Upgrading the view: New technology in the modern sports venue

Though the live experience remains the pinnacle of sport, that has not stopped stadium operators looking at how to improve it. With technology developing all the time, new ways are constantly emerging to augment the in-venue experience for fans and drive value for clubs, both subtly and dramatically transforming the way we watch live sport.

Upgrading the view: New technology in the modern sports venue

For all the billions of dollars that are spent on broadcast rights, and the millions of fans who tune in to watch their favourite teams and athletes on television week after week, the live sporting event still retains a certain primacy. People are unlikely to remember the first game they watched on TV, but the first match they attended? It remains a rite of passage, with parents taking their sons and daughters and inducting them into a family tradition.

Many of sport’s sacred sites – whether it is Daytona, the Old Course at St Andrews, or the Camp Nou – have become pilgrimages for fans the world over, who chase the unparalleled proximity of actually being there as Rory McIlroy sinks it on the 18th, or Lionel Messi hammers a shot home.

And while the act of watching live sport itself is largely unchanged over the years, that hasn’t stopped clubs and venue operators from exploring new ways of improving and refining the entire experience. Particularly over the last few years, technology is playing an increasingly prominent role in the matchday visit.

For stadium operators, there is a fine line to be walked between maintaining that pure, raw live experience on which everyone reading this was presumably raised, and attracting a new generation of fans, with a different sensibility, who demand fresh ways of experiencing the action and interacting with the game.

As the Press Association’s chief sports reporter Matt Slater declared on a recent edition of the SportsPro Podcast: “If I’ve paid for a ticket to watch some sport, I want to watch some sport! I don’t want screens showing me what’s going on, I’ll watch what’s going on in front of me.”

Much of the technology which is going into modern stadiums, however, is designed precisely not to distance fans from what is going in front of them, but to bring them closer to the action or to blend seamlessly into the process, often without fans even knowing it is there.

Ticketing

A fan’s interaction with modern stadium technology begins long before they arrive at the venue on a matchday – indeed, it begins from the moment they decide to attend the game and buy a ticket.

One of the biggest concerns across the live sport industry at the moment is the so-called ‘secondary ticket’ market, an increasingly lucrative sector, with touts using computer software to bulk-buy tickets and then sell them on at a vastly inflated price.

Not only does this distort the market, but it leaves stadiums at a security risk – as operators are unable to know who is buying tickets and coming into the venue – and, by the same token, prevents them from collecting valuable data about fans who are buying tickets and at what price-point.

Lausanne-based SecuTix is one company offering clubs and venue owners a solution to this. As well as an end-to-end integrated system for the selling and distribution of tickets, SecuTix also allows its customers to create their own secure resale marketplace, significantly reducing the potential for touts to manipulate the market. This even extends to season-ticket holders who can sell on access to a single match, minimising the risk for both the fan and the club. Last year, SecuTix provided a cloud-based ticketing platform for the Uefa European Championship, securely delivering tickets to almost two and a half million soccer fans.

Another solution is to circumvent the need for a physical ticket which can be sold on altogether, delivering passes directly to fans’ phones using apps such as Apple’s Passbook or Google’s PassWallet. Spanish soccer giants FC Barcelona began issuing digital tickets at their Camp Nou stadium in 2015, with Didac Lee, the club’s director for new technologies, commenting at the announcement that the scheme was an “example of how technology can make access to the ground easier and more comfortable”.

“The objective in the area of technology is to bring the club closer to members and fans and we believe the mobile is the most useful tool to do this, because it is within everybody’s reach and it opens up the possibility of making this relation easier,” he said.

At the more extreme end of new technology, Argentinian soccer side Tigre last year announced plans to offer fans an implant which would contain their ticket data. Club official Ezequiel Rosino showed off the new technology by implanting a ticket underneath his tattoo of the team badge. The implant works in a similar manner to a contactless payment card, opening the turnstiles when the fan presses the chip against a reader.

 

Security

After getting your ticket, bought via a secure cloud ticketing platform, or downloaded to your phone, the next stage is getting into the stadium itself. With tens of thousands of people gathering together in the same place, sports events have always presented a security risk and been one of the chief beneficiaries of developing security technology.

It should come as no surprise to learn that the Levi’s Stadium – promoted as “the world’s most hi-tech sports venue” and home of the National Football League’s (NFL) San Francisco 49ers – has so far led the way in this regard. In 2015 the stadium installed Qylur Security’s Qylatron Entry Experience Solution, a scaled-down but equally advanced version of the kind of scanners typically found at airport border controls.

The device looks like a honeycomb assemblage of five scanning pods, into which each attendee at an event will place their bags, and which can detect dangerous objects and explosives in a matter of seconds. The device dramatically speeds up the process when compared with a manual search, which requires every individual entering the stadium to have their possessions examined by a security operative.

Safety and security doesn’t finish once a fan is through the doors. We are by now used to the idea of CCTV cameras watching our every move when in public, but in a stadium, their efficacy is reduced by the sheer number of people in attendance. This is something that German company Dallmeier has looked to tackle with its Panomera camera technology, which allows a huge area to be monitored from a single location. Its high-resolution cameras mean incidents can be played back and minor details easily spotted, while the use of fewer installation points around the stadium helps to significantly reduce costs for venue owners.

“To achieve visitor safety at all times, it is necessary to equip stadia with video information systems that enable operators and authorities to clearly identify and track individuals within groups of people and over large areas and distances,” says Roland Meier, director of Panomera Multifocal Sensor Systems at Dallmeier. “Video systems at stadiums must be designed to be both effective and visible, yet must not affect the entertainment value of events.”

On the terraces

Once into the stadium, fans will make their way along the concourses and into their seats. Another invisible element of technology built into many modern venues is on the terraces themselves, which, in newer venues, are surprisingly advanced.

The Intelligent Engineering (IE) group’s SPS technology allows for stadium terraces to be constructed from a composite of materials, with two metal plates enclosing a polyurethane elastomer core. SPS terraces are up to 80 per cent lighter than conventional concrete stands, with a drastically reduced carbon footprint in both their own construction and in the installation phase, as they are prefabricated and easy to manoeuvre into place.

Additionally, they are fully reusable at the end of a stadium’s life, able to be reclaimed and recycled into another project. The redevelopment of the main stand at English soccer side Liverpool’s famous Anfield stadium was completed last summer in time for the new season, in part due to the use of SPS terraces.

The London Olympic Stadium, the Grandstand at the home of the US Open, New York’s Flushing Meadows, and the O2 in Dublin, Ireland are other venues to have employed the lightweight terracing.

Connecting the fan

As anyone who has tried to make a phone call or get online from a busy stadium will know, traditional telecoms networks are often unable to keep up with the demand from thousands of people accessing their systems at once. With this in mind, many venues over the last few years have been investing heavily in Wi-Fi installation, which both allows fans to get online quickly, but also, through sign-on portals, gives the clubs valuable access to what people are doing when they’re in the stadium.

The Levi’s Stadium, is, of course, the example par excellence of this. Sitting in the heart of Silicon Valley, the tech industry’s global capital, the venue contains over 600 access points strung together with over 400 miles of cable, all installed by Hewlett Packard-owned Wi-Fi specialist Aruba, allowing the 75,000 people in the crowd to safely and securely tweet, Snapchat and Instagram images and videos from 49ers matches.

Chinese technology giant Huawei is another firm making waves in this space. Recently it installed a robust Wi-Fi network throughout German soccer side Borussia Dortmund’s Westfalenstadion. With an average attendance of over 80,000, the ground is by some measures the most visited sports venue in the world, with Huawei’s Agile Stadium technology working overtime to keep them all connected via a double 5G RF module and high-performance network with more than 1.75Gbps bandwidth.

Huawei also recently partnered with New Zealand-based company Spark to deliver Wi-Fi solutions to the WestPac Stadium in Wellington, which this year will host fixtures on the British and Irish Lions rugby union tour. Spark will install high-density Wi-Fi for public use throughout the venue, with over 24 kilometres of new cabling laid and around 300 wireless access points installed.

Collecting data

All that Wi-Fi connectivity allows you to check the scores in other games, FaceTime friends who couldn’t be there themselves and in some venues such as the Levi’s Stadium – where else? – order food and drinks directly to your seat.

But for the venue operator, it offers a unique opportunity for data collection, which has become the lifeblood of modern marketing and commercialisation. Austin, Texas-based tech company Umbel has made it its mission to help sports teams maximise this wealth of data, not just from the Wi-Fi but from a whole range of sources, unifying data from websites, mobile apps, beacon data, CRMs, marketing campaigns and other platforms, taking that raw data and shaping it into something the clubs can exploit. Their clients come from across the world of sport, including the NFL, National Basketball Association (NBA), National Hockey League (NHL) and rugby union’s Pro12. 

“We don’t just collect first-party data from fans, but combine that data with critical marketing and ticketing data to better reach and engage fans game after game and season after season,” Natasha Morgan, vice president of marketing at Umbel tells SportsPro.

The company solves two critical problems for stadium operators, says Morgan. Firstly, it draws in data from in-venue fans, including those who came in a group through a bulk-buy or the secondary ticket market – as much as 80 per cent of the audience, Umbel estimates. It then uses this data to create what Morgan describes “sponsorable engagements”. These can include “contests, Wi-Fi gates, loyalty rewards, and more, keeping increasingly distracted fans excited to attend events.”

“Operators can then use this data and combine it with their other sources to run hyper-targeted campaigns on any channel to drive ticket sales and more.”

Expanding the action

When the game is in full flow, all spectators’ eyes are, of course, on the pitch, but sometimes the action needs to be seen again. UK-based screen technology firm ADI has been supplying giant LED screens and perimeter hoardings to stadiums for over 25 years now, providing its equipment to the majority of Premier League soccer clubs, as well as to prestigious sporting events such as the London Marathon, the Tour de France and Formula One.

Though action replays are the main time a fan will look at the screens, for the stadium operators, their real value lies in adding significant inventory to be sold to sponsors and commercial partners. ADI’s latest technology, developed in collaboration with augmented reality specialists Supponor, doubles down on this, breaking out of the stadium environment and into the broadcast realm, allowing stadiums to target advertising to different geographical territories using the same perimeter LED boards. The system uses augmented reality technology to overlay different adverts depending on where a viewer is watching from.

“For clubs this means they can commercialise the same perimeter media space many times over and, for brands, they can target audiences more effectively, delivering regionalised content for individual markets,” says Geraint Williams, chief excutive at ADI. “This means that clubs and venues can still deliver a dynamic in-stadium experience, utilising LED, whilst delivering targeted commercial content to the vast global audience, which creates huge value for brands.”

Meanwhile, back in the stadium, it is one thing to have a huge ‘Jumbotron’ screen to replay the goals and action, but it is worthless if there isn’t a stable and reliable system in place for relaying the content.

This is where Scotland-based IPTV and digital signage company Exterity steps in. Exterity delivers video content across the existing stadium networks – installed by the likes of Aruba or Spark – to screens of all kinds around the venues. Mike Allan, chief technology officer at Exterity, explains that this can take all kinds of forms, from giant LED screens and perimeter hoardings to TVs around the venues and even each fans’ mobile devices.

“We have a wide range of different products which enable a stadium to take video content from broadcasters, distribute that to a number of points within the venue, even distribute that to individuals on mobile devices and also folds in elements such as signage, so for concessions stands and other facilities,” he says. “We’ve got the signage element so we can produce customised advertising as well as middle wear to help people in boxes either brand it or for people who are in the box that day to provide them with the ability to have a bit more control over the video environment that they’re using while they’re at the stadium.”

One of the most interesting projects Allan has worked on, he says, was the Randwick and Rosehill Racecourses in Australia, which provide a different challenge entirely to the typical stadium facility. It involves not only distribution of the local event, but “also takes in streams from other horse racing around Australia while they’ve got punters on the campus and allows them to see that”.

“That feeds into screens on walls,” he adds, “but it’s also now streamed to small panels that sit on people’s tables – it’s very civilised, to sit there in the restaurant and watch the racing! The UI and the video that comes to the table is provided by us.”

He has noticed, he says, an increased desire from smaller clubs to work with Exterity and install more screens and content distribution networks around their venues.

“Stadiums are absolutely trying to use technology to keep the fans engaged, keep them happy, keep the revenue flowing through a club,” Allan says. “I think the smaller clubs are definitely seeing what the bigger ones are doing and they’re attempting to emulate that, because it’s actually a relatively inexpensive way to drive revenue and improve the all-round matchday experience.”


This article first appeared in Issue 94 of SportsPro magazine. Subscribe to SportsPro here.