Big screen stars

Go to a sports match, concert or conference these days and you’re likely to find the big screens are as big a focus of attention as the platform or the pitch and this means they can also earn, Paul Bray reports.

“With live venue ticket prices at an all time high, today’s fans are expecting an equally high return on their investment,” says Joe Walsh, sales director for sports and entertainment venues at Vitec. “When they go to the stadium they don’t just want to watch the event: they want to be entertained. In the luxury suites, fans want to be able to follow other games in the league, with options such as children’s channels to keep the kids amused. And mobile delivery is becoming huge, as everyone wants the ability to access the event from their smartphone.”

“New venues are being designed with AV in mind, sometimes as the focal point aside from the events themselves,” says Patrick Halliwell, managing director of Daktronics UK. “Traditional venues are responding by adding new technology in any way that fits their brand, including turning static message areas into digital displays.”

“AV tech can contribute greatly to delivering a sensational visual experience,” says Jasmin Stemmler, product marketing manager at NEC Display Solutions Europe. “Even in traditional theatre, audiences nowadays expect to have digital stage scenery, and directors often film outdoor scenes prior to the first performance.”

Jeff Hastings, ceo of BrightSign, cites the time players from Blue Man Group, Queen of the Night and STOMP! joining forces to create a unique stage performance. “The performance rooms were transformed into rich, textual spaces by projecting video content on a wide range of surfaces from paper to mirrors, and even performers holding pieces of fabric with images projected on to them.”

Conference venues are also getting a digital makeover. “‘Bus stop signs are no longer acceptable,” says Alastair Wilson, corporate event director at Orchard Media and Events. “Delegates want to know the exact location of the next session, or to navigate their way around the venue. This requires interactive digital signage.

“Delegates want to interact and be seen to be interacting, so everybody loves seeing their comments on a social media wall using projectors or large screens. Super widescreen using PIP provides a wow factor and allows film and presentations to be shown simultaneously, negating the need for repeater screens. And live interaction and polling via apps, gamification or touch screens or tables enables delegates to be active participants.”

In sports stadia Halliwell has seen AV evolve into an all-encompassing, venue-wide engagement strategy used to connect with fans at every possible opportunity.

The fun begins before fans even enter the stadium. “Exterior displays add to the experience of arriving at the stadium by sharing information about the current event or advertising upcoming ones,” says Halliwell. “The US Bank Stadium in Minneapolis [home to the Minnesota Vikings] features a curved LED display shaped like a longship’s sail.”

‘Out of home’ experience

Once fans are inside, venues are competing to create the kind of experience they could never get on their home TVs. Halliwell cites the newly-opened Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, Georgia. “The ‘Halo Board’ built into the roof provides a 360-degree concave curvature to provide imagery for every seat in the stadium. It measures 58ft high by 1,075ft in diameter – the largest video scoreboard in the world.

An additional 16 displays provide more than 83,500sq ft of video display space, including a ‘Mega Column’ 101ft high by 71ft around, and a concave-curved, triangle-shaped ‘Feather Wall’ display near the main entrance. These displays wow fans when they walk into the main entrance with venue branding, sponsorship and game information.

And it’s not just the big picture. “Amalie Arena in Tampa, Florida, installed new concourse displays featuring narrow pixel pitches of 1.9mm for viewing as close-up as five feet,” says Halliwell. “These displays can show live feeds of the action while fans are away from their seats to grab food and drink from concession stands. They also repeat stats, information and sponsorship messages from the main seating bowl.”

In new venues digital signage is becoming an integral component of the conceptual design, says Hastings. “It’s much more than digital menu boards and digital posters. Digital signage is everywhere, from scoreboards and luxury suite signage to directional signage in parking lots and displays in restrooms.”

Canny venues can turn signage into hard cash, even to the extent of enabling AV to become financially self-sustaining. “AV can drive footfall to merchandising, food and beverage outlets and sell tickets for future events,” says Ian Benneyworth, project manager at integrator, Anna Valley. “Savvy venues with high footfall can expand on this opportunity by offering advertising packages to other brands, as at the Vox Conference Centre in Birmingham.”

Tight budgets mean that many venues look for a creative approach to AV, both from the solution and from the integrator, to generate a quicker return on their investment, according to Mark Stanborough, sales manager at Cabletime. One example is Chesterfield Football Club, which was able to show a 20 per cent increase in concession stand sales after implementing a comprehensive IPTV distribution system. “Spectators continued to order refreshments even after the game had started, which pushed up sales,” says Stanborough.

Nonetheless, funding often remains an issue. “The main challenge for vendors and integrators is negotiating the commercial way through to final installation,” cautions Tony Crossley, pre-sales technical director at integrator Pure AV. “Many venues are reluctant to make the capital investment in equipment. Some try to arrange sponsorship deals with vendors to get free or reduced price equipment, but this can be a lengthy process and unless vendors can foresee a significant return they’re unlikely to give more than a token discount.

“None of this covers integration costs which can be high, even in smaller venues. Some venues will partner with media agencies to get free equipment, with the media companies recouping their revenue by selling advertising space. This has been very popular with lower league football clubs and rugby clubs.”

Technology forefront

When they can afford it, however, venues are often in the vanguard of new technology adoption. “Venue AV has been at the forefront of Ultra HD 4K production, as it doesn’t face the transmission challenges that broadcasters have been tackling,” says Craig Heffernan, technical sales manager at Blackmagic Design. “Of course, handling the bandwidth of Ultra HD, especially at higher frame rates, has an impact on technology decisions.”

Audience measurement technology and personalised wayfinding have become a lot more accessible in recent years, adds Joe Lloyd, vice-president of global marketing and business development at NanoLumens. “That’s a key development for arenas in particular because they’re responsible for such a large number of people. Audience measurement tools help venues optimise their offerings, and personalised wayfinding helps keep fans moving decisively and efficiently.”

Now that AV has become an integral part of the performance, the show must always go on. “Reliability is key as you can’t have projectors or screens fail during a show or big game, especially if it’s live,” says David Zrihen, EMEA sales director at Vivitek. Aligned to this is ease of maintenance: can problems be fixed on site, in realtime? Durability is another factor, especially where screens are exposed to the weather.

Some outdoor applications pose unique challenges, Zrihen adds. The displays at Chelsea Football Club, for instance, must be able to survive multiple whacks from a football, and withstand an impact with a footballer without damage to the display – or the player.

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