SVG College Sports Summit: Technology — With a Purpose — Drives College Venue Boom

Professional franchises aren’t the only big players in venue construction. From the recent renovations of the University of Kansas’s historic Allen Fieldhouse and Georgia Tech’s McCamish Pavilion to new buildings sprouting on the campuses of Penn State and the University of Washington, universities are driving the recent boom of venue renovations and new builds every bit as much as the big-league boys.

At SVG’s College Sports Summit last week, industry veterans involved in these and many more projects convened to discuss the ingredients of a state-of-the-art college facility.

Alpha Video’s Jeff Volk (left) and Van Wagner’s Bob Jordan

Alpha Video’s Jeff Volk (left) and Van Wagner’s Bob Jordan

“When dealing with any venue that we find in college sports, the challenge today is that a lot of teams’ fan base — their loyal demographic, that traditional donor and ticketholder base — is getting older,” said Jeff Volk, director, Sports & Entertainment Group, Alpha Video. “Technology has really become a way where universities can reach out to that next generation of fans.”

Technology has long factored into any discussion on fan engagement in the venue. Whether WiFi and DAS networks to keep fans connected on their mobile devices or 1080p-capable control rooms to power center-hung LED displays, renovations and new builds alike are setting aside increasingly larger chunks of their budget for low-voltage technology. However, the plan requires more than just funding.

“Technology can’t be there for technology’s sake,” said Robert Jordan, SVP, Van Wagner Sports Group. “You can put in all the fiber you want, but, if it doesn’t have a defined purpose, why go there?”

Jordan has been involved in renovations of University of Washington’s Husky Stadium and Alaska Airlines Arena.

“Seattle is a phenomenal early-adopter town of technology, but I’ll put those two buildings up [against] any other building even on the pro level [in terms of] the technology platforms that we put in place there. The reason they were put in place was to extend the history of the buildings and the brand,” he continued. “We wanted technology to take a back seat because we wanted the content to extend that history. There has to be a purpose behind it before you start putting the technology in.”

The purpose behind adding technology should not solely be to get fans in seats. Rather, universities should aim to enhance the overall fan experience through technology.

Penn State’s Jim Nachtman (left) and Michigan State’s Rick Church

Penn State’s Jim Nachtman (left) and Michigan State’s Rick Church

“With Beaver Stadium — a 55-year-old building [with] 108,000 seats — what’s important is that the technology not be the reason that people are there. It’s important that it enhances their time there,” said Jim Nachtman, director of broadcasting operations, Penn State. “With Jeff [Volk]’s help and Sony’s help, last year, we added 11-12 cameras to help tell the story of what a game-day experience is like. I think things like adding goal-post cameras to be able to get the guys when they come out on the field, get incredible shots of our student section, and adding a wireless [camera] to our pregame activities were just things that the fans didn’t come in expecting but I definitely know that add to that experience.”

Challenges of Wireless
In addition to deciding which technologies to install, there must be consensus on how those technologies will be used. While wireless networks may get younger fans through the turnstiles, those fans may not be focused on the field.

“You have to have a total department strategy around what you’re trying to do as far as new technology,” said Rick Church, director of broadcast technology, Michigan State. “We’re looking at adding wireless technology to our stadium, except our coach says, ‘No, I don’t want students sitting next to each other texting during the game. I want them looking down on the field and actually watching the game.’ So you have different thought patterns throughout your department, and you have to get all on one page: OK, here’s what we want to do, and here’s the best way to accomplish it.”

Whether college or professional, wireless networks — both WiFi and distributed antenna systems — are increasingly seen as essential to renovating an old facility or building a new one.

“Wireless is essentially the next holy grail in sports because that’s what fans want,” said Jordan. “The fans require a second screen, and every metric out there says that the second screen is ubiquitous. The problem we have is that WiFi is a nascent technology that also has very severe limits in a high-density environment.”

Those limitations include handling a variety of wireless formats (those that currently exist and those still to come), preparing for future bandwidth demands, and installing a network in a facility not conducive to WiFi.

Control-Room Evolution
With outlets like ESPN3 and the Big Ten Network, collegiate athletics are getting more television exposure than ever before. The panelists concurred that every venue must be prepared to accommodate a visiting broadcaster.

“I think most of the schools in the Big Ten, as well as all the D1 schools around the country, have a pretty basic infrastructure ready for any broadcaster that comes in to plug and play,” said Church. “The biggest thing you need to do is listen to the broadcaster [when it says,] ‘Next year, we might bring in a 5D show; we’re going to need 20 strands of fiber instead of just 10.’ Try and be proactive and stay a little bit ahead of the curve as far as new technologies go.”

As universities work with networks to determine what base-level infrastructure they need, facility operators must work with the design team to determine what the in-venue technology should accomplish.

“What, at the end of the day, are you trying to accomplish to enhance the experience for your fans?” asked Volk. “It’s changed a lot recently on the college market, where, instead of a fully new control room in your football venue, for example … you’re building a facility that handles everything on campus. You’re not building a control room to support a venue; you’re really building a digital media center to support your campus athletic initiatives.”

The panelists concluded by stressing that, while turnstile numbers and ticket sales are important, they should not determine the success of the renovation or new build.

“It’s not only the ROI; it’s who’s staying home or [are] students staying away because you don’t have a sort of technology?” said Jordan. “You may not have an uptick in the number of tickets sold, but, if you don’t do something, are you losing ticket sales? The ROI may not always be going up on your renovation or on your installation, but you also have to protect your baseline [from] going down.”