to the stage end so that those areas can provide amenity for the people on the floor at the concert.”

The Chase Center will take its place in the Mission Bay area of San Francisco from 2019

Spurs, meanwhile, have partnered with the NFL in a UK£10 million (US$13 million) deal to host two NFL games per year on a retractable real-turf pitch. That will allow the club to hold football games there without damaging the playing surface for soccer, and in theory opens up the possibility of playing Spurs games and NFL games on consecutive days at weekends. Not only will that provide surety in Tottenham’s planning, opening up more slots in the calendar alongside Premier League commitments, it also puts the club in a strong position to bid for more London games or even a local franchise in the future.   

“The NFL has a very detailed brief of what a stadium should be and what it needs,” says Sanjeev Katwa, head of digital at Tottenham Hotspur. “Our venue will meet NFL requirements, be that the size of the locker rooms, the connectivity, or the pitch.”

The 61,500-seater facility, the largest club soccer stadium in the British capital, will stage concerts, becoming a rival to the 90,000-capacity Wembley Stadium – where Tottenham are currently playing their home fixtures while White Hart Lane is redeveloped – as well as the London Stadium in the east of the city and the Emirates Stadium, the nearby home of bitter rivals Arsenal.  

Changing fan behaviour

As well as serving as a location for numerous different events, venues are being designed to increase the amount of time visitors will spend there. The Warriors’ arena, for example, will feature retail space, a restaurant, and park space as part of its 12 acres. Spurs, meanwhile have described their new UK£400 million (US$540 million) stadium as being a ‘destination’ that brings fans to the location for a range of different experiences.

The new ground is set to include a microbrewery, an in-house bakery, a museum showcasing the club’s history, and a retail experience. A range of tiered premium seating options will include the ultra high-end H Club, billed by Spurs as the leading members’ club at any sports venue, and a loge, both of which will offer ‘Michelin Star-calibre dining’. There will also be conventional hospitality suites, while the Sky Lounge will offer views across the city and the Tunnel Club comes with pitchside seats and a view through one-way glass into the players’ tunnel. The latter builds on similar concepts at Manchester City’s Etihad Stadium and the AT&T Stadium, home of the Dallas Cowboys since 2009.

We have the opportunity to change fan behaviours and the way that the fan interacts with the venue. We’re working with our partners to define the way people see sport and attending sporting venues.

“We are creating a venue and an experience where you want to go to the location way in advance of the event,” says Waters. “You want to interact and engage with the club in a completely different way, which has so many benefits for the fans and for the club.”

Katwa adds: “We have the opportunity to change fan behaviours and the way that the fan interacts with the venue. We’re working with our partners to define the way people see sport and attending sporting venues. It’s about changing the way fans perceive coming to a sporting venue.”

A range of high-end hospitality options will create different experiences for guests at Tottenham

Future-proofing

Learning to use technology to enhance a venue is far from the only challenge, however – the speed of technological innovation could render new systems obsolete in months. Consequently, looking at trends to try and predict new developments is becoming a key strategy for architects.

“All we can do is look at history, and importantly what’s going on now, for some indication of what might happen in the future,” explains Manica. “There was a time when buildings were considering whether they should bring a cable to every seat in the building. But obviously now we know that’s not necessary because Wi-Fi is getting faster and faster – so that was a trend people had to predict.

“Another thing that we looked at for a long time was flip-out screens on the back of chairs. But now most people have a phone in their pocket that does the exact same thing and does everything that they need. So instead of creating new technology that’s built into the arena, we have to think about how to let people use their phones in increasingly sophisticated and advanced ways.”

The very best we can do today for a building that’s going to open in three or four years is to build a strong backbone: the infrastructure that new technology will plug into.

Another crucial concept for new venue designs is incorporating flexibility into the building so that future adaptations can be made with minimal disruption. “The very best we can do today for a building that’s going to open in three or four years is to build a strong backbone: the infrastructure that new technology will plug into,” says Manica.

“We don’t know really what kind of video boards will be available in three years, we just know that they are going to need to run over a robust backbone of infrastructure inside the building. So we design those systems today to hold the technology of tomorrow, and technology is always bought as late as possible so we get the very best deal on the newest technology available.”

Tottenham are tackling the many-headed Hydra of technology’s innovative spawning through creating scalable, resilient and secure inbuilt infrastructure that can develop as the club moves forward.

“We talk about the art of the possible,” says Katwa. “The worst thing that could happen is where you try to add stuff on to the venue, it doesn’t work, or it doesn’t look great. But we’ve chosen technology with design; we’ve made sure our mechanical equipment rooms are the right size and there’s enough space, that we’ve got enough cable runs. And when the time comes to take people into the stadium, you will see we’ve accommodated for every eventuality.

“We are looking to create one of the most technologically advanced stadiums in the world. We must keep in mind here that scalability is important, because the infrastructure we want to use needs to scale up as time goes on.

“We might do something on day one which doesn’t work, so we will take it out and change it on day two. We will be pushing the boundaries, and we will be trying stuff out. We also want to use the best software vendors out there and have them integrate into the platform that we provide. Effectively what that means is you have the best from a software perspective, from a hardware perspective, and lastly you can take third party applications and have them built in.”

Building work continues at White Hart Lane; Spurs are playing home games across London at Wembley Stadium this season

The future of the live sporting experience

With live events bringing in more and more technology to serve full crowds, some believe the invasion of that tech reduces the raw experience of the sport, but Manica thinks the lure of live attendance will endure.

“I think personally, we are analogue people— we enjoy being a part of a crowd,” says Manica. “No matter what happens, I don’t believe we are just going to want to sit in a dark room the whole time watching a screen. So there will always be that human social need to get out and be a part of something that’s happening live.

“However, we do need to work with the technology, which I think in most ways only enhances the experience – I like to think it doesn’t replace it. I think you have to have a wide variety of experiences you can access – anything from seats, to lounge seats, to theatre boxes – we are providing options to have different levels of access and different experiences which you can’t get at home.

No matter what happens, I don’t believe we are just going to want to sit in a dark room the whole time watching a screen. There will always be that human social need to get out and be a part of something that’s happening live.

“But there’s just nothing that will replace that moment when teams score a goal and 65,000 people cheer, so we have to think about how we can hold on to that moment, while still enhancing all the other aspects of the experience.”

Katwa believes that bringing tech into the venue is about creating an experience that caters for a global fanbase. “We want to make it great for the fan who’s been watching Spurs for thirty years, but we also want to make it great for the younger fans coming in,” he says.

“All projects are about pushing the fan experience forward. And that’s in order to ensure these buildings continue to be interesting places to go for people, and that they continue to be a good fit for our cities.”

This article originally appeared in issue 97 of SportsPro Magazine. To find out more or to subscribe, click here.