October 15, 2015
In July, Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment (MLSE) – parent company of the National Hockey League’s Toronto Maple Leafs, the National Basketball Association’s Toronto Raptors, Toronto FC and the Toronto Argonauts – announced plans for a new scoreboard for its flagship Air Canada Centre.
Set to be unveiled this fall, it will feature a 23-foot aluminum maple leaf surrounded by four 32-by-18-foot screens, and will weigh in at about 80,000 pounds and cost $10 million. It’s comparatively smaller predecessor will be shipped up the street to the Ricoh Coliseum, the home of MLSE’s second-tier pro hockey franchise, the American Hockey League’s Toronto Marlies.
It is a trend in sports venues across North America – in fact, across the world – to provide a more immersive spectator experience.
Concordia University’s Anouk Belanger analyzed the role of sports venues as an inter-urban competitive phenomenon in a paper called Sports Venues and the Spectacularization of Urban Spaces in North America, but many venue operators will tell you the biggest competition doesn’t come from other cities or even other venues.
It comes from the couch and the 60-inch flatscreen. When you can sit at home for free, with perfect sight lines, and drink moderately-priced beer while you’re watching the game, what’s the incentive to spend a small fortune on tickets and $12 hot dogs at a live venue? That demands a more immersive experience. Sometimes it involves an 80,000-pound scoreboard. But more and more venues are also looking to wireless technology to attract and absorb spectators. That is certainly the case at the recently revamped BMO Field, home to the Toronto FC and next year also the Argonauts. MLSE is among the venue owners that have invested in wireless infrastructure to compete with the flatscreen experience.
“We used technology. We had switches, we had wireless, we provided a service, and everybody was happy. Then something changed,” says Sasha Puric, vice president of technology for MLSE “The business transformed a few years ago. The expectations of fans, the expectations of communities, to have a much more engaging experience, in stadiums and arenas, has pushed us to think about where we are going to take this, where we’re going to take the next generation of fan experience, where we are going to take the next generation of arena experience.”
MLSE’s first question: Is it enough to just offer wireless connectivity on its properties? Apparently not. “Media is one of our biggest clients in the Air Canada Centre,” Puric says. Through its 20-year history, media outlets have had demands to be able to deliver content to consumers. While MLSE was meeting that expectation, the company started looking deeper into what it was providing.
“We’d been catering to the media so they could file their scores for the last 20 years,” adds Puric. But MLSE began to think about how deep it could go into providing services. “Is the product enough? No. It comes down to services.”
MLSE examined its portfolio of services and venues. “(We realized) we had one shot at doing it right,” he says. There were a number of stakeholders to be satisfied: internal staff that had operational considerations; partners like the media with their own service agenda; and, the biggest stakeholder of all, the one that pays for the venue, the fans.
“But then, something else happened as well,” he says. Team management began to assert itself. “The team that used to be about the gut feel and the heart started to turn into a game of analytics, calculation, data collection, and we were slaughtered with the volume of requests and requirements to facilitate that data collection, that next generation of sports management.”
It’s more than about the ticket-holder being able to access minute-by-minute replay content. Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., is one of the first sports venues built from the ground up in the wireless age. Technicians checked the wireless reception in every one of the almost 15,000 seats in the arena. The fan experience is important, but it’s not the only thing going on.
About two years ago, MLSE began to partner with networking giant Cisco Systems Inc. to look at how to enable these services across all of MLSE’s facilities.
“We’re just in the process of doing the completion of a massive infrastructure project,” Puric says. “Today, we are catering to 22,000 people at BMO Field who are expecting nothing less than a first-class wireless experience, which, quite honestly, five or 10 years ago, was impossible.” The first arenas and stadiums with wireless access emerged about a decade ago, Puric points out that the experience was “miserable.”
“The technology just wasn’t there, and the expectations of the fans to be able to log in and check their e-mail wasn’t that important. Today, though, fans are expecting to be catered to: Not just being able to access Twitter and Facebook, but they’re actually expecting you to know who they are when they come in, they expect you to know where the crowds in the washrooms are.”
Beyond game information, internal communications, team telemetry demands, the venue’s wireless infrastructure has to deal with visitors’ physical security.
There’s a lot on that wireless plate. “Everything we started to do with Cisco was about creating the platform, the infrastructure, that we can layer the fan experience (on),” Puric says. “There’s digital signage to be rolled out. There are patterns of behavior to be understood. And there’s the ultimate mystery to be unraveled: Who is this person visiting my venue? The average visitor comes to the venue five or six times a year. How do you connect with the anonymous visitor? One of the greatest mysteries is for us to start to unlock is the identity of the people in the building. Then we can cater to them better than we do today.” C+
Dave Webb is a Toronto-based freelance writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org