Venue Q&A: WJHW’s Williams Reflects on 10 Years of Stadium Design

Ten years ago, the sports-venue industry stood on the verge of transforming the fan experience. In-venue video played on postage-stamp screens in standard definition over copper infrastructures, and cellphones were used solely for calling and texting — that is, when you could find a signal. And then, in 2009, Cowboys Stadium changed the game. Today, the quality of the in-venue production not only rivals the broadcast but, in many ways, surpasses it by fully embracing future-looking technologies and workflows. SVG sat down with WJHW’s Chris Williams, a longtime leader in sports-venue design, for his take on how the industry has evolved since 2006.

For a look back at the past decade in sports video, including retrospective Q&As with leaders in college video and asset management, download the Spring 2016 edition of the SVG SportsTech Journal.

Chris Williams, WJHW

Chris Williams, WJHW

How have you seen the state of sports venues and sports-venue technology change over the past 10 years?
Fiber, fiber, fiber, that’s all I can say. We’ve basically gone from copper into all-fiber, and, generally, the only time we stay with copper is in renovations where the cost of putting in all-new infrastructure may be cost-prohibitive. Ten years ago, we were planning Yankee Stadium and Cowboys Stadium [now AT&T Stadium], and I think those two venues are still paradigms for what venues want to strive for: a unique venue experience [with] huge videoboards that changed the way people thought about venues.

I think we’re going to continue to see proliferation of video displays. When New Meadowlands Stadium [now MetLife Stadium] opened, I think there were $20 million-plus of LED product, which was unheard of at the time. Today, even though we’ve gone down in pricing, it’s not at all uncommon for us to have $15 million-$20 million LED projects, as we just see larger and larger and more and more LED lighting up our buildings.

The second trend is really [the battle over] copper and fiber infrastructure, and, for the most part, we’ve seen people adopt and move to a fiber deployment as their preferred method. We’ve seen that from venues to broadcasters. I remember, when Yankees Stadium opened, YES Network said to me afterwards [that they] should have done this all-fiber, because we put in a lot of copper there.

Looking forward, one of the things the Cowboys and the Yankees also did is, they were the very first deployments, in 2008, of IPTV systems on a large scale. We’ve seen IPTV — which means a number of different things to different people, depending upon what your goal is — [go] from being cutting-edge to being sort of the standard today. What’s cutting-edge now is IPTV at 4K, which we have some clients interested in.

Related to that is the IP revolution from just a technology-infrastructure [standpoint]. Our control rooms have had small IP layers that have supported things like instant replay and editing, but I think we’re going to see a move to that because it represents a sort of format-agnostic solution for deployment. We no longer are tied to a specific size of HD router and is it 3G or not 3G? All of a sudden, we can look at an all-IP [infrastructure]. … Our venues tend to have a 10-year or even longer lifespan, and, [with] clients that we’re talking to about it, we’re saying, “Do you want to continue to buy the buggy whip, or do you want to buy something that may be a little more future-proof?”

What two or three innovations or trends are you seeing in control-room gear?
Instant replay has driven a lot of the technology, and so we see deployments in NFL venues that rival a B-level truck because they use it for competitive advantage.

In 2006, a $3 million control room would have been an NFL-level facility, and today’s NFL-level facilities are $6 million and $8 million for a new build. Then, one of the things that the Cowboys wanted to do was to provide an experience to the spectator that wasn’t second fiddle to the broadcast show, and that has proliferated amongst all of our sports to the point that we are putting in very sophisticated systems so that the entertainment aspect of what goes on in the venue is not second to the broadcast but its own unique experience.

You mentioned Yankee Stadium and Cowboys Stadium. Are there any others that stand out to you as game-changers?
Honestly, most of our new venues and even a significant number of our renovations do an amazing job of upping their game and presentation as they come into a new facility. One of the game-changers we had spontaneously in 2011-12 was when the San Antonio Spurs and the Indiana Pacers organically developed scoreboard ideas that, all of a sudden, changed the way arena scoreboards were designed.

I think every venue has aspects that are unique when they either open new or are renovated. We’re fortunate that everyone wants to be the next big thing, and so, whether it’s the Minnesota Vikings this season or the Atlanta Falcons next season, those are great examples of venues that will set new standards.

And it’s interesting, even today, the Yankees and Cowboys are still the top tier of that. That’s actually one of the biggest challenges: maintaining a venue from a technology perspective. A truck or even a broadcast build may only have a three- to five-year lifetime, whereas our venue builds typically have more of a 10[-year lifespan]. So it’s interesting to see teams like the Cowboys that spend incrementally year over year to continue their improvement. It’s been a great time to work in the field.

In terms of videoboard design, there’s lately been a trend toward one-upmanship. Are we going to reach a point where videoboards are too big?
The Jacksonville Jaguars [had] the world’s largest videoboard for only six weeks until the Marriott Marquis opened, so, if that’s a stated goal, it’s kind of a limiting goal. What I think makes Jacksonville so interesting is, they’ve done a really amazing job of the creative programming of that display. Most of the renovations we’ve worked with, there hasn’t been a lot of interest in spending lots of money on structural revisions to make boards as large as Jacksonville; it’s only in new buildings do we see people interested in potentially doing something like that. But I think that the desire to do something unique is a stated goal of either the architects or the owners.

What are you expecting to see or hoping to see over the next 10 years?
I expect things like 4K, high dynamic range, high-density WiFi, and wireless, which are all existing technologies [but are] just not fully deployed anywhere. One of the things that make venues unique is that we don’t have to interoperate with a lot of [external] systems in the world. If someone wanted to do 3D, they could do that in the venue. I think venues have an opportunity [to] take advantage of deployments that may not be fully standardized. The challenge is, are you going to be the next M format or are you going to be the Betamax format? [We’ve done installations] that were obsolete almost the day they happened, so that’s one of the goals we’re trying to foresee: what will have some traction as we go forward? I also think we’d all like to see holographic projection à la Star Wars, and I suspect that’s not too far away.