Fans’ gadgets pose challenge for new stadiums

SunTrust Park, Mercedes-Benz Stadium spend big on connectivity.

Metro Atlanta baseball and football fans should be able to simultaneously send tweets in the blink of an eye and livestream video without interruption when the area’s two new stadiums open in 2017.

Top managers leading the SunTrust Park and Mercedes-Benz Stadium projects are trying to “future-proof” the arenas with hundreds of miles of fiber optic cable, a terabyte of capacity to handle simultaneous streams and more than 1,000 wireless access points. All that, they hope, will put the parks in the upper echelons of digital sports fields.

The stakes are high: today’s sports fans go to games carrying cell phones, tablets and smart watches and expect connectivity that is as fast and as reliable as what they have at home or work.

“The expectations of customers is dynamic, and it keeps escalating over time,” said V. Kumar, regents professor of marketing at Georgia State University.

Assuring easy and fast use of personal gadgets is critical at a time when sports franchises face tough competition from big screen hi-def televisions that keep some fans at home, industry experts say.

Fans come to games not only to watch, but to share the experience with others through Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other social media outlets. That “second-screen” experience has to be flawless and robust wi-fi helps when cell signals can’t make it through thick concrete walls.

“Fans just expect it to work,” said David Belson, an industry expert and editor of a quarterly state of the Internet report for Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Akamai Technologies.

Pat Esser, president of Atlanta-based Cox Communications, agreed.

“In the past attendees may have attended events to disconnect, but today they prefer to connect to enhance and share the experience,” Esser said. “For many, personalizing and sharing the in-stadium experience via social networks is just as important as the sounds of music, the smells of ballpark food or the feel of a foul ball.”

Cox installed 10-gigabit fiber optic connections, 565 wi-fi access points and 767 HD televisions at the recently opened T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas. Cox Communications is owned by Cox Enterprises, whose holdings also include The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Kumar, of Georgia State, said the stadiums should not stop at speed and access. Each should have interactive apps that can tell fans where lines are shortest for hot dogs, directions to restrooms and best available parking spots.

They should be looking at incorporating virtual reality and capturing data to know more about fans so they can match their experiences with other opportunities, especially for SunTrust Park’s Battery Atlanta retail and restaurant component, Kumar said.

“If the stadiums are basing their expectations only on today or 2018, that would be a misfire,” he said.

Fans won’t be the only ones to take advantage of the improved tech, officials said. Teams use computer modeling during games to improve chances of winning, record up-to-the-minute information on everything from pitching speed to average drive times between quarters and stats on what players are doing.

“At the end of the day, in order for you to be successful at all of this, you have to have the connectivity,” said Derek Schiller, president of business for the Atlanta Braves.

The Falcons are installing 4,000 miles of fiber optic cable at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, enough to stretch from Atlanta to Las Vegas and back. Comcast, which is providing Internet for SunTrust Park, is deploying its 100-gigabit Ethernet network for the complex and wireless speeds of 100 megabits per second for fans at the stadium.

“When the first pitch is thrown next season at SunTrust Park, 40,000 fans will be able to simultaneously take a picture and post it to their social media accounts,” spokesman Alex Horwitz said.

Both stadiums will have hundreds of wireless access points — 700 for SunTrust and almost 1,800 for Mercedes-Benz. And each boasts hundreds of TV monitors — 750 4K TVs at SunTrust and 2,000 video displays at Mercedes-Benz. Comcast will also provide the technology for The Battery Atlanta, which will include restaurants, hotel, retail and office.

“We want our fans to stay connected as they watch the game,” said Benjamin Brillat, chief architect for IBM Sports & Entertainment Services, which helped plan the tech for Mercedes-Benz stadium.

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