August 23, 2017

Ballmer’s energy, enthusiasm will push fan-viewing technology for Clippers, NBA

Clippers owner Steve Ballmer (L) talks with John Ourand at the Sports Media & Technology conference. Credit all photos: Paul Kapustka, MSR (click on any photo for a larger image)

Clippers owner Steve Ballmer (L) talks with John Ourand at the Sports Media & Technology conference. Credit all photos: Paul Kapustka, MSR (click on any photo for a larger image)

As a longtime tech reporter it was a bit of a flashback to see former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer holding center stage at a conference, even if this one was centered around sports and not anything to do with PCs or Windows.

There was no dancing through the spotlights, but even in a sit-down setting you couldn’t hide Ballmer’s enthusiasm for technology, now focused on improving the fan experience for watching NBA basketball games, specifically those involving the Los Angeles Clippers, the team Ballmer now owns.

“I am excited for the future of technology and how it could make it REALLY more fun to watch sports,” Baller said to interviewer John Ourand, a writer with Sports Business Journal, the hosts of the 2016 NeuLion Sports Media & Technology conference held at the Manhattan Beach Marriott. If you’ve ever heard Ballmer speak live you know the voice pitch that escalated on that “REALLY” part, a volume increase guaranteed to ensure you’re paying attention.

Now one of the most visible NBA owner-fans, Ballmer told event attendees Wednesday how his team’s new rights deal with Fox’s regional sports network would help the Clippers experiment with more innovative viewing options, including over-the-top streaming game broadcasts.

Watching the game through a player’s view

But put aside for a moment the concerns about old-school broadcast rights — according to Ballmer what he really wanted out of the most-recent deal was breathing room to try new things, like having game views with statistics and other information overlaid or available in pop-out windows; or different camera views, including a VR-like view of the game from a player’s eyes.

Screenshot of fan-info TV 'overlays' that might enhance NBA broadcasts.

Screenshot of fan-info TV ‘overlays’ that might enhance NBA broadcasts.

“We needed a relationship that would allow us to innovate,” said Ballmer of the recent media deal, one where he dismissed the final dollar figure [worth $50 million to $55 millon per season] as “money is just an arm-wrestle.” Instead of crowing about getting piles of dough for TV rights, Ballmer was clearly more excited about ideas like being able to have player fantasy stats super-imposed over that player’s jersey while live action went on, among other plans.

“I want to watch a game as [Clippers point guard] Chris Paul, to see what he sees,” Ballmer said. “That would be a cool view of a game.”

Meet the new boss, different than the old boss

While such ideas are not completely new — others in and around sports have been thinking up such ideas and even trying them out — what’s different with the Clippers and the NBA is Ballmer’s energy, and the ability to not have to care about making money right away given his uber-billionaire wealth. I never worked for Microsoft or Ballmer but from the outside looking in it was pretty easy to see that Ballmer has never been a sit-around-and-wait kind of guy. When talking about the excitement of working with innovative sports-tech firms like Second Spectrum and NeuLion on his player’s-eye cam idea, Ballmer didn’t hesitate to put a timeline on the project.

“I’m going to be highly, highly, HIGHLY disappointed” if the Chris-Paul view isn’t available in 3-4 years, Ballmer said, laughing that it’s always best to put public pressure on engineers to get them to deliver more quickly. And while he’s frustrated by the delays caused by long-term rights deals, the opportunity to rework the Clippers’ local rights gave him a door to push open. And like always, Ballmer didn’t come in quietly.

“I didn’t want to wait to get started,” Ballmer said. “I’ve got a passion for the technology and we were at the end of the contract so… BOOM! Let’s go ahead and move forward.”

Ballmer also talked about the idea of building a new Clippers arena somewhere down the road, and about using technology to let fans at games have a better experience, like being able to upgrade your seat during the event. Dreaming about a new venue specifically built for basketball, Ballmer thought out loud about the benefits of having fans closer to the action, with an increased list of tech-aided amenities.

“The technology of arena design is advancing, too,” Ballmer said, pointing to such new structures as Sacramento’s Golden 1 Center. “You have to figure out how to serve the modern fan.” Will Ballmer in charge, it’s a safe bet that Clippers fans may be among the first to be so served.

NBA stadium tech reports — NBA West, Pacific Division

Editor’s note: The following team-by-team capsule reports of NBA stadium technology deployments are an excerpt from our most recent Stadium Tech Report, THE HOOPS AND HOCKEY ISSUE. To get all the capsules in one place as well as our featured reports, interviews and analysis, download your free copy of the full report today.

Reporting by Chris Gallo

NBA WEST: Pacific Division

Golden State Warriors
Oracle Arena
Seating capacity: 19,596
Wi-Fi: Yes (185 APs)
DAS: Yes

The Warriors have the oldest home court in the NBA as Oracle Arena opened almost a half century ago. The age hasn’t stopped Golden State from making upgrades to the arena in the past few seasons with Wi-Fi and DAS available. (In fact, the Wi-Fi network is currently undergoing upgrade during this season). The Warriors are also out front with beacons, now in the second generation of using the technology to power features like store discounts and seat upgrades. The Warriors also remain one of the recognized leaders in all sports in social media outreach.

Los Angeles Clippers
Staples Center
Seating capacity: 19,060
Wi-Fi: Yes
DAS: Yes

Staples centerWhile the Clippers went through an eventful summer last year, the Staples Center was busy improving the fan experience. The 15-year-old facility completed a new LED sports lighting system to the tune of nearly $7.5 million. The conversion to LED lighting allows the Staples Center to save an estimated $280,000 annually in energy costs. Those savings combined with Wi-Fi and DAS deployment from Verizon, help new owner Steve Ballmer in his pursuit to make the Clippers a championship franchise. (Which will have to wait until next year.)

Los Angeles Lakers
Staples Center
Seating capacity: 18,997
Wi-Fi: Yes
DAS: Yes

While there wasn’t much to cheer about on the court this season, Los Angeles Lakers fans still benefited from sharing the Staples Center with multiple professional franchises. The Wi-Fi and DAS systems are among the best in the NBA, and more improvements are scheduled for the arena. The latest planned renovation is a retractable seating system to help the Staples Center more easily complete almost 150 doubleheader games each year between the Lakers, Clippers, LA Kings, and Sparks.

Phoenix Suns
US Airways Center (Talking Stick Resort Arena)
Seating capacity: 18,422
Wi-Fi: Yes (300+ APs)
DAS: Yes (325 antennas)

Verizon and the Phoenix Suns agreed to a long-term extension this fall to make the arena fan-friendly for years to come. Verizon plans to install beacons, and allow fans to keep tickets and arena credit in a “wallet” directly on their mobile devices. The upgrades will coincide with a name change of the arena. A Phoenix-area tribe purchased the naming rights in December. With its new moniker, Talking Stick Resort Arena will take over the rights from the US Airways for the 2015-16 season.

Sacramento Kings
Sleep Train Arena
Seating capacity: 17,317
Wi-Fi: Yes (90+ access points)
DAS: Yes

The Sacramento Kings broke ground on their new $477 million downtown arena this fall. The franchise plans to open the new arena in time for the 2016 season, and to make a splash in stadium technology. The Kings are aiming to have more per capita connectivity than the 49ers’ Levi’s Stadium. Bold. And to prepare for the new arena, Sacramento is using the aging Sleep Train Arena to experiment with new technologies. In limited pockets, the Kings took advantage of their partnership with SignalShare to make the team app more location-specific and gather data of fans’ habits that will be useful for the opening of the new arena.

Stadium Tech Report: Partners the key to fast Wi-Fi deployment at Staples Center

Staples centerDuring the 2012 NHL playoffs, no other team could stop the Los Angeles Kings. But as the Kings’ fans were celebrating their team’s run to the Stanley Cup, their cheers from Staples Center stayed inside the walls. Without a Wi-Fi network or good cellular connectivity in the venue, fans there were shut off from sharing their joy with the outside world — a frustration they let team officials know about, in no uncertain terms.

“Not having Wi-Fi was really impacting the fan experience, especially during that championship run,” said Denise Taylor, chief information officer for arena owner AEG. “Our fans went through a lot of pain. And we heard them.”

Fast-forward to the 2013 playoffs, and while the LA Kings weren’t as successful on the ice, at least the fans were able to stay fully connected while at the games thanks to a new HD Wi-Fi network and a neutral DAS deployment at Staples Center. With some impressive help from infrastructure partners Cisco and Verizon, AEG was able to get Wi-Fi and a full DAS deployment installed in both Staples and the adjoining LA Live center in just two and a half months, despite nearly constant activity in the venue that never sleeps.

With its network now in place, AEG and Staples are keeping all the Los Angeles teams’ fans connected while busily looking for more opportunities to not only further enrich the fan experience, but to also add to the teams’ and facilities’ bottom lines. And AEG is already learning lessons about how to better deploy Wi-Fi at its arenas and venues worldwide, including the knowledge that fan network use is showing no signs of slowing down.

Building a network in a building that never sleeps

According to Taylor, deciding that Staples Center needed a Wi-Fi network was the easy part “It was a must-have,” she said. “We knew had to get it in immediately.”

The LA Kings celebrating the 2012 Stanley Cup win at Staples Center

The LA Kings celebrating the 2012 Stanley Cup win at Staples Center

The hard part? Building that network into a building that hosts not one but two NBA teams, the Los Angeles Lakers and the Los Angeles Clippers, as well as the NHL’s Los Angeles Kings and the WNBA’s Los Angeles Sparks, plus is host to numerous concerts special events and the Grammy Awards. When the business plan was put in place in late 2012 to deploy the networks, Taylor said there were only four “dark” nights during the two and a half months of construction.

“That’s when it pays to have really great partners,” she said. Though there was heavy lifting necessary to retrofit the 20,000-seat venue, including opening up walls to install conduit and access points, Taylor said AEG’s partners worked around the busy Staples event schedule, with most work taking place between the hours of 2 a.m. and 2 p.m. When the dust settled, Cisco had installed a total of 463 APs in both Staples Center and L.A. Live, meaning that fans could stay connected inside the stadium and outside at the adjoining cluster of stores, restaurants, movie theaters and other facilities.

Almost instantly, fans were talking about events, sharing pictures and messages on social media networks. “It was a great feeling to see people talking about the games,” Taylor said. “Our partners really delivered.”

Future Advice: Don’t make any small network plans

LA Kings fans, who previously couldn’t even use the team’s app while at Staples, are now the biggest network users. According to Taylor, an average of 3,000 fans are connected to Wi-Fi during LA Kings games at Staples Center, just ahead of the facility’s average NBA game network user number of 2,410. Even at this early stage of the game, Taylor is seeing that her team’s predictions for network usage might have been low.

“We had originally designed [the network] for use by 25 to 30 percent of a capacity crowd,” Taylor said. But during a recent concert run of four sold-out shows by the band One Direction, Taylor said 35 percent of attendees were using the network during those shows.

“Use of mobile phones in venues is just going to grow and grow,” she predicted. “We’re seeing more and more penetration every day.”

And while pure connectivity is great, Taylor and AEG are now moving forward to enhance the fan experience in multiple ways, including implementation of mobile ticketing apps and apps for ordering food and concessions from your phone.

“We’re in the early stages, but all of that — concessions, ticketing, team apps — is in the works,” Taylor said. “Having a real HD Wi-Fi network creates so many business opportunities, for teams, venues and owner groups. There’s the whole area of captive analytics, which has tremendous potential upside. It’s just a question of how you monetize this big digital asset you have in your hands.”

More lessons: Don’t skimp on 2.4 GHz, and pick good partners

When it comes to Wi-Fi technology, the future is devices that work in the 5 GHz unlicensed spectrum band, which has tons of available bandwidth. Many newer devices, like Apple’s iPhone 5 series, include radios for connecting to 5 GHz Wi-Fi. But Taylor said venue owners and operators need to make sure they don’t skimp on building in support for the 2.4 GHz band, where a large legacy of devices still operate.

“Designers may prefer the 5 GHz range but if you only support that band the truth is you would eliminate a good portion of consumers,” Taylor said. “There are also back of house management applications that still require 2.4 GHz support. So you still have to build for the lowest common denominator of devices to make sure you are engaging every fan who comes in, even those with older phones.”

And since most networks built now are going to be put into arenas that already exist — meaning retrofits — there will probably be a Staples Center-like challenge of doing deployment work around events. That means, Taylor said, that owners and operators need to find partners who are “willing to work hours that aren’t always 8 to 5.”

As AEG develops overall plans for site operations at its numerous international locations, Taylor said that wireless networks are no longer seen as a luxury.

“The two most important things are having HD Wi-Fi and a robust DAS,” she said. “You give the fan what they want, and take advantage of all the opportunities to monetize the network. It’s just not an option anymore.”