Sports Venue Technology Summit: Renovation Boom Offers Challenges, Opportunities

The renovation boom in venue technology continues to expand, particularly with next-generation control rooms and improved IPTV and wireless services, but there is still much to do to ensure that renovated venues are ready for the future and embrace the right technologies.

The boom was the focus of a panel discussion during this week’s SVG Sports Venue Technology Summit, held at Denver’s Sports Authority Field at Mile High and featuring experts discussing the ins and outs of the challenges and opportunities.

The first question for any renovation is finding out not only whether it is needed but also how it fits into the equipment depreciation cycle. Pete Sakosky, technical solutions architect, Cisco Sports and Entertainment, for example, noted that the product life cycle is currently about five years but that areas like WiFi and digital signage will be on a faster upgrade schedule. And then there is the impact of a “ mega event” in a venue that could also require a technical refit.

“After the initial deployment, there is going to be a refresh and uplift required by the team or leagues,” he said, “but the rough rule of thumb is a refresh every five years.”

Sakosky added that the first step to a renovation is finding the dollars and doing that requires not only a compelling reason but also the buy-in of venue and organization executives.

“You have to expand the discussion to include CMO and CFO types when developing a digital-application strategy,” he explained. “And, beyond IP video, you need to see how, if you deploy products X, Y, and Z, [they] fit into the needs of the mobile partners [and into] replay strategy, tie in with analytics, and create an opening for dollars.”

To WJHW VP Chris Williams, the biggest challenge in control-room renovation (and design in general) is that some control rooms do not keep up with IT-based replacement cycles. Production tools that run on computers, such as graphics and character generators, are on a five- to seven-year cycle, and yet plenty of control rooms have systems that are 10 years old.

“The biggest problem we see,” he said, “is that most production-control–room staff are too good at putting on a great show.”

But Williams cited some recent projects that have a bright future. The Jacksonville Jaquars, for example, took a miserable building and, in a sensible renovation, added 10 years to its life.

“The production level went through the roof with 8K content being created and a customized Abekas server that could build images on a pixel-by-pixel basis,” he said. “The building is transformed.”

Another project he described was an overhaul at PNC Park, home of the Pittsburgh Pirates, which was inspired by the look of ESPN graphics. The use of Ross Video’s Xpression graphics engine with its Dashboard app has revamped the look of the scoreboard and, with automation, gives it the appearance of a big-time production requiring numerous personnel.

“The key here is the new tool sets that are available from all manufacturers, and Xpression is a good example of that,” Williams said. “We want to take these devices and simplify control-room operations.”

The major issue confronting all new control-room builds is that, although the use of IP as a backbone holds much promise, there is a lack of agreement on standards among manufacturers: “There is no clear path, and it is a horrible time to be renovating and building control rooms. You can see the future, but you cannot get there today without making a commitment to one manufacturer.”

Finding Focus
Vitec VP Michael Chorpash noted another challenge: renovating a facility and installing an IPTV system offers many possibilities. Unfortunately, that wealth of possibilities means that there is no single, best approach: different stadiums and venues have different needs to reach mobile devices and also different display technologies.

“Once IPTV is running over the network,” he said, “it opens up the possibility for stadiums themselves to distribute content in many different ways.”

Sakosky added that the marriage of, say, IPTV technologies and mobile handsets will need to make use of analytics that, combined with video, can open a lot of doors for sponsorship and marketing dollars. “Within the next 18 months,” he predicted, “a lot of situations will develop very rapidly.”

Chorpash explained that the move to IPTV requires making the right choice for encoders and decoders because encoders aren’t all the same. Low latency in a live stadium environment is important, so a good encoder needs to have low latency, high quality, and a competitively priced decoder. In addition, the need to bring in outside content requires the use of gateway products and even transcoding equipment to ensure that bitrates are reasonable.

“Encoders need to be low latency,” said Sakosky, “and there is an increasing need for precision-timed protocols for video walls.”