VTS 2010: Inside the Broadcaster/Venue Ecosystem

At SVG’s third-annual Venue Technology Summit, held this week at New Meadowlands Stadium, the broadcaster/venue ecosystem was a hot topic. As sports stadiums become more connected, broadcasters and architects must work together to complete two different agendas. Representatives from leagues, teams, networks, and technology companies took the stage at the stadium to discuss some of the challenges involved in navigating the changing broadcaster/venue environment.

“I had a conversation with [architecture firm] Populous on the shift in connectivity and what they need to do in their standards to get caught up,” explained Robert Jordan, VP of design and construction for New Meadowlands Stadium. “They used those words: ‘How do we get caught up?’ Architects have been the last ones to catch on that video is becoming the king in all of this. Architects are more receptive now than they were five years ago, and they’ll be even more receptive five years from now.”

Broad-Based, Future-Proof
When it comes to stadium construction, the challenge is no longer how to build for today but how to build for the mega-event of the future.

“From a broadcast and stadium infrastructure standpoint, one of the things that we sometimes ignore in the original construction is, how much do you want to plan for your mega-events?” said Scott Nardelli, chief business development officer for Bexel Broadcast. “What do you provide for your mega-events to be able to support broadcast compounds that are outside of the normal broadcast compound?”

When the photo press on the field is asking for a fiber-optic output, he said, stadium designers have to begin thinking outside of the box much earlier in the process. “Dallas [Cowboys Stadium] has been open for a year, and they’re already drilling holes there to get ready for the Super Bowl. That’s scary.

“Having the interconnectivity between what a broadcast might look like today and what it might look like tomorrow,” he added, “eventually, we’re going to get there.”

Planning Ahead
The NBA has regulations in place that tell stadium designers exactly what is required to host a regular-season game, the NBA Finals, and the All-Star game, so that those requirements can be taken into account throughout the construction process and there are no surprises. Still, wireless connectivity can throw a wrench into the mix.

“For the first time this year, I’m up to four or five calls on equipment that’s disabled because of competing wireless equipment in buildings,” said Steve Hellmuth, EVP, operations and technology, for the NBA. “And then we’ve got White Spaces on the horizon as well, so there’s a lot to consider.”

“Getting all the people in the right room at the right time is a lot more cost-effective than doing it piecemeal,” Nardelli said. “The cost of putting in more pops is a dimple on the entire project as opposed to Jerry Jones rolling in for the Super Bowl and saying he can’t make a phone call.”

Connecting Inside and Outside
Within a venue, connectivity is usually not an issue, but, between the mobile-production truck and the outside world, the lack of connectivity can hinder a production.

“We’re talking about 10-Gbps connectivity within a venue, but the mobile-production truck’s connection to the outside world is just a bonded T1 line,” explained Derek Anderson, senior product director for Level 3. “There’s a bit of a disconnect in terms of what that environment needs and what is currently in place. That is a big opportunity that, over time, will start to drive different workflows. Real-time speed back to production headquarters is where we’re headed.”

Truly Remote Productions
In fact, with enough bandwidth, some networks are already working nearly virtually, cutting cameras from an off-site control facility.

“At the World Series, MLB Network did their studio show from the field, and all of their cameras went straight back to Secaucus [, NJ, where its control room is located],” explained Jerry Steinberg, VP of technical operations for Fox Sports. “The need for bandwidth is the most compelling thing that we need to figure out. The VenueNet boxes now have a 40-Mbps data pipe along with the voice circuit, and that’s a big help. The capacity to grow that pipe is in place. We’re in a constant state of change, and it’s all driven by connectivity.”

Technologically, the bandwidth is in place for productions to become completely remote. In Philadelphia, for example, a centrally located control room cuts games for three sports played in two venues, Citizens Bank Park and the Wachovia Center, and there are opportunities for other cities, such as Denver, to follow suit. The Big Ten Network is among the networks already using the remote model to control a flypack of production equipment from a central control facility, but, for the biggest shows, there is no way to replace having a crew on the ground.

“The first cost-savings move that would happen would be to have the RSNs leave their graphic operations back at the studio,” Hellmuth explained. “But the producers still want to turn around and see the graphics person. They want to talk in the breaks about what’s coming up next. The graphics people would be much more creative back at home base, but the producers want them right there.”

Storytelling Is King
Ultimately, Steinberg said, technology will never replace the creativity that comes with having boots on the ground at the venue.

“Whatever kind of technological magic we dream up, we still tell stories and bring those stories to living rooms,” he said. “You need talent who can talk to players and coaches, and you need producers to work with that talent and inform those stories. There’s always going to be a presence on-site. If it’s all about technology, we get lost in the toys, and we stop telling stories.”