Tech Focus: Sports & Entertainment Production — In Convergence, Two Massive Worlds Share Venues and Infrastructure

Music is the connective tissue between the two domains

The Super Bowl was once the singular benchmark for the intersection of sports and entertainment, both live and on television. But lately, it has had a lot more to compare itself to.

For instance, this year’s NFL Draft included performances by rappers Big Sean and Bazzi, countering last year’s event featuring rockers Fall Out Boy and Mötley Crüe. The 2023 NHL Draft in Nashville offered a quintet of country performers, including Brothers Osborne and Jo Dee Messina; this year, five-time Grammy Award-winner Shania Twain performed during the Stanley Cup Final series. In September, at Nashville’s Big Machine Music City Grand Prix, rock band Daughtry and country artist Riley Green will compete with the roar of the F1 engines.

The phenomenon is global. At the 2023 UEFA Champions League Final Kickoff Show, for instance, Nigerian Grammy Award–winning singer/songwriter/producer Burna Boy was co-headliner at the Atatürk Olympic Stadium in Istanbul; the previous year’s show at the Stade de France was topped by Camila Cabello. Meanwhile, the Olympics Opening and Closing Ceremonies have come to rival events like the Eurovision Song Contest and the Grammy Awards themselves.

PepsiCo VP, Global Brand Marketing, Eric Melis, who oversees the brand relationship between UEFA and Pepsi (the Super Bowl’s halftime sponsor for a decade until Apple took over in 2023), told the UK-based Sport Industry Group last year, “It’s no secret that the lines between sport and popular culture are rapidly blurring. At an ever-increasing rate, we’re seeing the often-segmented worlds of music, fashion, art, and sport collide, [which] presents us with an opportunity to truly double down on our work in the sport and music crossover.”

Melding Sports and Music

Audio specialist Michael Abbott: “Stadiums and arenas are now built as television studios to produce both sports and music.”

On a more visceral level, live and broadcast sports increasingly share infrastructure and workflows with touring and live-streamed music. Michael Abbott, whose career includes supervising the audio for Grammy Awards telecasts on CBS for 39 years and for The Voice for 12 seasons (plus managing the sound for the Commission on Presidential Debates in 2004, 2008, and 2012), opines that both sports and entertainment have entered an era in which spectacle drives production, making their convergence both natural and necessary.

“Nothing can feel like just a game or a concert anymore,” he says. “Everything has to be an event. Stadiums and arenas are now built as television studios to produce both sports and music. The content goes up on huge video walls and through massive sound systems well before the game starts and well after it ends.”

The same production technology, such as replay systems, is often used for both sports and entertainment events. Abbott has even applied some of sports’ audio tricks to awards shows: he has deployed the three-microphone speed-shot array used in motorsports to capture a sort of Doppler effect of the crowd noise as the cameras surround-pan award-show nominees just before the winners are announced.

He encounters challenges as athletes find themselves on the stage almost as often as on the field. Rehearsing the sound he would supervise for the NHL Draft event at The Sphere in Las Vegas in late June, he realized that athletes don’t expect the disorienting effect of the massive venue’s 1,200-ms delay.

“They don’t want to wear ‘ears’ because they’re not used to them in the arena,” Abbott says, referring to the wireless in-ear monitors that have replaced monitor speakers in many applications. “They don’t understand the effect of the latency on the media plane in the room. It’s a battle sometimes.”

The athletes are adjusting rapidly, however. In the ballpark, MLB outfielders are learning to wear in-ear IFBs and lavaliere microphones during play, chatting in real time with announcers in the booth.

Venue Sound

Stadiums and arenas are being designed as both entertainment and sports venues. Considered the first stadium show of the rock era, the Beatles’ 1965 U.S. tour included stops at the NY Mets’ Shea Stadium and the Chicago White Sox’s Comiskey Park. In the 1970s, stadiums and arenas began to regularly share their turf with music concerts as the crowds got bigger, the sound got louder, and the pyro became more explosive.

The stakes have changed considerably since then. Los Angeles-based Oak View Group, an entertainment- and sports-facilities company backed by private-equity giant Silver Lake — which was cofounded by Irving Azoff, uber-manager for such artists as the Eagles, Fleetwood Mac, and Van Halen — owns and operates numerous sports/entertainment venues, including Baltimore’s CFG Bank Arena and Seattle’s Climate Pledge Arena, home to the NHL’s Kraken and the WNBA’s Seattle Storm. (It also owns two of the venue and touring industry’s leading trade publications, Venues Now and Pollstar.)

These days, new and renovated sports venues have to be multipurpose facilities, particularly as funding models have shifted from state and local financing and rely more on revenues derived from concerts and other non-sports events. Their PA systems have to follow suit: they need to offer high metrics on STI (Speech Transmission Index) or STIPA (Speech Transmission Index of Public Address Systems) scales for speech intelligibility, offer full-range–frequency reproduction for music, and interface installed sound systems with touring systems — another way sports and entertainment are linked in the venue.

Increasingly Critical Sound-System Choices

The audio needs can present costly challenges for venue owners. Music-capable sound systems are complex: instead of the point-source systems long common in stadiums, they often deploy the same kinds of line arrays used for touring. To reproduce music fully, they require more speakers, including subwoofers, and thus are, on average, more expensive than systems intended solely for sports applications. They also present noise issues, which venue operators are pressured to mitigate with large-scale acoustical treatment and design solutions.

Some costs can be recovered with an in-demand music system — “rider-friendly” systems whose brands are often found on touring-show contract addendums — because they reduce the amount of equipment touring shows have to carry. Matching the house PA to systems touring with popular artists can make some venues more attractive (that is, cost-effective) destinations by cutting tour transport costs.

‘The Crowd Sound Is the Experience’

QSC’s Olivier Roure: “In Europe, most of the time, they’re less concerned about the sound experience because the crowd sound is the experience.”

Sports venues are still figuring this out, and different sports and venue types have different requirements. “Hockey and basketball tend to be the more rock ’n’ roll sports,” explains Olivier Roure, Eastern region sales director, live sound, QSC. “The arenas they play in are easier to design sound for because they have roofs, which give you more options for hang-point locations. Stadiums are much more limited in terms of where you can put speakers.”

Interestingly, the musicality of sound systems in Europe, where soccer rules the sports roost, is less of an issue, says the French native, because those fans tend to do their own singing: “In Europe, most  of the time, the venue operator is the sports team itself, and they’re less concerned about the sound experience because the crowd sound is the experience.”

Built-In Stages

In the U.S., however, soccer is following the trend toward multipurpose, music-accommodating venue design. For instance, Geodis Park, home of the MLS’s Nashville SC, has billed itself from its May 2022 opening as “a concert-ready venue” and hosts shows by Shania Twain, Guns N’ Roses, and P!nk. The venue design features a 60,000-sq.-ft. “event square” in the north end, which has power and is designed to host a stage.

In fact, adding permanent stages to stadiums and arenas is now more common than novel. For instance, the NFL’s Tennessee Titans’ planned 60,000-capacity enclosed stadium will feature two built-in concert stages. At others — among them the MSL’s Philadelphia Union’s Subaru Park and the NHL’s Predators’ Bridgestone Arena — built-in performance stages are used during matches.

Look for more of that. Live music is expected to grow to a $38 billion industry by 2030, from about $28 billion currently, according to PricewaterhouseCoopers, even with the cancellation of several major tours so far this year. That compares with Statista’s estimates of $16.43 billion this year for live-sports revenues, projected to increase to $18.83 billion by 2028. Tellingly, according to Oak View Live’s accounting, an arena can generate twice as much net income from a concert as from an NBA or NHL game.

Venue Video

To attract and accommodate complex music-touring shows, sound systems in stadiums and arenas are getting bigger and louder. And the video side of the sports-AV equation has been keeping up, with bigger, brighter, and technically more-sophisticated screens. That has brought up related issues.

“As facilities are challenged to find ways to provide immersive entertainment for fans, and the industry is wanting larger screens, display technologies are changing, too,” says Will Ellerbruch, national sales manager, Daktronics. “[That includes] lighter and smarter screens with improved performance to make them more accommodating for additional events at these venues.”

Athletes Take the Crossover Off-Field

There’s a surprisingly tight connection between athletes and musicians, and it’s not just celebrity hookups. More than a few players have chops on the field and on stage. Here are five.

Retired New York Yankee Bernie Williams, a classically trained guitarist, has collaborated with Bruce Springsteen.

Centerfielder Bernie Williams played his entire 16-year career (1991-2006) with the New York Yankees and was a member of four World Series championship teams. He is also a classically trained guitarist and has collaborated with artists including Bruce Springsteen, Jon Secada, and Béla Fleck.

Deion Sanders played for 14 seasons with the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons, San Francisco 49ers, Dallas Cowboys, Washington Redskins, and Baltimore Ravens and for nine seasons as an MLB outfielder with the New York Yankees, Atlanta Braves, Cincinnati Reds, and San Francisco Giants. His debut album, Prime Time, was released in 1994 through MC Hammer’s Bust It Records label via Capitol Records. In 1995, Hammer released “Straight to My Feet” with Sanders, from the action-film Street Fighter soundtrack.

Seven-time Grand Slam tennis champion John McEnroe was known for intense rivalries with Björn Borg and Jimmy Connors, as well as his confrontational on-court behavior, which frequently landed him in trouble with umpires and tennis authorities. But he learned music from the best: McEnroe took guitar lessons from Eddie Van Halen and Eric Clapton and joined Bo Diddley on stage before the 2005 US Open. Keeping music in the family, he’s married to 1980s popsters Scandal singer Patty Smyth.

NBA All-Star Damian Lillard, aka Dame D.O.L.L.A., has released four albums.

Damian Lillard is well-known for scoring buckets as an NBA All-Star. Noted for big shots in the clutch, he has been nicknamed “Dame Time.” However, others may recognize him as Dame D.O.L.L.A. He has released four studio albums under the moniker, with his latest, Don D.O.L.L.A., in August 2023.

Boxer Oscar De La Hoya has won 11 world titles in six weight classes, including lineal championships in three. His eponymous album earned him a Grammy nomination in 2000 and was certified Platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America in 2006 for selling more than 1 million copies.

Together Again

The intersection of sports and music has become thematic in recent years. A Super Bowl Halftime Show artist had essentially been a bolt-on to the main event for much of its history, but recent shows reflect a broader premise. For example, Super Bowl LVI brought together hip-hop headliners Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Eminem, Kendrick Lamar, and 50 Cent for the first-ever Halftime Show focused on the then-dominant genre. Today, MLB players hand-pick songs that play before they bat, and NHL squads blare team anthems after scoring a goal.

“Sports and entertainment used to be two distinct propositions,” says Abbott. “Not anymore.”

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