Will ground­break­ing sta­dia even have real play­ers?

Irish Examiner - Supplement - - PÁIRC UÍ CHAOIMH SPECIAL - Eoin O’Cal­laghan

With the prom­ise of its own mi­cro­brew­ery, the long­est bar in the UK (86.8 me­tres) and a glass­walled tun­nel so fans can see play­ers in the mo­ments lead­ing up to kick-off, it’s hard not to be caught up in the hoopla sur­round­ing Tot­ten­ham Hot­spur’s brand­new £750 mil­lion (€844m) sta­dium that’s set to open next year.

It all sounds re­mark­ably im­pres­sive but what’s most in­trigu­ing is that the nat­u­ral grass pitch will have the abil­ity to slide un­der the stands and be re­placed with an as­tro­turf ver­sion — for when Amer­i­can foot­ball comes to town.

It makes sense that the most im­pres­sive trick is NFL-re­lated. Be­cause it is that or­gan­i­sa­tion which is at the fore­front of sta­dium tech­nol­ogy and where each glis­ten­ing new be­he­moth that’s un­veiled is des­per­ate to out-do the last one with the lat­est hi-tech gad­getry.

The next mon­stros­ity, due to open on August 26, is the Mercedes-Benz Sta­dium — home of the At­lanta Fal­cons, which cost $1.5 bil­lion (€1.3bn) and will come com­plete with a re­tractable, ro­tat­ing roof which will also fea­ture a built-in, LED video dis­play wrap­ping around the en­tire in­te­rior. Some ini­tial pro­pos­als were thank­fully scrapped, like the sug- ges­tion of ‘vi­brat­ing seats’ that would al­low fans feel the in­ten­sity of hits on the field. But ex­pect everything to be turned up to 11 when a new 80,000-ca­pac­ity, $2.6bn venue opens in Los An­ge­les for the start of the 2020 foot­ball sea­son. It will host the city’s two NFL teams, the Rams and the Charg­ers, and is the brain­child of Arse­nal (and Rams) owner Stan Kroenke.

The first of the NFL super-venue mod­els was the San Francisco 49ers’ Levi’s Sta­dium, which opened in 2014. It cost $1.3bn and, right now, re­mains the most tech­no­log­i­cally-ad­vanced sta­dium in the world. In­ter­est­ingly, the 49ers’ VP of Tech­nol­ogy at the time of the un­veil­ing was Dan Wil­liams, a vet­eran of Sil­i­con Val­ley who had pre­vi­ously worked with McAfee and Face­book.

The project vi­sion was pretty clear from the out­set: look to the fu­ture.

“When we first started, the mind­set was be the first of the next gen­er­a­tion, not the last of an ex­ist­ing one,” says Jim Mer­cu­rio, VP of Sta­dium Op­er­a­tions for the 49ers.

“We looked at us­ing tech­nol­ogy, not for tech­nol­ogy’s sake but to re­ally make a dif­fer­ence in the fan ex­pe­ri­ence and the game day ex­pe­ri­ence for our cus­tomers. For a while, there were many people try­ing to push tech­nol­ogy but through spe­cial de­vices. Our ap­proach was that we didn’t want to fo­cus on hard­ware, it was more soft­ware, and we felt people would want to use their own de­vices.”

In keep­ing with that plan, the Levi’s Sta­dium — which hosted the 2016 Super Bowl be­tween the Den­ver Bron­cos and Carolina Pan­thers — prides it­self on con­nec­tiv­ity. It has its own app al­low­ing fans or­der food, bev­er­ages and mer­chan­dise to their seats and even watch video re­plays of in­ci­dents in real time on their phones.

“If we stretched out the ca­ble that was wired around the build­ing so that you had wire­less con­nec­tiv­ity it would be one con­tin­u­ous line from San Francisco to Santa Clara which is 45-plus miles,” Mer­cu­rio says.

“For the Super Bowl, we broke the record for the amount of data be­ing pro­cessed and trans­mit­ted be­fore the sec­ond quar­ter had even ended. Be­fore half­time!”

Mer­cu­rio ap­pre­ci­ates that tech­nol­ogy is cru­cial in sta­dium de­sign but that there is also a sub­stan­tial dif­fer­ence be­tween prac­ti­cal­ity and su­per­flu­ous­ness.

“There needs to be a bal­ance be­tween the tech­nol­ogy we use and the com­mon sense that we use be­cause we’re still deal­ing with people — 70,000 people want to come to our games and not all of them want to stare at their phone. But ev­ery­one ab­so­lutely wants to be con­nected. They want to know what’s go­ing on. They need to know what’s go­ing on. Whether it’s scores from around the league or in­stant news or their friend is at the game and they want to con­nect. So we’re even mak­ing plat­forms where people can know where their bud­dies are in the build­ing.

“Where do I see it go­ing in the fu­ture? It’s all about tech­nol­ogy but, at some point in time, you may find that some people want to be dis­con­nected and want to get away from ev­ery­day life. That’s the beauty of sport. It al­lows us come to­gether for a com­mon cause and spend time with friends, foes, loved ones but, yet, have this un­be­liev­able, live ex­pe­ri­ence.

“You’re com­pet­ing with what you can get at your fin­ger­tips. You used to be com­pet­ing with people on their couch, but now people can be on a train, on a plane, walk­ing down the street. They don’t need to be in a sta­dium to get what they want. But the live ac­tion of a game, though, is some­thing that still pulls people to­gether and likely will for a long time.”

He’s aware of the talk sur­round­ing holo­gram tech­nol­ogy and the pos­si­bil­ity of us­ing drones to serve fans in­side the sta­dium.

“They’re talk­ing about it for the Olympics in 2020 where the live event is tak­ing place in one venue but at an­other venue, with people at­tend­ing, it’s a holo­gram,” Mer­cu­rio says.

“They say it’s go­ing to hap­pen sooner than you think.

“There’s a cool­ness about it but it would be a dif­fer­ent ex­pe­ri­ence. It may be a pretty good one but cer­tainly an add-on rather than a re­place­ment for any­thing.

“I be­lieve in the hu­man con­nec­tion. And maybe not even the live event it­self but the an­cil­lary ben­e­fits. Walk­ing down the con­course and im­mersed in the ca­ma­raderie with the same, like­minded folks wear­ing your team’s jer­sey. Smelling the grilled sausage and onions and pep­pers be­ing cooked... you don’t get that ev­ery day. And that’s all part of the ex­pe­ri­ence. See­ing a kid in a front row, beam­ing from ear to ear when a player gives him a foot­ball or a high-five, I don’t know if that can be re­placed by a holo­gram. Or any tech­nol­ogy, for that mat­ter.”

But Mer­cu­rio also re­mem­bers the de­vel­op­ment stage of the Levi’s Sta­dium project and the em­pha­sis ar­chi­tects and de­sign­ers placed on think­ing out­side the box, based on how quickly the tech­no­log­i­cal land­scape is chang­ing.

“We ac­tu­ally brought in a cou­ple of people who you’d call fu­tur­ists,” he says.

“It’s al­most Ge­orge Jet­son-like. You have to be cre­ative and maybe a lit­tle crazy, a lit­tle wacky. Maybe it’s driver­less cars in 40 years, load­ing in and park­ing them­selves in syn­chro­nised park­ing lots. For the Levi’s Sta­dium, we did a 40year cap­i­tal ex­pen­di­ture plan to try and understand the shelf life of dif­fer­ent ameni­ties and spa­ces. But still, even in that doc­u­ment, you’re speak­ing in gen­er­al­i­ties and hav­ing flex­i­bil­ity in cap­i­tal to re­spond to the ever-chang­ing needs of cus­tomers.

“Tech­nol­ogy is not cheap and it changes very quickly. You have to recog­nise that boundaries will be pushed faster, harder, sooner and that flex­i­bil­ity will be the key to all of that.”

mer­cedes­ben­zs­ta­dium.com

Per­son­alised ac­tion re­plays, con­stant con­nec­tiv­ity, drone ser­vice to your seat, and maybe even holo­grams as play­ers. What will sta­dia of the fu­ture hold? FU­TURE PROOF: The home of the At­lanta Fal­cons and At­lanta United will boast eye-pop­ping tech­nol­ogy.

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