- Joined ESPN in 2016 to cover the Los Angeles Rams
- Previously covered the Angels for MLB.com
INGLEWOOD, Calif. — It stretches 120 yards, weighs 2.2 million pounds, contains 70,000 square feet of digital LED and houses 268 speakers, a technological marvel befitting its transformative carrier. But the most impressive number attached to the ovular, dual-sided videoboard inside SoFi Stadium might be this one:
Under normal circumstances — when the coronavirus pandemic is over and 70,000 football fans begin to fill the place — that’s the amount of people the Los Angeles Rams and the Los Angeles Chargers will each utilize to create content for their videoboard on game day, a total made up of producers, directors, camera operators and others throughout the control room. Rams and Chargers staff members have spent this entire year planning the operation of that videoboard, a job with no blueprint. The task morphed into the equivalent of creating a six-hour show in multiple ways, every second of it scripted in remarkable detail.
With no fans in attendance, the Chargers will mostly operate the board for the team and the broadcast, playing up the graphics so they resonate on television while also splicing in videos of the players’ families. The fan-related aspects will be worked in slowly. The Rams, who debuted the board in front of a national television audience Sunday night, planned to operate it like normal from the onset, which meant incorporating Next Gen Stats, displaying a drive chart on the end zone portions of the inner rim and utilizing three levels of touchdown graphics to account for the situation.
SoFi Stadium, which came with a price tag in the neighborhood of $5 billion, is as majestic as it is revolutionary. The indoor-outdoor dynamic is unprecedented, helped by a translucent roof, exposed sides and an expansive plaza. The pronounced curves that make up the infrastructure pay homage to the Pacific Ocean’s coastline; the landscape throughout is representative of California’s indigenous trees. But the hallmark is the videoboard, one SoFi Stadium’s chief technology officer, Skarpi Hedinsson, expects to become “the eighth wonder of the sports world.”
It is excessive yet necessary.
Evolution of the videoboard
The current videoboard did not make its way onto initial renderings for SoFi Stadium. HKS, the architectural firm that has built some of sports’ most innovative venues in recent years, captured the design elements rather quickly but went traditional with the entertainment, displaying smaller screens on each of the stadium’s four corners. Rams owner Stan Kroenke, who famously vowed to make professional football work in a market that had long baffled the NFL, kept pushing. He didn’t want to undershoot Los Angeles, he’d say, and so he demanded a videoboard appropriate for the world’s entertainment capital.
“There was a lot of discussion in how you bring the videoboard experience not only to life,” Rams COO Kevin Demoff said, “but to push the envelope in the same way everything else in this building had.”
The NFL’s videoboard craze began, in many ways, with Jerry Jones’ Dallas Cowboys, who in September 2009 unveiled a four-sided, center-hung screen that spanned 160 feet and, at the time, stood as the world’s largest high-definition video display. Four years later, the Houston Texans displayed two end zone videoboards each 277 feet wide, larger than the wingspan of a 747 jet. The following year it was the Jacksonville Jaguars, showing off two videoboards spanning 362 feet each.
Two years later, in August 2017, the Atlanta Falcons birthed the antecedent of SoFi Stadium’s design with the “Halo Board” — a 360-degree, 63,000-square-foot videoboard that encircled the rooftop opening of Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
Pete Soto, now the Chargers’ vice president of fan experience and production, oversaw game presentation, live events and stadium production for the Falcons, Atlanta United and Mercedes-Benz Stadium at the time. Before that, he was with the Florida Marlins and the Florida Panthers in the 1990s, when videoboards exploded as a vessel for sponsorship and fan experience. He watched Sony’s JumboTron and Mitsubishi’s Diamond Vision pave the way for Daktronics, the company that designed videoboards for the Jaguars and Falcons, then saw Samsung take it to another level.
When the Halo Board went up in Atlanta, Soto wondered what would come next and knew the answer would come quickly.
“It was the first of its kind, the most unique videoboard of its time,” Soto said. “And then here at SoFi Stadium, we’ve created one that’s even more intriguing, more complex, and the amount of impact it’s gonna have on the fan experience is hard to quantify because it’s such a unique environment, it’s such a unique offering and presentation.”
Kroenke and his people were awed by the way the Cowboys’ video display encompassed most of the playing field, but they wanted to account for those in the lower seats who could only see the screen by looking straight up. The Halo Board was already under construction during the initial planning stages, prompting what only seems like a logical question in hindsight:
Why not take the ovular concept but make it dual-sided, suspend it from the roof and hang it low enough so that a massive video screen basically sits within optimal viewing distance of the entire seating bowl?
“That convergence of ideas really came from Stan’s challenge of, ‘This has to be the best technological experience,'” Demoff said. “From there it became, ‘How do you make sure that the technology is so good that it’s not just big, but that it’s truly dynamic and better quality than you can get in your house?'”
Appealing to a younger audience
SoFi Stadium isn’t just a football venue; it’s the anchor to a mixed-use development the way big-box stores were used to attract customers to shopping malls. The entire site is 298 acres. Eventually there will be a 6,000-seat performance venue attached to the stadium and a 200,000-square-foot space for NFL Media nearby. Soon after that, there will be 3,000 residences, 25 acres of public parks, and 1.5 million square feet dedicated to retail and office space.
Football will be the main attraction but far from the only one, a reminder of the constant need to diversify in this era.
The NFL experienced only a 0.6% decline in attendance from 2010 to 2019, nowhere near the 6.2% drop-off experienced by Major League Baseball over that same stretch. But viewership is skewing older, and attracting young fans to live sporting events is a growing challenge that some fear might eventually threaten professional football’s viability as a revenue-generating behemoth. The reason is obvious: Technology is better, attention spans are shorter, sensibilities are different, and so it has become increasingly more difficult for teams to beat the advantages and comforts of in-home viewing.
Imagen, a video-management service that also provides customers with distribution strategies, published a study in November 2019 that revealed vastly different consumption habits among different age groups. Imagen surveyed 1,866 American and Canadian fans of the NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL and MLS divided evenly among four age groups (Baby Boomers, GenX, Millennials and GenZ). The company found two key trends among the two younger demographics, particularly GenZ: they’re more willing to consume non-game content and, if watching sports, more prone to split their attention between dual screens.
“The game used to be everything,” Imagen director of business development Nick Ashwin said. “Now it’s very much just a part of it.”
SoFi Stadium’s new videoboard is in many ways a reaction to that.
Under normal circumstances, the videoboard will act as the equivalent of a sports bar in the hours before kickoff, displaying all of the East coast games so that fans can keep up with their fantasy teams in a way most of them would not be able to at home. The building is outfitted with Wi-Fi 6, providing incomparable Internet speeds. And because SoFi Stadium will possess nearly 60 cameras, including two SkyCams and 12 pylon cams, fans in attendance will have access to angles that are typically reserved for prime-time television games.
The hope in all of this is to not only keep bringing fans through the door, but to keep them off of their smartphones while they’re inside — and locked in on that shiny new videoboard.
“It’s taking advantage of those different technologies, those different ways of engaging audiences, and supplementing what’s going on on the field, that will continue to get people to go there,” Ashwin said.
“I’m a little bit old school. I kind of miss the terraces and the stadium that kind of rocks with the sound of singing and all that. But that’s just not the experience that the GenZ and the younger fans are looking for. They’re looking for a very technology-supplemented on-field experience. They want to be able to look at live stats on their phone, connect to WiFi and draw in all kinds of different bits of information and supplement what’s going on. It’s a completely different ballgame — excuse the pun.”
How it works
Hedinsson is a Formula One fan who summons one of the sport’s edicts to describe the realities of operating this new videoboard — there’s no way to train for it; you just have to go in there and do it.
Hedinsson has spent most of his professional life in digital technology, which helped him navigate a 3.1-million-square-foot stadium that is entirely digital. A decade ago, he built ABC and Disney applications for the iPad before the device was released, an experience he applied to the task of planning content for an unprecedented board that remained under construction. Nothing, however, could truly prepare him for an undertaking of this magnitude.
“There are certain things that you can do in simulation and so on and so forth that allow you to prepare for that,” Hedinsson said of the content-planning stages for the videoboard, “but it’s a certain mindset that you have to have.”
The videoboard consists of 69,000 LED cards organized into 1,338 cabinets, all of which were built out of a fabrication facility in Logan, Utah. It contains 80 million LED pixels that can be controlled individually by 36 rendering computers, allowing a single animation to seamlessly occupy the entire board. The XPression Tessera system, a graphics machine from Ross Video that was first utilized at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, stretches the video for the board, which is separated into eight primary sections.
Most of the content planning was done through a virtual-reality system while the board was built, a major advantage that was not available in Atlanta. Before the start of training camp, the Rams and Chargers were each meeting weekly with SoFi Stadium staff members to discuss content and best practices. The first step, for both teams, was establishing where the ad space would go. Next was building out templates (for pregame, introductions, game in progress, instant replay, touchdowns, etc). Then came the process of dressing them up and ironing out the details.
“Like I tell my staff — your imagination is your limitation on this,” Soto said. “You can do anything you want. If you can dream it, you can make it happen. It’s just a matter of figuring out how to make it happen.”
And therein lie the difficulties.
In Atlanta, the circular board is one-sided and uniform. In L.A., the videoboard panels are four stories tall around midfield and half that size in both end zones. Because of the speakers, the video display on the outer rim is smaller than that of the inner rim. Visually, the outer rim goes away from the viewer, which tends to distort the image. Planning content for the board required constant changes in perspective.
“It’s like in Atlanta in a lot of ways operationally,” Hedinsson said, “but it’s completely its own thing and it’s completely a new world here in Los Angeles.”
The COVID-19 curveball
Demoff has spent the past half-decade immersed in the build-up to SoFi Stadium’s grand opening, serving as the principal point person tasked with delivering on Kroenke’s grand ambition. As the process endured, Demoff envisioned practically every scenario — except for a global pandemic that would cripple the economy, halt American business and prevent people from gathering en masse. The Rams now own arguably the most impressive, cutting-edge live venue in the history of civilization, but only a select few can actually experience it.
“Part of you is so amazed and so proud,” Demoff said of completing such a complex project in this environment, “and part of you is truly pissed. I’ve managed, for the most part, to block it out, but it’s just a bummer.”
The Rams and Chargers announced on Aug. 25 that fans would not be allowed at SoFi Stadium “until further notice.” Three months earlier, during an interview with ESPN, Demoff was already bracing for that possibility. He maintained faint hope for an unforeseen stroke of luck but began to view 2021 as the true grand opening and started to believe that hosting fans in a limited capacity before then would be impractical, unfair and, given the ways it might dampen the overall experience, counterintuitive.
Eventually stadiums will open at full capacity, of course. But identifying what that might look like, and how customer sensibilities might change by then, is an uncertainty that befuddles the live entertainment industry. Just thinking about all the mundane, everyday tasks that might be altered over COVID-19 concerns can be an exhaustive exercise.
Are buffets, a hallmark of prime seating, suddenly extinct? What about fountain drinks and beers on tap? Or paper tickets? Does everything involve contactless payment moving forward? Are grab-and-go meals more prominent? What about — Demoff’s suggestion — something as simple as spreading mustard on a hot dog?
“Stadiums are going to learn just as much from other hospitality venues — restaurants, hotels, casinos, resorts — as much as we are going to learn from other stadiums,” Demoff said.
Terry Lefton, a reporter for Sports Business Daily who has spent a long time covering sports marketing, imagines companies like Clorox and Lysol emerging as prominent sponsors. Cleanliness will be of utmost importance when stadiums return to full capacity; safety must encompass the overriding theme. Lefton alluded to the congestion of stadium entry, already a problem because of tailgates that habitually run too close to kickoff, and how the process might get bogged down further with temperature checks.
Then there’s that whole thing about disposable income amid the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression and how that might impact season-ticket sales in a market like, say, Los Angeles, which has grown so accustomed to Sundays without live football and might not be willing to allocate money for, you know, a really expensive stadium.
Adaptation will be crucial; unique, exclusive offerings will be more important than ever.
“All venues are gonna have to evolve to meet changing consumer expectation and demand,” Demoff said. “Usually with great upheaval comes great opportunity, and we just have to view it as that.”
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