Early stadiums were functional rather than marvelous pieces of architecture or iconic civic monuments. Most noteworthy technical achievements focused on getting as many paying customers as physically possible into an enclosed space and to exclude anyone not willing to stump up the entry fee.
Comfort was largely an afterthought, unless it could be monetised, and with only limited alternatives for entertainment, crowds largely put up with such unhospitable environments. But, eventually, sports teams, federations and venue operators realised it was in their interest to keep up with the times from a revenue, fan satisfaction and safety perspective.
Consumers now not only have myriad other forms of entertainment to choose from, but the televised sporting experience has become so enjoyable that there are some concerns that fans might prefer to watch from their armchair, rather than contribute to the atmosphere in the stands.
Technology is now integral to the modern stadium, powering everything from ticketing, retail and backend operations through to the big screens, advanced audio systems and pitchside advertising. And now digital innovation is crucial to ensuring the big event experience is as enjoyable and profitable as possible.
But no matter how modern a venue might seem, there is no room for complacency. What might have been cutting edge a year ago might be yesterday’s news. Seemingly every year there is a new candidate for the title of ‘world’s most technologically advanced arena’.
But what are the next big things that will transform the live event experience in the immediate future?
Digital ticketing and biometric entry
Tickets have existed for almost as long as admission charges. Modern paper tickets are now the result of more than a century’s worth of innovation in terms of functionality, material and anti-forgery measures, and barcode scanners and automated turnstiles have replaced manually operated entry points and ticket stubs.
Mobile ticketing has come of age with the advent of the smartphone, promising greater convenience for fans and ease of distribution for venue operators. However, the pandemic made mobile ticketing an absolute necessity amid a rapid transition to a more ‘touch-free’ society and rapidly changing government regulations. As sporting arenas reopened their doors after lockdown, a mobile phone was essential for entry.
The next step is using blockchain technology to manage ticket distribution, reducing fraud and allowing fans to receive digital mementos in the form of non-fungible token (NFT) stubs – a concept the National Football League (NFL) has pioneered in recent times.
But even digital tickets could become a thing of the past thanks to biometric entry. Citi Field, home of Major League Baseball’s (MLB) New York Mets, is one of several venues to deploy the technology.
“When people get to the stadium, they don’t want to be waiting outside for 40 minutes and we want them to get in quickly,” said Oscar Fernandez, vice president of technology solutions at the New York Mets, during SportsPro’s Ignition virtual event.
“We had switched to digital tickets but there was still some friction involved with getting your phone out and scanning it so we’ve moved to facial recognition. The technology registers your face and whether you have one ticket or ten tickets, it recognises you and lets you and all your party into the stadium. That’s been a big goal of ours.”
Organisers of the Paris 2024 Olympic and Paralympic Games will use digital twins for all competition venues (Image credit: OnePlan)
Digital twins and better organisation
If you look at some older stadiums and their patchwork collection of architecture, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the only construction plan in place was a policy of improvisation. In the modern era of stadium building, there is little that isn’t left to chance – whether its crowd management, acoustics or emergency access.
Data-driven digital twins are the latest evolution in this process, helping organisers of major events simulate crowd control scenarios to aid planning, improve accessibility and even see how changes to layout can affect lighting and audio quality. This insight helps determine where infrastructure such as barriers, fencing, TV cameras, vehicles, teams and volunteers should be placed.
UK-based OnePlan already works with World Triathlon, as well as various National Basketball Association (NBA) and National Football League (NFL) franchises, and will create digital twins of all competition venues for next summer’s Paris 2024 Olympic and Paralympic Games.
“Digital twins stem from the accurate 3D models built during the design and construction process for architects, engineers and contractors,” Chi Bhatia, vice president of strategy and growth at OnePlan, tells SportsPro. “Digital twins provide a continuation of this 3D model [using real-time data] to provide multiple benefits over the entire lifecycle [of the stadium].”
Bhatia says that although the primary benefits of digital twins are for organisers and backend operations, they could easily be used for consumer-facing applications that bridge the gap between digital and physical environments.
“Usually, these 3D models require a high level of technical proficiency,” he explains. “However, video game engine technology is so easy to use, it has unlocked a world of opportunity.
“A digital twin of an iconic venue like Yankee Stadium or Old Trafford isn’t just a building, but a cultural monument. Digital twins allow the venues to be accessible to fans and power multiple use cases, such as fan engagement, ticketing information, merchandising sales and content.
“Sports teams are also exploring ways in which digital twins can be used to provide 3D immersive environments for fans who would be able to navigate the venue with an avatar. Fans could walk around the locker room, interact with jerseys on the wall, get ticket details from the box office and purchase merchandise from a virtual store.”
Crowd management and smart signage
Digital Twins are augmented by AI-powered crowd management platforms that deliver real-time information on crowd density, traffic, and movement patterns. This data is invaluable in the planning process but also provides actionable insights that can inform on-the-fly decisions during a live event.
WaitTime’s platform uses computer vision technology to gather data and is currently used at Manchester City’s Etihad Stadium and the Vegas Golden Knights’ T-Mobile Arena, helping organisers to keep things running smoothly.
While many venues have had to retrofit their stadiums with advanced networking platforms, Tottenham Hotspur Stadium was able to include HPE Aruba’s technology during the construction phase, connecting multiple systems and applications that double up as sensors. This allows the club to collect valuable, actionable data at almost every stage of the customer journey, all of which can be fed into other mission critical workloads behind the scenes.
Perhaps the most obvious consumer-facing element of this is smart signage that reacts automatically to demand, aiding the flow of people around the concourse. Important announcements can be clearly displayed, directional information can adapt to crowd flow, and it’s even possible to inform fans where the quietest bars are.
All of this drives satisfaction, reduces friction points and improves safety.
Checkoutless retail and mobile ordering
Getting something to eat and drink, especially at halftime during a soccer game, is one of the biggest pain points at a live sporting event. While digital twins and crowd management technology can predict and react to demand, there is only so much these innovations can do to solve frustrating queues that can cause you to miss an important moment when the action resumes.
While the utopia of in-seat ordering and delivery has failed to materialise, largely because of the impracticalities of such a system in practice, many venues are adopting cashless policies to speed up transactions and others are embracing mobile ordering platforms like Cheq so purchases can be picked up at special kiosks around the arena.
Others are adopting checkoutless retail tech to eliminate the process of payment entirely. With checkoutless retail, fans tap their card to enter a retail outlet and take what they want, before computer vision and sensor-based AI software then identifies which items have been taken and by whom. The only time human intervention is required is to check IDs for alcohol purchases. The technology is increasingly common in the US, with Zippin and Amazon used at several major league venues.
The result is happier fans spending more money because they can make more frequent visits to catering facilities, creating a more positive experience that makes them more likely to return to the venue in the future.
Interactive apps will bridge the gap between the stadium and at-home experience (Image credit: Sky Sport)
Immersive in-stadium experiences
Few would argue that watching a live sporting event at home is better than actually being there, especially if technology makes it easier to get a pie and a pint at halftime, but there’s no denying there are some advantages to the armchair experience.
While older fans might value the short walk from the sofa to the fridge, many spectators, especially younger ones, want to be able to access social media during live events, see data-driven insights and watch instant replays. The quality of sports broadcasting is now so high that fans want the same experience at their seat in the stands as they get at home.
Once upon a time, it was predicted future stadiums would have screens in the back of seats to cater to these demands. But such visions failed to take into account the ubiquity and capability of the smartphone. Accordingly, venue operators are now actively working to enhance WiFi and mobile coverage to make sure everyone in attendance can get a signal, while the speed, capacity and ultra-low latency of 5G networks is making it possible for a broadcast-like experience in the stands.
German soccer’s Bundesliga has worked with pay-TV broadcaster Sky Deutschland and mobile operator Vodafone to create mobile apps that offer instant replays and multiple camera views, as well as real-time augmented reality (AR) graphics that overlay statistics and other data-driven visualisations over live action on the pitch.
The International Basketball Federation (Fiba) plans to go one step further and has approved the use of LED glass courts in elite tournaments. This will allow organisers, federations and clubs to display real-time statistics and graphics directly onto the court, enhancing fans’ understanding of what they are seeing in front of them – and without a smartphone in sight.
“Imagine if you don’t need to take your eyes from what you have been watching during the entire time and keep your eyes on the court, on what is coming in terms of messaging, games, highlights, as well as teasers for the rest of the game,” Andreas Zagklis, general secretary of Fiba, tells SportsPro. “Statistics are a part of the fan experience in basketball, and it is one of those things that if you are in the venue, you don’t have as much access as the TV viewer.”
But sometimes the smartphone is unavoidable, and rather than detract from the communal aspect, it can enhance it. Cue Audio’s ultrasonic audio technology makes it possible for stadium and arena operators to connect with up to 120,000 smartphones without the need for a WiFi, mobile or Bluetooth connection. The technology is used at more than 100 venues, including NFL stadiums and NBA arenas, powering everything from light shows to multiplayer trivia games.
Fired up the scoreboard for the first time. Did we do this right? 🎮 pic.twitter.com/BOqWY6HQAu— New York Mets (@Mets) March 20, 2023
The era of the smart stadium
The smart stadium isn’t just the future, it’s the present. Even the most technophobic sports fan is now interacting with technology at almost every point in their stadium journey, whether it’s using mobile ticketing, paying with contactless card, or drinking a beer poured with hands-free, bottom-filling pint technology.
Even ‘legacy’ stadium technology that seems largely commoditised by today’s standards is being upgraded. Aside from biometric entry, the New York Mets have installed a 17,400 square foot giant screen, the largest in MLB, during the offseason.
While SportsPro was unable to see the screen in action when OTT Summit USA was held at the ballpark in March, the Mets found a novel way to test the display ahead of opening day – a multiplayer game of Mario Kart 64.
It’s better than kisscam, anyway.
This feature forms part of SportsPro’s Live Events Week, a week of coverage exploring how promoters and host destinations are bringing events to life, as well as how venue operators and their suppliers are navigating newfound economic pressures. Click here to access more exclusive content and sign up to the SportsPro Daily newsletter here to receive daily insights direct to your inbox.