Danielle Applestone: Sports lore has it that in China, some 2,200 years ago, give or take, someone had an idea to make a game of kicking a ball around a field in competition against other players. The game was called Cuju, and would in time spread to Japan, Greece, and Rome. Romans would export it to what is now England. In time, the English would call it Association Football. At Oxford, the slang word soccer emerged in much the same way rugby came to be called rugger. They borrowed the ‘soc’ from association and added an ‘er’, lost in that origin story is the engine that has propelled sports into the multi-billion dollar industry it is today. The sports fanatics, or fans, the faithful, whether a half dozen, or a hundred thousand. While the fundamentals of this beautiful game and all the other major league sports have changed only incrementally over the years, the sports fan is changing fast. And today’s sports stadiums are in a full sprint to keep up, how? I thought you’d never ask. I’m Danielle Applestone, engineer and entrepreneur. This is Technology Powers X. In this episode, Technology Powers, the fan experience. Anyone who has company coming likes to impress. So when you’re hosting the Super Bowl in the epicenter of the world’s tech community, what does that look like? It was 2016 when Levi’s Stadium, home to the San Francisco 49ers, hosted Super Bowl 50. On a day that Broncos fans will never forget and Carolina Panthers fans would rather not talk about. The Levi’s Stadium crowd was treated to something noticeably absent from most other sports venues, cell phone connectivity.
Simon Ogus: In four years ago, mind you doesn’t sound like that long ago, but there were a lot of stadiums that were severely lacking with connectivity.
Danielle Applestone: Among the over 71,000 was Simon Ogus, co-founder of FUTRSPRT, a sports technology media platform and podcast.
Simon Ogus: So when I was able to go to the Super Bowl that day, they no doubt probably upgraded even more just for the visibility of that event in such a showcase for the stadium and region. But I walked into the game, and connected to the Wi-Fi network and I was completely blown away with how fast the network was. The Wi-Fi network probably worked better than my home network, it was just so fast and everything was loading instantly. And it was a far cry from the Sub-Par experience you got at a lot of venues at the time, and obviously, you want to show your friends and family that you’re at the game and take a lot of pictures and share them, and really take in the whole environment. And that was made possible through connectivity. And really the Super Bowl is such an amazing event and there’s so much going on, but the experience was certainly aided. I wouldn’t say insignificantly by being able to be connected and being able to just have anything accessible to you like you would be if you were in your own house and you weren’t around 75,000 other people.
Danielle Applestone: Over the past dozen years, a generation has grown up with social media, messaging, and sharing events around them. Yet many major league sports venues have been slow to get the text.
Simon Ogus: Even five years ago, you were unable to text or receive emails or do much of anything on your phone, in a number of stadiums. They had implemented Wi-Fi at that time, but it wasn’t much of a priority. If you got on the Wi-Fi, there’d be way too many people overloading the network. And essentially you wouldn’t be able to get texts or emails or anything. So if anything comes up with anyone’s work, you were pretty helpless and odds are, you’re not going to go through a situation that’s truly an emergency at work in the three hours that you might be disconnected, but is it really worth it to you to risk a true work emergency occurring?
Danielle Applestone: It’s hard to plot the tipping point, but at some time in the last dozen years, in-stadium connectivity migrated from nice to have, to got to have as connection speeds increased, and with 5G coming to market.
Simon Ogus: Being able to be connected is extremely important because it gives you the peace of mind really, that if something comes up with your professional life or personal life while you’re at the stadium, you’re going to have the connectivity to be able to respond to it. And I think that’s really important for a lot of people and really is something that the venues, and the teams, and the leagues, have prioritized because that could be the difference between someone going to a game or a family of four deciding not to go to a game. And when they decide not to go to the game, that’s lost revenue for the team or the league.
Danielle Applestone: And there it is, the dreaded phrase, lost revenue. The at-home experience with high-speed connectivity, television quality, and immersive surround sound, has improved so rapidly. The stadium experience has by comparison lagged. It’s not meeting the needs of today’s sports fan. That’s why today’s stadiums are changing. And while you won’t so much see the changes, they’re happening, stadiums are installing a whole new generation of infrastructure.
Gilberto Brizzi: Every arena in the future, will have the challenge to move people to the stadium.
Danielle Applestone: Gilberto Brizzi is VP of Active Wireless Solutions at JMA Wireless, an infrastructure network provider that provides connectivity to defined spaces, such as sports stadiums.
Gilberto Brizzi: People goes to the stadium because they want to share their experience with people around you. If you go to a stadium and you’re only 1000 people, it’s not that exciting. So if you offer them the ability to have an immersive experience, to be able to share their experience more, to leave different application throughout the game, and really be more active during the game, more people will be drawn to the stadium, instead of just deciding, well, staying at home is good enough, I can watch the game on my TV. And I think for the arena, it’s important to really have a differentiator and draw people to the stadium in this way.
Danielle Applestone: The trick is finding a scalable means of upgrading technology without constantly upgrading infrastructure. The solution is a virtual radio access network or vRAN.
Gilberto Brizzi: vRAN is different, because it’s moved from a physical function based on a custom hardware to a virtual function. So, why is that important? I’m going to use an example, in your living room you used to have a DVD player connected to your TV, and then that DVD player needs cable, needs space. It’s a complicated piece of equipment that you need to connect to your TV. And your living room were actually designed to have the space for it. So you buy a TV stand, you create an infrastructure around the piece of custom hardware. Now, when you move to RAN that’s exactly the same, it’s like moving from a DVD player to Netflix. Now you don’t need any of that, all the cables goes away, all the space that you need becomes software. And that’s one of the biggest advantage that you have by moving from custom to software. And you have seen these in many other industries, the virtualization process it’s beneficial almost in every industry. It’s just happened to be that in the RAN space, in the radio access network space. It’s just coming now.
Danielle Applestone: With a vRAN system and a network of antennas through the venue, fans can experience a ‘home away from home’ level of connectivity.
Gilberto Brizzi: So basically what it does is that it creates the signal to be used by anyone’s phone to connect to the network. So this can be for the phone to actually make a phone call and be connected to the rest of the world, it creates the ability for the phone to connect to the network to do data traffic, surf on internet, and access to any kind of application that you might have on your particular phone. So it basically really generate the signal that is used by the phone to connect to the rest of the world. And it’s done on a virtual instances, if so in the software, instead of being made on a custom piece of hardware.
Danielle Applestone: And how do you provide service to fans with phones from any number of telecom providers, consider the case of JMA setting up an infrastructure network with solutions from Dell Technologies at the Dacia Arena in Udine, Italy, home of the Serie A club Udinese. The solution called for what’s described as a neutral host. In this case, Infrastrutture Wireless Italiane, or INWIT.
Gilberto Brizzi: If I’m a fan, that I’m going to the Dacia Arena, and I’m using a Telecom Italia phone, I will have a Telecom Italia SIM card in my phone that I want service. So as a billing owner, so as Dacia Arena, I want to make sure that all the carrier will have a proper signal in my arena so that all of my customer get served. So INWIT even is a neutral host that basically come in between the stadium owner and the carrier to provide a multi operator technology that’s served everyone. And basically what they do is, they install and they maintain this shared network. JMA is the provider of the technology for that shared network.
Danielle Applestone: So far, teams that own their own stadiums are quicker to adopt these bold new internal networks. Giovanni Ferigo is CEO of INWIT.
Giovannni Ferigo: For example, just to concretize these, only Sassuolo, Adelanto, Udinese and Juventus have their own stadium, only four of 22 teams have their own stadium. While in championship like the Premier League is absolutely normal. Only when this number increase, it will be possible to think of a vision of the future.
Danielle Applestone: That vision comes with opportunities that flow well beyond sports.
Giovannni Ferigo: Modern stadium like the Dacia Arena are becoming more and more multifunctional places that hold not only football matches, but also conferences, cultural events, congresses, concerts, and other events that absolutely require digital connections. The hope is to be able to extend our offer also to other companies that also wish to keep up with the times.
Danielle Applestone: For sports venues worldwide, the scalability of a software driven network, couldn’t be better timed as the world transitions to 5G technology. But the challenges met by a JMA network go beyond scalability. A stadium packed with fans creates usage, demands different from most home network environments, Gilberto Brizzi.
Gilberto Brizzi: So in sports arenas, there is an interesting environment because there is a dire need that is called capacity. So capacity is basically how many beats per second I can serve in a certain area. So that data being arena, now you have 80,000 people, 40,000 people in the same confined area, and all these people wants to make sure that the rest of the world knows that they are there. So they want to upload picture, they want to check what’s happening in another stadium, they want to make sure they can call other people, especially during the break. So there is a high need of capacity and beat per second, that needs to be deployed in sport arenas. So why is vRAN important there. It’s mainly because vRAN allow that amount of capacity to be delivered to the venue in a very efficient way, in a very scalable way. So the amount of space that you need, that the amount of cable that you need, the overall architecture move from several racks and custom hardware to one server or few servers. So, it creates that amount of capacity needed for all the people that are there and serve all their needs in a much more efficient way.
Danielle Applestone: To Naga Akshinthala, a solutions manager in the Telco services business at Dell Technologies, optimizing the network service is essential, but the real magic is what it has the potential to do. Here the partnership between JMA and Dell Technologies comes into play
Naga Akshinthala: In the smart stadium scenario, or a large convention center, or for that matter even if a hospitality industry looking for a better customer experience, we truly believe that the combination of Dell Technologies from an essential infrastructure perspective, and JMA providing the software to power the evolution of the radio access network, brings in a lot of value for Telco service providers.
Danielle Applestone: So what’s the future of the fan experience in this new era of connectivity at sports venues, it’s more than texting, calling and social apps. Could it be augmented reality, Simon Ogus.
Simon Ogus: You have stats on the field or you have experiences through visually watching it on TV and bringing that to the stadium, I think is going to be a real boon to the fan experience. It’ll be great if you’re at a baseball game and you can put your phone over, Aaron Judge, a great player on the New York Yankees, and you can see all the home runs he’s hit and where they went and how far. Or maybe specific stats of how he does against the current pitcher.
Danielle Applestone: An app can help you find and pay for a parking spot near the stadium, at some events it’s possible to order and pay for food off a menu and have it delivered to your seat, all from your phone. And while they can’t go to the bathroom for you, apps will report on the state of the bathroom line. To Ogus, these sorts of digital conveniences are table stakes. If major league sports is to attract the emerging generation of fans.
Simon Ogus: Teams and leagues try to target young fans, they have to do so with the mindset that this connected environment, this fast network, this ease of getting food to your seat. Knowing when bathroom lines are long is going to be something that’s expected, or it’s going to impact people going to games at all. There’s so much at your fingertips now for your entertainment time and dollars, that there’s just going to be another option that comes along that will take that away, if you don’t keep up.
Danielle Applestone: In recent years, major league sports teams have managed to keep proverbial butts in proverbial seats, but with so many diversions available, digital and otherwise, competing for the fan’s attention, stadiums have to compete just as hard as the teams they house. Call it a game within the game. As sports rabid fans keep up with the action in front of them, sports venues, with an assist from technology, are working flat out to meet the changing needs of today’s fans. This is Technology Powers X, an original podcast from Dell Technologies. For more information on Dell Technologies 5G and Service Provider solutions, visit DellTechnologies.com/ServiceProviders5G, and to learn more about this episode, our speakers, and to read the transcript, visit DellTechnologies.com/TechnologyPowersX. I’m Danielle Applestone. Thanks for listening.