Venue Sound, Part 1: Colleges Invest Big in Retrofits, New Facilities

Four years of economic recession sent a lot of people back to college. Included in that number are some folks who took no classes but whose presence means a lot anyway. They are a growing cohort of AV-systems integrators whose specialties include sports venues and who are seeing much of their current business and future growth on campus fields of play, where broadcast also has a significantly increased presence.

“The big pro-sports buildout of stadiums and arenas in the 1990s and [early 2000s] was huge, and there’s going to be a lot of retrofitting of systems around that for years to come,” says Mark Graham, an associate at sports-venue systems designer/consultancy WJHW. “But, as the colleges continue bringing up the level of their production for the fans and, as more of that finds its way onto television, the collegiate sports venue is going to be a big part of the industry over the next 10 years.”

College sports have their own unique needs, particularly for audio, he notes: for instance, getting the marching bands that are part of the college-football experience into the audio mix means setting up more dedicated microphones in specific areas of stadiums. Colleges are also integrating far more-sophisticated broadcast capabilities into their stadiums.

At the same time, college venues are adding more major-league amenities that require AV systems, such as luxury boxes. Demetrius Palavos, senior sales and design engineer at Pro Media/Ultrasound, notes that skyboxes may be part of a complex revenue stream that’s helping pay for more-extensive broadcast systems, including more SMPTE and fiber in collegiate control rooms.

“They’re still putting triax[ial cable] into the college venues, but, more and more, we’re seeing fiber going in, with SMPTE runs to HD cameras,” says Palavos, whose recent work includes AV systems at UCLA’s Rose Bowl and Idaho State University as well as the new MetLife Stadium shared by the NFL’s Giants and Jets. “In some cases, they’re matching or exceeding what there is on the network side of broadcast.”

The big AV systems remain the core focus of stadiums and arenas, for both colleges and the major leagues. This is in large part to meet the increased entertainment expectations of fans attending the games and to keep them coming back even as the home AV experience continues to improve: sports is virtually the only genre driving 3D home video at the moment, and surround audio systems are moving in an immersive direction, with 5.1 being joined by 7.2 (dual subwoofers) and even nascent 22-channel systems.

The Fan Experience
“The fan experience [in the stadium] will continue to improve as the AV technology in the home, in church, and everywhere else does,” says Graham. “It has to.”

One way that has been manifest is in the increased deployment of multiple subwoofers in venues, particularly in basketball arenas. “Nearly all of them will include subs now, where, 20 years ago, almost none of them did,” he says. In fact, he adds, improvements in sound-system technology will drive a lot of that in-stadium experience in the future; for instance, sound systems will continue to see greater directional control, allowing more use of point-source cluster systems, which are often preferred for some types of stadiums, particularly large college football venues, because of their high-volume-level capability, which stirs crowds.

“With the newer systems, you’re not dealing with the same kinds of high-frequency losses you used to have with older point-source technology over 600-800 ft. of throw,” Graham explains. “We’ve also learned a lot more about controlling the sound, how to get the time arrivals far more coherent. We can eliminate phase distortions and artifacts like echoes. Product development just keeps getting better, and we continue to push the envelope of what manufacturers give us.” (Part 2 will discuss how suppliers of sound-system technology are helping that effort.)

Even as AV-systems integrators push the limits of what can be done with new technology, shifts are taking place within their own ranks. For starters, there are more of them: in addition to established companies — AVI-SPL, Pro Media/Ultrasound — in this complex niche, others have targeted the sector: for example, Clair Systems, a sister company to Claire Global, a supplier of live sound systems for music touring, recently finished an update at Penn State’s Beaver Stadium; other venues include sound systems for the Sugarland (TX) Skeeters and several Atlantic Baseball Conference stadiums in Pennsylvania and Maryland.

Another route into the market has been through acquisition, such as Parsons Technologies’ purchase of sports-heavy integrator TSI several years ago. Other companies are expanding into installation. Giant-screen–video manufacturer Daktronics now not only makes and installs the screens but also integrates audio systems into them.

“In an effort to perfect the large-scale electronics-construction process for clients, Daktronics has adopted a single-solution approach to assisting the worldwide sports community,” says Mike Maloney, regional audio sales associate, Daktronics. This new “mega-integrator” strategy, he says, provides sports-venue clients with access to an integrated approach across venue media systems, such as the combined audio/video installation the company did earlier this year at Clemson’s Frank Howard Field.

The benefits of all this attention to sports-venue live sound are what you’d expect of supply-side dynamics: more competition among designers and integrators, combined with more technology choices, means average costs will likely decline, abetted by the increased use of converged/networked AV throughout each venue, which saves on cabling expenses. So will open-source, time-synchronized low-latency streaming services like AVB Layer 3, a development that will bring the IT department further into the live-media side of sports venues. All this is going to make the next decade of sports venues an even better-sounding place to be.