Venue Q&A: WJHW’s Chris Williams

By Rick Price, chair, SVG Venue Initiative, and president, MOEBAM! Venue Media Services

Chris Williams is VP of Wrightson, Johnson, Haddon & Williams (WJHW), a consulting firm offering state-of-the-art design services in sound systems, audio/visual, scoreboard and video displays, broadcast provisions and video production, acoustics and noise control, theater planning, lighting and rigging, distributed TV and satellite, video surveillance and access control, and tel/data structured cabling. The company’s strengths lie in the combined talents of principals and employees, diverse technical and business skills, and experience accrued over the years from hundreds of completed projects.

SVG sat down with Williams to discuss the trends he’s seeing in the sports-venue space, how teams can get the most out of their renovations and new builds, and his role on SVG’s Venue Initiative Committee.

Chris Williams, VP of Wrightson, Johnson, Haddon & Williams

Chris Williams, VP of Wrightson, Johnson, Haddon & Williams

Tell us a little bit about the beginning of your career and the beginning of WJHW
Like most of the people in our office, I started running PA at my church when I was in my teens. … I have a degree in electrical engineering [from University of Texas at Arlington] and got into television while I was in college, working at a television postproduction facility. From there, I started working at a systems integrator, then a consulting firm, and then, 24 years ago, my partners and I formed WJHW. We were employees at another company, and we decided to go out on our own and focus on sports, so that’s what we’ve been doing for 24 years.

But it’s not just sports that you do. What percentage of WJHW’s overall business is sports-venue–related?
It varies. We do between probably 50% and 70% in any given year, depending upon what happens. During the economic collapse, we had more sports work because it has a longer shelf life. But, right now, we have a group of folks that focus [on] non–sports-related [projects]; that’s a large segment of what other people in the office deal with.

Ballpark, how many sports venues have you been involved with over these 24 years?
I’m not sure I could even hazard a guess. In professional, major-league facilities, it’s close to three-quarters of every sport that we’ve worked in at least once, in some cases two or three times. In some cases, we’re on our third renovation cycle with some key buildings that we worked with in the early ’90s.

That has to be satisfying. To that point, what’s the best part of your job?
I think I’m like most of my colleagues in that we are really interested in the evolution and deployment of technology; that’s the fun part. The challenging part of every job is taking the newest and greatest ideas and helping deploy them for our clients. We’ve had the good fortune of working for a lot of visionary teams — especially in the last decade — that have really challenged us from a technical perspective [as well as] a business case because the technology deployment has to have a revenue or an operational aspect associated with it. That’s been probably the big challenge and is the great satisfaction.

In your opinion, what would make for the perfect sports-venue project?
The thing that makes it a great project — and we’ve seen more and more of these in the last decade — is where team management and ownership at the highest levels are engaged in technology deployment and seeing the benefit that the technology that we design and the broadcasters deploy enhances their overall experience. It’s a lot of fun when we’re dealing with team management and ownership at the highest levels and they look at this.

[Twenty years ago,] we were dealing with the broadcast liaison, and the team ownership and management was effectively out of the picture. We [now] see a lot of interest from ownership in the renovation cycle. We’re dealing with the owners of the team or the president of the team; that’s the best part, when we’re dealing directly with the people that have a vested interest in what’s going on in the building.

I’m assuming, if they’re able to identify a vision and communicate that vision effectively, then that makes everybody’s job easier.
It does. For instance, my partner Jack Wrightson worked with Tad Brown — the president of the [NBA’s Houston] Rockets — for the configuration of their unique videoboard last season, and that was a lot of fun. It was a real, groundbreaking approach that we’ve now seen over and over in a number of venues.

What is the most challenging trend in control-room design or functionality in recent years?
I think the biggest challenge is that [the] sports-venue control room is no longer putting out a single feed to a single display but has become effectively almost a three-ring circus of fan engagement throughout the venue. That has tasked the control-room design because a lot of the spaces don’t have enough room for a lot of the gear that has to be deployed and, in some cases, rooms that were done in the early ’90s were having to really expand [their] footprint. … To me, that’s the biggest challenge that we have right now.

In your experience, are control-room crews and staffs increasing in size or decreasing in size? How does automation factor in?
The sizes are increasing even with the deployment of automation. We’ve seen a lot of development in the last five or six years with consolidating things [related to] moments of exclusivity and timing, but, in the same sense, we’ve seen the increase in staff. We’ve seen the addition of marketing and sponsor elements into the control-room environment to make sure that there’s compliance [with] marketing and sponsor commitments that occur on a game-by-game basis. So, even though the technology has allowed us to consolidate certain functions, additional functions are being added to support fulfillment of other obligations that the venues have put upon themselves.

From a design perspective, what are some general areas that are most underestimated by teams and owners?
The first is the need [for], or importance of, key technical-support personnel. There’s oftentimes lots of producers and directors and graphics folks — consistently, in all sports across all venues — [but] it’s the exception to have a really talented technical-support staff. The other issue is the constant need to evolve or develop technology. Oftentimes, venues look upon technology deployment as something they do every five to seven years or even longer.

What do you foresee is the next big change or challenge coming for sports venues? What does the crystal ball show five, 10 years from now? Is it going to be 4K?
I’m not sure it’s 4K because we saw how little 3D really impacted us at the end of the day, and the question is, if 4K is deployed, what that impact is going to be.

Probably one of the biggest challenges that has impacted a part of the work we do that’s not technical but is what we see in the venue over and over is camera locations and capacities. When we got started in the late ’80s originally working in sports facilities, the idea of having a regular triple broadcast from baseball or basketball facilities was unheard of, and that’s almost now the regular occurrence it seems, at least for teams that are doing well.

That has been a huge impact, and some sports — [for example,] NBA and NFL — have worked really well with their teams to make sure that the broadcast program quality is maintained. But, as you know, we run into issues with capacity for camera locations to support scoreboard programs and other things, and so, to me, that’s one of the areas that I see as the biggest challenge as we move in the next few years: what, potentially, are 4K and other elements going to do to us — from supporting camera broadcasting [to] competing with the seat-paying revenue patron [to] the broadcast factor.

Do you see 4K as maybe a replay device used in sports venues, outside of the broadcast?
Certainly, in demonstrations I’ve seen, [replay] seems to be the killer use for it; however, so far, we haven’t seen a significant adoption of that. Actually, at [NAB 2014], working with a number of teams, one of the things that we consistently looked at was 4K as a replay tool, and, at the end of the day, a lot of the interest was actually in the high–frame-rate options.

To me, it has huge applications in the coaching side and in the analysis side of things; however, when demonstrating this or showing it to teams of different sports, generally, that coaching staff is barely able to cope with HD-level file sizes. The idea of 4K is one that really is an interesting issue. … It will be interesting to see if there are leagues that decide to adopt it for deployment.

Prior to this season, the NBA installed player-tracking technology in every venue to capture data for team and league analysis. Do you see deployments like this becoming an asset for the venue itself?
I think that’s the goal. … I think, at the end of the day, one of the things that is a driving force in what I see teams doing in-venue is providing [a] superior game experience to the spectator in the arena or in the stadium that is unique or better than what they’re able to see at home. Broadcasters have raised the bar so high as to what someone can see on their sofa that it really presents a challenge for venues, especially older venues.

As a member of SVG’s Venue Initiative Committee, what would you like to accomplish, and where do you see it benefiting the industry?
I think one of the opportunities SVG has is bringing together broadcasters, leagues, teams, and venues outside of a broadcast agreement to recognize what needs to be done to support everyone’s goals, where they overlap and where they don’t. To me, the great benefit is bringing those parties into a single organization that can dialog about what needs to be done to support each of their goals and new facilities and renovations of existing facilities.