Smart Building

How COVID-19 is Reshaping the Future of Arena, Ballpark and Stadium Technology

Christine Williamson

The impact of COVID-19 on every part of the sports and entertainment industry has been devastating and disruptive. Athletes, venue event staff, television contracts, freelance broadcast crews: Everyone and everything has been affected. We probably always knew that sports excited and inspired us – but this sudden pause makes everyone realize the peace of mind and feelings of connectedness that sports provides.

From small-town Little Leagues to professionals at the height of their game, the fan in all of us yearns for the sports we love to return. But navigating the road back will be complex. When we do get back, will the new normal be recognizable?


The sports and entertainment industry prides itself on driving innovation. To finish out their seasons and salvage TV rights (and, thus, ad revenue), broadcasters are creating new show formats, measuring and adjusting what works on the fly – all with a skeleton crew.


Once they get back on air, what will the show look like if there’s no one in the venue watching live? Broadcasters are working on simulating crowd noises and placing virtual fans in seats to engage and connect with viewers. We’re also likely to see an increase in produced, strategic and managed social media engagement with celebs and athletes.


A significant portion of the broadcast will rely on remote production. Onsite crews may be kept to mission-critical staff only, with most functions hosted in a centralized studio control room.


To support simulated experiences and remote broadcasting, applications such as 5G and Wi-Fi 6 will be rolled out to support increased capacity. In order to work, however, this stadium technology relies on dependable, high-performance cabling and connectivity at its core. Trouble-free performance during a live sporting event can only be guaranteed when it’s supported by a high-performance cabling infrastructure.


Losing Programming and Ad Dollars

While the current focus for the sports industry is getting games back on the air, the longer-term challenge will be the inevitable and enormous shift of the sports rights market.


Loss of programming – and the ad dollars that come with it – places financial pressure on big sports networks. Deals, relationships, contracts and commitments are falling through. With nearly one in five people out of work, and no sports to watch, this cord-cutting is accelerating faster than anyone anticipated. And this means there’s an opportunity for tech giants like Amazon and Google to take a larger piece of the sports rights market via OTT (over the top) streaming.


OTT lets fans watch events from anywhere, making it free and easy to view without TV access. Pent-up demand for streaming sports is evident when you consider viewership for this year’s NFL Draft: up 35% at 8.4 million, on average (2020 statistic). Other professional league drafts will likely follow a similar path.


In order for OTT to work reliably and keep fans engaged, cabling and connectivity infrastructure matter. A reliable, high-speed, low-latency fiber connection that handles massive amounts of data is necessary to provide OTT services that will wow fans and advertisers. No one will stand for downtime, delays or hiccups in streaming services. (A good example: ESPN’s H-O-R-S-E tournament in April, featuring NBA and WNBA players for a single-elimination shooting competition. While it was an excellent attempt to create a new content format, the video and audio glitches led to a less-than-stellar result – and loss of viewers.)


From broadcast rightsholders and content production crews to team scouts, everyone will also be relying on real-time access to the highest-quality digital video. For example, scouts will analyze advanced data collected from wearable GPS technology and IoT devices.


To allow venues to confidently deploy new technology that supports these initiatives, fiber and Category 6A solutions will be key to eliminating worries about downtime, delays or interruptions that could ultimately lead to loss of revenue.


How Stadium Technology Will Support Reopening

No one can say for sure what the fan experience will be like moving forward, but teams of doctors, epidemiologists and medical researchers are working hard to give their best advice on safely allowing fan re-entry.


Significant investments and carefully thought-out plans are necessary to balance safety and security with comfort and ease. Once stadiums, arenas and ballparks can welcome fans again, we think people will be ready to cheer on their favorite teams and reconnect with a live audience. But they’ll also want to feel safe in doing so. This can be accomplished through stadium technology like:

  • Increased digital signage for wayfinding and alerts
  • Venue-specific apps that hold tickets and provide real time information about concessions, restrooms and retail
  • More emphasis on sanitization and hygiene via touch-free, grab-and-go and cashless interactions

More complex stadium technology solutions have also been mentioned, including facial recognition at gates, walkthrough disinfectant machines, thermal cameras for fever detection, enhanced audio and video communications efforts to reinforce and monitor processes and procedures, and security systems that control access and enforce physical distancing. The goal will be to minimize touchpoints: doors, tickets, lights, toilets, concessions, money, handles, etc.


A Whole New World Awaits

While some fans will race to see the teams they love in person, it may take more of an “experience” – shifting from a sports venue to a complete entertainment destination with surrounding attractions – to convince others.


For this reason, the state-of-the-art entertainment districts that anchor many of today’s sports venues will come to life – even more crucial to promising a one-of-a-kind, amazing fan experience that’s also safe.


The one thing we know for sure: There will be unforeseen challenges at every turn. Facing them will be easier if we know we get to experience the electric, unifying atmosphere of a playoff or championship game – or even a live band on stage. Bringing sports and entertainment back will be part of our healing and recovery.