Venue Q&A: Dallas Cowboys’ Dwin Towell
By: Rick Price, president, moeBAM! Venue Media Services, and director, SVG Venue Technology Committee
As director of broadcast engineering services for the Dallas Cowboys, Dwin Towell provides facilities and engineering management for all broadcast– and television-production–related activities at Cowboys Stadium. Previously, he managed the Audio/Visual Department at the American Airlines Center. SVG talked with Towell about his 40-year career in production and engineering, his role in design and construction of Cowboys Stadium, and his goal in serving on the SVG Venue Technology Committee.
Cowboys Stadium must be one of the busiest stadiums in the world.
Very, very busy. It’s funny because people always [ask] what do you do when it’s not football season? We probably do less football than anything else here, when you think about it. We do multiple corporate events every week, sometimes several a day, and then other sports as well, and then concerts… We’ve got so many events scheduled in the bowl that the field will only physically be down about a hundred days.
Tell us a little bit about Dwin Towell
I’ve been working in the business for a little over 40 years. I’ve kind of always walked the line between production and engineering, which I think is good because it’s allowed me to work on and design systems that are friendly to both sides. I pretty much worked my way through the business since I started, which was at the age of 17 as an intern over at KARE-TV in Dallas, then went to school and worked at the college studios and then the local television station.
I went to school to do television, and let me put it this way: I worked my way through school doing TV so I could do TV when I got out of school, and I’ve been doing it ever since. I’ve always enjoyed it; it’s been a fun career. I’ve done a lot of different things: traveling all over the world, engineering, shooting a variety of things, and now I’m at Cowboys Stadium. This has been a fun ride.
When did you get involved in the venue side of the industry?
I worked freelance primarily as a video engineer so interfacing to different venues wasn’t unusual for me. The full-time [position] at American Airlines Center was around three years [2005-08], and then, over here, I’ve been consulting with the Cowboys since 1990 and then went on staff six years ago to do design and complete the stadium.
Tells us about your role in the building of Cowboys Stadium.
From the very start, this facility was interesting because you had the architects designing the building, various other companies trying to design a technical infrastructure, and it was difficult getting the point across [that] it is a football stadium but, if you listened to what Mr. [Jerry] Jones was saying, he wanted this to be an all-occasions facility. I took that to heart, doing the technical design in here. WJHW was involved in the design, but we ended up taking that as kind of a baseline and then made a lot of changes [to accommodate] the variety of events we do here.
We’ve done everything from bowling to football to rodeo to large entertainment events. We did our first funeral a few months ago: Chris Kyle, the Navy SEAL who was killed. We do a variety of events, and I wanted to design a facility that would be able to handle them well without having to go to any extreme lengths, and that includes the Super Bowl. When we did the Super Bowl here, on the technical side, that went very, very well.
How about the fiber infrastructure?
When we started the whole design and that end of the infrastructure, we were assuming SMPTE. [But when we] installed the networks and they wanted triax, so thus triax. But knowing what was coming, we went ahead, and all the network panels are at least 12 strands of single-mode fiber.
Fiber is what makes the building technically flexible, right?
It really does. We’ve used that fiber not just for cameras but for audio or even data going to lighting panels, pyro panels, and things like that. Fiber is a very flexible tool for us.
What features or infrastructure-design aspects did you implement to accomplish the vision of being more than a football stadium?
One of the simplest things to do from our perspective was plenty of fiber, because you can try to second-guess the needs of the future at the various I/O panels around the building, but we were determined to provide fiber as well as triax and audio and BNC at all of the I/O panels and then make sure there was plenty of power at each I/O panel to provide power for any device you want to interface. With the fiber, that could be data, audio, video — whatever you want it to be — so that gives us a lot of versatility, especially now with the transition going to SMPTE fiber.
Do you have SMPTE fiber in the building?
Not yet. [We’re] proposing to put that in in the near future. We do have fiber at all of the panels, though — single-mode — and all the trucks pulling in lately have their breakout boxes that they throw down, and they use two fibers and the local power.
What is the difference in preparing and supporting the big-time events like the Super Bowl over a Cowboys game?
The difference to me primarily is, it uses more of our infrastructure. The Cowboy games [are] pretty much the same game after game for us, and we do a really big show here. It’s not unusual to put out 12 cameras of our own before we take any feeds from the network trucks, and that includes wireless cameras. We’ve even got a wireless blimp that flies around and sends pictures back.
When we get NCAA events or the Super Bowl, we use more of it, and the nice thing about the building is, it’s there to use; you don’t have to run a lot of additional fiber or cabling to various points. In fact, for the Super Bowl, I was expecting to sleep here at the stadium on occasion, but I went home and slept in my own bed every night because we had the infrastructure to support a lot of what needed to be done.
What has been the most surprising aspect of operating Cowboys Stadium?
I think the variety of work that we do. Even though the vision was to build a stadium that would do all types of projects, I think people are sometimes surprised at the variety of things that we do here. If someone proposed to do swimming and diving, we wouldn’t turn them away; we would bid on doing swimming and diving.
We have that huge board hanging in the center of the stadium, which is unique not just because of its size but the fact that it’s hanging in the center of the stadium. Instead of just being a display device, now it’s become kind of a centerpiece; it’s often used as part of the actual staging for events in the bowl.
What do you enjoy most about your role with the Cowboys?
What I really enjoy [about my role is] it calls on a number of different talents. You have to be flexible and available. Clients will come up with different things they want to do, and I take great joy in being able to pull it off.
What kind of engineering staff does it take to keep Cowboys Stadium running?
My core staff for video and audio here is three people: myself, an audio engineer, and a general tech. We have a lot of automation built into the facility. Now, for a game day, obviously, we have 35-40 people working, but, for day-to-day managing events, a lot of things I can do from home. If the owner of the stadium calls me at 11 p.m. and says, “I want to take the mayor on a tour of the building, can you turn it on?” I can turn the big board on, I can turn the lighting on… We put a lot of automation into the building to make it cost-efficient.
This month, Cowboys Stadium celebrates its fourth birthday. You could say that the Cowboys started the wave with fan engagement and big LED scoreboard technologies. What are your thoughts on recent scoreboard designs, and how are the Cowboys staying on top of the wave?
There are a lot of big boards going up around the country, and it’s funny, it’s like they’re using the Cowboys board as the target board. But there’s a slogan that goes along with the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders: often imitated but never equaled. I kind of apply that to the board technology as well.
One of the unique things about this entire facility is that, yes, it is a football stadium; yes, it does do a variety of events; but the things that you discover when you visit: for instance, we have a pretty amazing art collection here. We even do art tours, [and] we’re on the National Art Gallery list.
After four years, what areas of infrastructure are you looking to improve on?
One of the things we’re looking at right now, for instance, is that center-hung board. [It’s] more than just the board; it’s become a hub for WiFi, our wireless camera antennas when we have third-party events come in, audio clusters are hung from there, and it’s not unusual for us to hang a quad of scoreboards underneath our main board for NCAA-type events or for the NBA All-Star Game. We’re going to add more fiber infrastructure up there to make it more versatile and also additional power in that area. We never really thought about that becoming a technical hub; it was a display piece. But now it’s become a technical hub as well: the FBI set up shop up there [during the Super Bowl]. It’s amazing what goes on.
Other than the impressive scoreboard, how is technology being used to enhance fan experience?
The ability to handle branding. We want everything to be done in a tasteful manner. That’s why, when you look at the big board during a game, you’re not going to see commercials running on it. You may see some sponsorship or replay, but we’ve managed to integrate all the sponsorship branding in a very tasteful manner. I think one of the trademarks of this particular stadium is, you walk around, [and] there’s signage, but it’s not obtrusive [or] gaudy.
A lot of thought is put into captioning. Captioning is very important. There are people who need captioning, but we kicked around: do you put it on the main board? do you put it on small monitors? how do you handle it? If [fans] need captioning or [are] hard of hearing, [they] can check out free of charge a small handheld device that has captioning. It also has high-level audio in English and in Spanish, and it’s very subtle.
Do you currently provide, or plan to provide, an in-venue experience for the fans on their mobile devices?
Yes, we do. That’s a number-one priority because everyone has a smartphone. We’ve come up with a couple of unique ways — I’m sure they won’t be unique for long — to use them, and that’ll be premiered in the upcoming season.
What is the primary objective for Cowboys Stadium?
It really is all about the fan experience, but we were counting that even before NFL itself jumped on that bandwagon. That’s why the building is built the way it is: for the fan. It’s here to meet their every need at every level, and that’s what we’ve tried to fulfill, and that’s what the whole NFL experience is supposed to be about at this point in time. We took it to heart during the actual construction and design of the building.
Can you tell us about your IPTV system?
We’re using the Cisco StadiumVision system. We have over 3,000 television sets around the facility, and we’re adding an extra hundred primarily to take care of the standing-room-only areas to give the fans a better experience.
Over your career, do you have a most memorable moment or accomplishment?
It’s kind of a geek accomplishment, but, a number of years ago, I worked on a project for the Japanese television network, doing a documentary on the American space program. I designed and built underwater housing for an Ikegami HL-79 that was umbilical to the surface and did some shooting in the NASA neutral-buoyancy simulator when they were practicing the deployment of the Hubble Space Telescope. To me, that was one of those cooler moments you’ll always remember, because I designed and built the equipment I was working with and I was there in the middle of people I’d looked up to for years — the astronauts — working on a pretty important project. That was a lot of fun and one of the highlights of my career
I would certainly say that Cowboys Stadium is quite the accomplishment.
Watching it being built, imagining it, seeing the stages it went through in construction, and seeing how it operates today, it’s a pretty cool thing to view. It really goes back to the man who had the vision to do it. I’m not just touting Mr. Jones because he’s my boss, but it took a lot of guts to think this big and then bring it to fruition. That’s quite an accomplishment, especially in the economic times we live in, and to make it work every day is yet another giant accomplishment.
What is your purpose in serving on this SVG Venue Technology Committee, and what would you like to accomplish as part of it?
I’d love to see the improvement overall [of] the set of standards. One thing I learned as a freelance engineer and going from facility to facility [is,] there’s a very wide spread in terms of capability. I think that, if nothing else, if we can establish a minimum daily vitamin allowance of what’s necessary to pull off a show, that would be a great accomplishment. Some sort of standardization, a baseline that everyone can achieve, would be good because of the time you can save crews. It’s been kind of scattered in the past, and, if we can bring it all together, that would be a major accomplishment.