Sports Venue Technology Summit: Hybrid Tech, Space Allocation Challenge Control-Room Developers

Sports-venue technology is rocking these days, and that’s largely thanks to the installation of larger, crisper videoboards and the upgrading — or building — of advanced, multipurpose control rooms to go with them.

At both the professional and the collegiate level, billions of dollars are being spent across the country on facility renovations and construction. Each project, however, presents its own unique challenges: chief among them, working within the financial constraints of a given project.

That inevitably leads to some technology sacrifices in bringing a project in at budget. For example, venue-planning and -designing firm WJHW is working on the renovation of an NFL venue that includes a full IPTV system but doesn’t have enough funds to revamp the standard-definition screens currently installed in the stadium’s upper bowl. That requires a hybrid control room where older technologies, such as SDI, must operate harmoniously alongside new infrastructures.

“It’s very difficult for us,” WJHW Associate Principal Josh Beaudoin reported at last week’s SVG Sports Venue Technology Summit at University of Washington’s Husky Stadium in Seattle. “Most of our clients have real-world budgets to work within, and the reality is that there’s a bucket of money and there’s a lot of people putting their hands in it. At both the university and the professional level, we are forced to make hard decisions on these projects. It gets very frustrating, and that’s the reality of these buildings unless it’s a completely new build. It’s a series of calculated compromises.”

Many college control rooms are being built with the ultimate goal of servicing multiple venues and multiple productions simultaneously. As a result, fiber infrastructures are being installed on campuses throughout the country. Getting the proper financing for them can prove a challenge, however.

“It sounds great to produce women’s soccer or lacrosse,” explained Alpha Video VP Jeff Volk. “When you talk to athletic directors and tell them $1.5 million is the number to build the control rooms [they] want, they can get behind that and see that ROI. But, when you hand them a $250,000 proposal to run fiber from some venues, that conversation can be a little more tricky; there’s that gap between connecting that with the ROI.”

One simple way to save money on the fiber front is to establish open communication with a university’s IT department. Unfortunately, a disconnect between these types of projects and existing infrastructure is common.

“A lot of times, it’s just straight luck and identifying the right person in the school’s IT Department, taking them out to lunch, and finding out what connectivity already exists,” said The Systems Group VP Scott Griffin. “In a lot of cases, it’s not well known by the communication school or the sports program. We’re working on three projects right now, and, in one of those three, I just stumbled upon someone who happened to know what strands were going from what venue to the building that we were building the control rooms in. Very fortunately for us, it was six months ahead of time, and we were able to work together to design it and use some of those strands.”

These multipurpose control rooms also tend to require additional gear and space. In some cases, auxiliary rooms might be needed to meet the needs of, say, an in-venue videoboard production going on at the same time as a digitally distributed live-streaming production. That means more space needs to be allocated for these control rooms, and, at some venues, space is at a premium.

“There’s a lot of resistance architecturally in some of these projects to relinquishing that much space to accommodate these rooms,” said Beaudoin. “We do need more space; we shouldn’t shoehorn everything into one space. We need to think of the long-term ramifications and operational costs and how [they affect] us in terms of workflow and the product we put out.”

That added space is also needed to accomplish the important goal of future-proofing a facility.

“It’s very important to build and design an infrastructure that can support multiple venues on one footprint, but don’t under-build yourself,” advised Fred Wright, senior director of sales, Central Region, BeckTV. “Build the infrastructure to support whether it’s going to be a 4K-island workflow, a package-media workflow, or baseband. Build your infrastructure to support future growth.”

When athletic departments are building multiple control rooms (for example, at Baylor University, a control room was part of the new MacLane Stadium, but a renovation is under way on the control room in the basketball facility), an emphasis is being put on ensuring that those control rooms are carbon copies of each other, at least from an operation perspective.

“[They want it so that,] when their guys sit down to do a show, regardless of the building, everything looks familiar to them,” said Stuart Reynolds, senior manager, Diversified Systems. “They only have one or two full time employees, and the rest of the crew is students. So that idea of being able to train once for multiple systems is very valuable.”

In the meantime, although many facilities have undergone renovations, there’s general consensus that the best is yet to come. In fact, according to research by SportsBusiness Journal, colleges alone will spend a record $1.3 billion on stadiums next year.

“I don’t see this slowing down at all,” said Wright. “There are a lot of arenas that are still standard-definition and have aging control rooms. Those buildings are going to want bigger and better displays, and that’s going to require an upgrade. The launch of the SEC Network certainly kept us all busy this summer, but I don’t see this slowing down at all.”

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