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5 Technology Trends Shaping the Future of Stadia and Arenas

By Craig Janssen

The first sports venue I ever designed for was Sheffield Arena.

It was all about the audio system.

I never dreamed then that my world would shift. It used to center on conversations about bowl coverage and speech intelligibility; now my conversations are about borderless video displays, mobile game day apps, LED mesh skinning and applications of AR.

I didn’t see it coming. But I should have.

Twenty years ago, the advertising revenue was based on visual media. There were banners hung in concourses. Corporate sponsors around the scoreboards. It would make sense that the advancements would come where there was funding.

Want to become a futurist? Learn to follow the money.

Most of the people I work with have been in this business a long time. They’ve lived the transition from analog to digital with the rest of us. And there is deep understanding that economic drivers fund where technology goes. (With the notable exception of the Segway.)

Everyone wants to be first when it comes to where the tech is going. But the reality for venue owners and teams making decisions is a sea of confusion. Vendors give high-powered demos leaving behind glossy brochures.

Here are 5 technology trends (and their economic drivers) shaping the future of stadia and arenas:

Instant Branding via LED

The magic of LED is that you can change it with the touch of a button. Each light emitting diode can be programmed to become whatever color it needs to be. We are no longer limited to the rectangular boundaries of scoreboards. We now have video canvas and it is changing both the interior and exterior of buildings.

So, what is possible when you have tons of affordable video canvas?

You can skin a building to be whatever you need it to be.

What graphics would an arena have on different nights as it changes from NBA to NHL? Or from Chris Rock to Justin Bieber? What kind of revenue generation is possible, when you can not only book the venue but also craft how it looks and feels? How integrated would sponsorship be if it were part of the building itself for an evening?

As the price of LED display technology continues to fall, more and more surfaces will be covered in it — making instant branding not only possible, but simply part of the package.

Augmented Reality

Right now, it is common to see sports venues offering Virtual Reality (VR) experiences as a bit of a sideshow. It’s a novelty now. The problem is that VR — while immersive — is a solo experience. Augmented Reality (AR) — where the virtual is only a part of the real experience — remains in community with others around you. I can’t see a long-term benefit to doing VR in a communal setting.

But, AR will rise dramatically. AR provides the potential for a highly-customized experience without losing the group dynamic. In fact, it invites many people to engage with it together.

What might this look like?

Sports Illustrated reports that Intel installed its 360-degree replay technology at Levi’s stadium in 2016. “Using the footage from 36 cameras, the company can create a 3D model of each Niners home game and recreate a view of the action from any point within that space. The problem, though, is that the system generates two terabytes of data per minute, more than all the data a single person might generate over five years.” Intel’s CEO Brian Krzanich predicts they will solve this problem in two years.

We are used to add-on charges and teams are looking for high-value add-ons and ways to increase the VIP experience.

User-Defined Experience

Mobile game day apps are ubiquitous creating fan engagement with in-venue content, merchandise deal alerts, contests, food and beverage orders and fan clubs.

As fans engage with the apps, the venue begins to learn about them and their preferences. This works in aggregate (ie. we sell more of this type of jersey at this price point when we are facing our biggest rival) to the more personal (ie. Mr. Jones typically orders two beers and a hot dog, let’s offer a coupon while he is in line to see if he will add tots.)

Privacy vs. preference is a hot topic, but knowing a user’s preference makes the experience better and inspires people to spend more money.

There are solutions like Beacon technology that can affect the settings in a VIP suite to your preferences. How long until game day apps become more effective at delivering a personalized experience based on your preferences? And how much more would you spend to get something exactly as you want it with very little effort?

RFID

RFID (radio-frequency identification) technology has been a mainstay in manufacturing and distribution for years. But the power of these little tags is that they collect a tremendous amount of data. Zebra Technologies have created RFID chips which are being used on players to measure movement and velocity. Right now, that information is used by the team to check analytics, but eventually the media could have real-time data on what is happening on the field — which could become a pay-per-view option.

You could see speed, acceleration, impact, and how those stats compare with the best in the past.

The big challenge will be the predictive analytics. This will be controversial.

You might predict the outcome of games before they occur. It’s a can of worms, but watch it coming.

Converged Networks

Historically, sports venue technologies evolved separately. For example, the technology for scoreboards was on its own. It was limited in resolution and display capability. This didn’t just apply to scoreboards. Audio, broadcast, coaching video, etc. were all independent. Systems couldn’t connect to each other across a venue. This resulted in piecemeal, independent solutions. It wasn’t very strategic.

As a result, the organizational structures of venue business models were siloed. Marketing had an advertising budget for Trivision panels and fixed panel advertising. The scoreboard was run by the coaching team. Entertainment was separate, bringing in portable gear for every event. The departments were disconnected.

Leap forward to today and converged networks have made it possible to connect everything to everything. The POS runs on the same network as the audio, security, scoring, broadcast, video display show, 4k IPTV systems — all can communicate with each other and go anywhere. Private suites, clubs and concourses are no longer independent of the seating bowl. Advertising and the scoreboards are inseparable. Technology is no longer the barrier.

Now, we have the interesting condition that the organizational structures are the limitation.

Many pro teams have reorganized entire structures. Marketing now drives everything because they are ordered to control all the systems. Revenue generation is the point — as it should be. The technology that developed to make the game function and inspire the crowd, now generates money and is quantifiable.

The economic path of technologies on converged networks will follow the path of the Internet of Things (IoT). Everything generates data and everything becomes marketing.

What this means for venue owners and sports architects

Technology vendors are still going to keep beating on the doors of venue owners and sports architects. And to be fair, they should. There is a lot of cool stuff out there — with more being developed every day.

But technology developments are usually derivative.

One breakthrough leads to another, and developers don’t always know what the market will buy until they launch and test it. (Again, with the Segway.)

For sports venue designers and decision-makers, the path is clear. It isn’t about the new and shiny. It’s about what has the power to generate revenue.

The price tags of the venues keep going higher. We have to keep delivering if we want the fans to invest. And all of this technology is going to have to earn its keep.

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