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FEATURE

Cisco Helping Stadiums Compete with the Couch

Sports and entertainment venues turning to Cisco to expand their "digital real estate" with intelligent networks and ubiquitous video

September 8, 2009

By Laurence Cruz

If you build it, they will come. But if you build it on a Cisco network, they will return again and again.

At least that's the hope of some of the biggest teams in professional sports, which are turning to Cisco Systems to wire new state-of-the-art stadiums and digitize older ballparks. In recent months the Dallas Cowboys, the New York Yankees, the Kansas City Royals and the Toronto Blue Jays have connected their stadiums from the locker rooms to the concession stands with Cisco technologies.

The new Cisco stadium networks bring all forms of communications and entertainment – especially high-definition video – on to one highly flexible, integrated and centralized system. The goal, Cisco executives say, is to wow fans while helping teams streamline operations and find new ways to make money. It's also insurance against the inexorable march of technology.

"We are always looking for ways to involve our fans – to get them into our shoes, into a player's shoes, into the experience of being here at the stadium."

— Jerry Jones, owner and general manager, the Dallas Cowboys

"The key is not just new-fangled technology for new or renovated buildings," says sports business expert and author Rick Horrow. "It also has to be flexible and responsive enough to adapt as technology itself changes, even though we don't have the foggiest notion of what those technologies may be 10 or 20 years from now."

New Ways to Woo and Wow the Fans

To create this new breed of stadium, Cisco draws on a plethora of complementary technologies, from its digital signage and video management tools to its Unified Communications systems and even its TelePresence "virtual" conferencing products. These technologies, collectively dubbed Cisco Connected Sports, are now going into stadiums and entertainment venues around the world. Professional football, basketball, baseball, hockey and soccer teams in the United States, Europe, and elsewhere are all getting wired with help from Cisco.

The centerpiece of the company's strategy for wooing and wowing fans is a technology called Cisco StadiumVision, which allows teams to target and deliver customized video, promotional content and relevant event information to virtually any part of a stadium.

For example, Cisco StadiumVision is serving up a Texas-sized sensory smorgasbord to fans visiting Cowboys Stadium, the $1.1 billion, retractable-roofed home of the Dallas Cowboys National Football League team. The stadium boasts some 3,000 high-definition video screens that surround fans just about anywhere they go, even in some restrooms. That means never again missing the big play as you stretch your legs or buy a hot dog.

In addition to the action on the field, the screens can readily be set – individually or by group – to display out-of-town games and scores, team trivia, and other information such as maps to the nearest exit and real-time traffic flows. 

And luxury suite fans can even use Cisco's interactive, touch screen phones to control TV views, access stats and order food. In the future, the Cowboys might even use up to eight high-definition cameras to provide fans up-close views of anywhere from the training room to the end zone.

"These cameras are going to be all over this place," says Jerry Jones, the Cowboys' owner and general manager. "We are always looking for ways to involve our fans – to get them into our shoes, into a player's shoes, and into the experience of being here at the stadium."

Expanding Digital Real Estate

But Cisco's StadiumVision is not just a boon for fans. StadiumVision also provides new opportunities for advertisers. At Cowboys Stadium, for example, the 3,000 video monitors collectively amount to nearly an acre of screen space. Combine that with 100,000 captive fans, and advertisers have myriad options for reaching their customers.

The beauty of StadiumVision is in the inherent flexibility and intelligence of IP networking, Cisco executives say. Thanks to the Cisco networking technologies, advertisers and venue operators can mix and match, segment and segregate information and ads at will, they say.

Advertisers, for example, can target specific audiences in different parts of the stadium at different times. So while screens and digital menus in general-access areas might feature soft drink ads, screens in bars might run beer ads.

And when the stadium doubles as a venue for a different kind of event, such as a concert, the Cisco network makes it easy to transform the building's look and feel, as well as the on-screen ads and promos. Cowboys Stadium, for example, will make use of these options as it hosts Super Bowl XLV in 2011, the 2010 NBA All Star Game, and a U2 concert tour stop, among other events.

Nor is it only brand new stadiums that can benefit from the advantages of Internet-based digital video networks. The Kansas City Royals are also turning to Cisco to help boost Kauffman Stadium, which was built in 1973 and recently underwent a $250 million renovation.

The stadium's former video infrastructure, a traditional coaxial cable TV system, could not be easily altered, segmented or customized, says Kevin Uhlich, the team's senior vice president of business operations. But all that has changed thanks to Cisco, he says.

"Everything now operates on one system and on one network, from our security cameras to the concessionaire's point-of-sale systems to our telephones to all of the televisions in the building," Uhlich says. "It greatly streamlines our operations."

Future Proofing the Stadium

As impressive as these capabilities may seem, they are a small part of what may be possible in the next few years. According to John Chambers, Cisco's chairman and chief executive, the company's vision includes giving fans the option of using handheld devices that let them view the game action from different angles, get player stats and audio content, and even capture, replay and share video with others both in and outside the stadium.

"The future is all about video," Chambers says. "It's about how you capture video in devices, it's about the high-definition TV set capabilities, and about how the fan incorporates video and moves it around."

The beauty of modern networking technology, he says, is that it provides the underlying platform on which new and other as yet unknown services can be built – more quickly and at lower cost than would otherwise be possible.

"When you look to the future – while nothing is completely future proof – the architecture allows you to take the fan experience up and up and up," Chambers says. "We'll look back five years from now and see how far we've come."

Competing with the Couch

Horrow, who has served as a visiting expert on sports law at the Harvard Law School and is known in some circles as "the sports professor," estimates the U.S. sports and entertainment market to be worth about $750 billion. For Cisco, the business of wiring stadiums is potentially a very lucrative slice of that pie, he says.

Pervasive digital networks are now becoming part and parcel of stadiums and other large entertainment venues. Horrow predicts that soon one in three U.S. stadiums will ride that Internet wave into the 21st century. "And over time, it should be a majority," he says.

Driving that trend is increasingly fierce competition for what Horrow calls "the scarce sports and entertainment dollar" – much of it from rapidly evolving home entertainment systems that make it tempting for fans to stay home for the game. In the words of the Cowboys' Jones, "Make no mistake about it, we are in competition with the couch."

Not that the sports stadium itself is likely to go the way of the typewriter. Stadiums, after all, have drawn crowds since the first Olympic games in ancient Greece. But teams now must be increasingly creative about how they entice fans, Horrow says.

"Cisco has done a masterful job of making the case that this is a defining opportunity for teams and leagues and owners," he says. "There is a dynamic need for them to provide a unique entertainment experience for the fans, and Cisco technology adds measurably to that."

Laurence Cruz is a freelance writer in Los Angeles

 
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