Sports Venue Technology Summit: Seahawks, Trail Blazers Innovate To Meet Fan Demands

Technology executives from the Seattle Seahawks and Portland Trail Blazers took to the stage at the 2014 SVG Venue Technology Summit, held in Husky Stadium, home of University of Washington football, to share their perspectives on technology, workflows, and more.

Neither Chip Suttles, VP, technology, Seattle Seahawks, nor Mike James, VP, engineering and technology, Portland Trail Blazers, operates in a shiny new venue: the Seahawks play at 12-year-old CenturyLink Field, the Trail Blazers in 18-year-old Moda Center arena. But that doesn’t mean they can’t offer a first-class experience that leverages production talent, file-based workflows, and technology refreshes.

Portland Trailblazers’ Mike James (left) and Seattle Seahawks’ Chip Suttles discuss the in-venue experience.

Portland Trail Blazers’ Mike James (left) and Seattle Seahawks’ Chip Suttles discuss efforts to enhance the in-venue experience.

For the Seahawks, all the efforts begin, literally, with listening to fans.

“We have a 12th Man Presidential Council with 12 fans chosen out of 2,400 applicants to serve a two-year term,” said Suttles. “We meet with them quarterly and, based on their feedback, make actionable changes like opening the gates an hour earlier and adding WiFi, as that was high on their list. So the feedback strengthens our relationship with fans.”

He said he benefits from a great and experienced game-day production team as well as from exciting capital projects that are bringing the stadium up to the standards found elsewhere. And then there is the challenge of being involved with the current Super Bowl champion.

“It affects what we do because there is higher demand for access to the team, player, and news,” he pointed out. “We have to increase our available bandwidth and infrastructure needs: there are a couple of more cameras needed than in previous years as broadcasters want more angles. And there is also more demand on the digital team, creating social-media content and fiber paths around the stadium.”

As if champion-level demands are not enough, CenturyLink Field is home to the MLS Seattle Sounders and also has a conference and convention center that handles more than 320 events a year. That constant stream of business also drove demand for technology enhancements. A neutral-host DAS, a digital-signage system, a new IT network with a couple of 10-GB diverse paths, and updated point-of-sale devices that collectively help justify increases in the cost of tickets and suites.

“Even though there is some pushback, we managed to set some spending records,” quipped Suttles. “We took out our old hustle boards that had static stats and put up some LED boards in the four corners. So we have a whole new palette to offer more highlights and more out-of-town scores. And, for corporate sponsors, we can offer more ads.”

James and the Trail Blazers have been on a similar upgrade path in an effort to meet the needs of fans and sponsors.

“We’ve gone through the cycle of replacing our main scoreboard with a modern HD board with LED around it, upgraded our first control room, and added a second all-HD control room for our broadcasts,” said James. His production team not only handles the in-venue experience but also produces the broadcast feed delivered to Comcast and over-the-air broadcast-rights holders.

“We are the broadcaster so we deliver the complete game to our partners and produce it from a mobile truck in our dock,” said James. “But we also do the pregame, halftime, and postgame coverage out of our studios, and the network allows us to share a lot and network trucks from other broadcasters with ours.”

The team also produces commercials, bumpers, digital-signage elements, feature stories, and more.

“We have a large staff with seven craft editing stations and also a large staff of freelancers,” he explained. “And we use file-based technologies to help automate our workflow by dropping content into watch folders and then into the playout servers. It really helps as we have up to 300 files on game day.

Because both the NBA and NFL have robust requirements in terms of connectivity for fans, both Trail Blazer and Seahawks fans benefit, and James and Suttles have league backing for required upgrades. For example, 25% of Trailblazers fans use the in-venue app; for the Seahawks, that figure is about 22%.

“That is about 15,000 people and allows us to do some new things,” said Suttles. “We can roll out and add features to our mobile app, and, with 600,000 downloads, we want to offer features and functions that fans really want to use. We want them to not only interact on game day but also have a source of news, videos, and pictures when they are away from the stadium.”

Those efforts have led to a 45% increase in the use of the Seahawks app, and that success helps drive additional projects to bring the stadium up-to-date technically.

“We do have HD boards, but we’re still pushing an SD signal, so we have a way to go with control-room updates and will do more with our infrastructure, like the possibility of an Internet lounge or LED rings like those found here at Husky Stadium.”

The future promises new display technologies, but it will also include larger staffs for such services as digital signage and social-media offerings, which require dedicated staffers to do things right.

“Once in place, the digital-signage system needs to be fed and tailored for partners or our own internal content, and that takes a lot of time and effort,” says Suttles. “Digital signage takes additional bodies.”

James concurred, adding that, without a dedicated staffer, content will quickly get stale. “You need to keep it fresh and current if you want it to keep making revenue.”

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