Audio-Systems Designers Look to Minor Leagues, High Schools for Next Building Boom

When the Marlins Ballpark opens in Miami in April, it will cap a remarkable 20-year span that saw several dozen major-league sports venues built across the U.S. Starting with the Baltimore Orioles’ Camden Yards in 1991, MLB, NFL, and NBA teams, as well as several top NCAA teams, saw much of their venue infrastructure rebuilt, either from the ground up or with complete renovations of existing stadiums and arenas. With few exceptions — most notably, the Boston Red Sox’ Fenway Park, the Chicago Cubs’ Wrigley Field, and the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Chavez Ravine — the major leagues have been playing in new houses for much of the past two decades.

And they sound like it. This new generation of sports venues has led the way in introducing subwoofers into their venue PA systems, making them music-friendly — and, in the NBA’s case, urban-music–friendly for genres like hip-hop that depend on low-frequency energy.

Even older venues have gotten sonic facelifts. TCU’s football stadium and the UCLA Bruins’ Pauley Pavilion have completed the first phase of AV systems renovation.

“We’re seeing a greater percentage of projects that are retrofits now,” says Mark Graham, an associate at AV consultant Wrightson, Johnson, Haddon & Williams. He attributes that to several factors, including a nearly complete major-league venue buildout and the economy, which has cut into the ability of teams, cities, and counties to raise finds from bonds.

But he says it also has to do with the fact that audio and video technology changes much faster now than in the past. “Stuff installed in the 1990s is already reaching the point where it needs to be upgraded.”

That’s due in part to the increasing sophistication of components, such as loudspeakers, being used in the distributed-style sound systems that work better with stadiums’ modern bowl architecture but cannot withstand constant exposure to the elements, unlike the older basic horns that used to be a staple of the point-source PA systems in most 20th century venues.

The good news is that the speaker enclosures used in many of the distributed clusters and in the line arrays that hang from scoreboards and other structural elements can remain in place, with just their drivers and DSP software requiring replacement and upgrading.

Upgrades at existing stadiums continue to feature improved audio systems and HD video but also include more low-voltage capabilities, such as WiFi for the stands and touch panels in suites and sponsor areas for control of audio, video, HVAC, and other amenities.

Ted Leamy, COO of Pro Media/Ultrasound, which most recently expanded the PA system at the Green Bay Packers’ Lambeau Field when that venue added nearly 7,000 seats this season, points to extras like the system recently deployed at Stanford University’s football stadium to let fans watch instant replays on their mobile devices in their seats. The system introduced this season at the Milwaukee Brewers’ stadium, he says, enables fans to order food from concessions via smartphones.

“This is a media convergence driven by fan expectations,” says Leamy, predicting that 3D on mobile and scoreboard video devices might not be far off.

The Next Tier
With so much of the major-league infrastructure built out in the past 20 years, what many designers and installers of sports-venue audio systems are focusing now on is growth in the next tier down: minor-league baseball stadiums, hockey arenas, mid-level college stadiums, and high school football venues — all of which have had their aspirations whetted by the transformation of major-league broadcast audio and live-sound technology. Wireless microphone systems and SD video scoreboards are increasingly dotting those landscapes, and larger, more modern facilities are rising around the country.

TSI Global, which did the sound systems for major-league stadiums including the Minnesota Twins’ Target Field and World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals’ Busch Stadium, last year worked on four high school football stadiums in the St. Louis area.

“High school football and college sports — the education market in general will be bigger in the coming years,” says Paul Murdick, VP of AV at TSI, noting that two-year community colleges are joining in as enrollments swell during the continued economic downturn.

Brian McCullagh, a senior service technician at ESCO Communications, which has done sound systems for Lucas Field and Canseco Field in Indianapolis and at Notre Dame (where the Fighting Irish put subwoofers into their PA for the first time this season), says that high school and second-level colleges are improving their sound systems to full-range systems for both music and voice intelligibility.

Most do not include subwoofers in their designs, however, and weather-resistant components for outdoor use are still too costly for most to use. But there are more choices in more price ranges now, he says.

“They’re going for point-source systems using products like Community’s R Series boxes or the Atlas Stadium system,” McCullagh says. “They’re emulating what they see at NCAA and major-league stadiums, with full-range sound systems with a lot of power and entry-level video boards and image magnification.”

The next round of sports venues may not be what we’ve become accustomed to seeing for the past 20 years. Earlier this year, Formula One Group CEO Bernie Ecclestone announced that the racing organization had secured a deal with the city of Austin, TX, to bring the series to the U.S. for 10 years. A 900-acre site in southeastern Travis County is slated to become the series’ first U.S. track in more than 25 years.

Brian Elwell, VP at Acoustic Dimensions, which put an EAW PA system in Sporting Kansas City’s new stadium this year, says his company will be working alongside German course architect Tilke on PA, life-safety systems, large video displays, and structured cabling for the Austin course and a proposed F1 track in Boston.

“What we’ve been seeing is that the next big thing isn’t necessarily going to be the bigger thing,” he says. “It’s not going to be a bigger Cowboys Stadium or New Meadowlands. But it will be interesting.”