During the coronavirus pandemic, professional sports leagues have taken myriad approaches to athletic competition and in-person attendance with varying degrees of success. The 2020 NBA Playoffs were conducted in a bubble with courtside LED walls of virtual fans and the MLB hosted its World Series with limited fans on-site and lots of cardboard cutouts. Super Bowl LV is set to kick off at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, FL on Feb. 7 and the NFL expects about 25,000 in-person fans including approximately 7,500 health workers the league has invited to Sunday’s showdown.
To enhance the Super Bowl for in-stadium attendees and fans at home, a number of companies have bolstered the local technical infrastructure offering multiple gameplay viewing angles, augmented reality (AR) features, and more.
Extreme Networks: Deploying and tuning stadium Wi-Fi
Extreme Networks will provide a Wi-Fi network for fans in attendance at Raymond James Stadium on Super Bowl Sunday. Overall, Extreme Networks says its stadium deployment features 1,522 access points (APs) with 950 APs installed within the bowl of the stadium. Needless to say, deploying a Wi-Fi solution for tens of thousands of fans comes with its fair share of technical and logistical complexities and the coronavirus pandemic has confounded these efforts.
“It’s unique this year because we planned all the way from no one attending [the Super Bowl], to maybe it will be a full venue,” said John Brams, Extreme Networks senior director of venues, retail, and logistics.
“That made the planning side of things a little bit more challenging because you can’t plan for every scenario but in this case, you had to,” Brams said.
On Tuesday, the NFL said it expected about 25,000 in-person fans and about 30,000 cutouts at Super Bowl LV; far less than the nearly 60,000 fans at last year’s championship game. When the Extreme Networks team designed this network solution, they originally planned for 75,000 or 80,000 fans, not the limited number set to attend Sunday’s game, Brams said, and to accommodate this capacity, the company needed to “tune the system to operate in that environment.”
“It’s a little bit counterintuitive when you have a smaller amount of people. You [might] think, “Oh, that makes it easy.” But that’s actually not the case,” Brams said.
So why is that? Wouldn’t having fewer attendees minimize network planning efforts? The short answer is: No. That’s because humans and the physical space our bodies occupy play a role in radio frequency (RF) and connectivity at high-density Wi-Fi venues like Raymond James, Brams explained.
“From the RF perspective, if you have 80,000 people in there absorbing signals, that’s what we design the system to do. So, if you take away 60,000 of those people, they’re no longer doing that,” Brams said.
As a result, the team would need to tune the RF for a different type of environment with fewer attendees, he explained.
It’s important to note that Sunday will not serve as the network’s first test with limited fan attendance. Since Raymond James Stadium hosted football during the regular season, this gave the company an “opportunity to do some [network] testing and validation,” Brams said.
“The good news is that in the events that the Buccaneers did have in their games at the end of the year, they were roughly sized around that same [capacity], a little bit smaller and we were really happy with the performance,” Brams said.
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Verizon delivers new views, AR, and gaming experiences
Verizon is tapping 5G to boost the Super Bowl LV experiences in person and at home. On Monday, Verizon announced that it had invested more than $80 million to expand “permanent 5G deployments in Tampa and at Raymond James Stadium.” This includes “70 miles of high speed fiber, an upgraded distributed antenna system (DAS),” as well as 281 small cellular antennas designed to provide in and around the stadium, according to Verizon.
The NFL mobile app will grant iPhone 12 users access to the Verizon 5G SuperStadium, which offers in-person fans views from seven cameras, five viewing angles for at-home fans, and AR capabilities for the NFL’s Next Gen Stats, according to Verizon. In the Yahoo Sports mobile app, those so-inclined can use Verizon’s Watch Together feature (which the company describes as “a free co-viewing experience”) to “co-watch” the game with others.
“We’re excited to bring 5G to Raymond James Stadium, home of Super Bowl LV,” said Kyle Malady, CTO, Verizon in a blog post. “As the number of arenas and stadiums with Verizon 5G continues to grow, we’re seeing how our technology brings a new dimension to all aspects of the fan experience, from public safety to how fans interact with the action on the field.”
Verizon’s 5G Stadium in Fortnite Creative, touted as “the largest activation ever built in Fortnite’s Creative Mode, offers gaming enthusiasts a virtual twist on the traditional Super Bowl experience. This includes four football-themed games and fans were able to tune into a Twitch event to watch NFL players and professional gamers compete, according to Verizon. The Twitch event happened on Feb. 2 at 7 pm ET.
AT&T delivering 5G and supporting first-responders
AT&T has invested $75 million to enhance its network around the Tampa area and Raymond James Stadium, according to a company representative, including four deployed temporary COWs (cell on wheels), two temporary dedicated FirstNet SatCOLTS (satellite cell on light truck) specifically for the Super Bowl.
“Our team in Tampa has spent the last 18 months enhancing our network to give our customers, whether they live in Tampa or are visiting the area, the best wireless experience. We have successfully launched AT&T 5G in the Tampa market as well as delivered super-fast AT&T 5G+ to iconic locations like Raymond James Stadium, Tampa International Airport, Busch Gardens and parts of downtown Tampa,” said JR Luna, AT&T’s VPGM of Florida, via email.
“We’ve also upgraded connectivity at more than two dozen other locations so our customers will get a best-in-class network experience. At AT&T, we’re all about creating connections and we’re proud to showcase this best in class experience at this year’s big game,” Luna continued.
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The company has also delivered new and upgraded DAS at more than 30 area locations including practice facilities, and the offices of first responders, according to an AT&T representative, and Band 14 spectrum deployed across the Tampa area will be used to provide first responders on FirstNet with dedicated connectivity should this be needed.
“It’s not your typical year, but that doesn’t slow us down from preparing for the communications needs of our first responders,” said Fred Scalera, response operations group, FirstNet program at AT&T, via email.
“We’ve added Band 14, a special lane of connectivity for public safety subscribers using FirstNet, throughout the Tampa market, and have brought in dedicated portable cell sites to help ensure public safety stay connected in any emergency during this year’s big game,” Scalera continued.
Microsoft tech enabling gameday adjustments
Today’s NFL teams use a vast suite of technologies to analyze performance and assess gameplay, but this hasn’t always been the case. As stated in an NFL post, some coaches were using comparatively analog tech (i.e. printed black and white materials) to analyze gameplay well into the 21st century. In recent years, the sideline tech has seen noticeable upgrades and Microsoft Surface devices are common sights on NFL sidelines and Super Bowl LV will be no different.
Jeff Hansen, general manager of strategic partnerships at Microsoft, explained some of the ways Microsoft tech has empowered NFL teams in recent years and during the coronavirus pandemic.
“Over the course of our partnership with the NFL since 2013, we’ve worked together to develop creative and innovative technology solutions that address the League’s needs. This includes Microsoft Surface devices and more recently, Microsoft Teams,” Hansen said via email.
“This season presented unique challenges and created an even greater need for technology to help the league, clubs, players, coaches, and staff to work more effectively together and remotely,” Hansen continued.
On Surface tablets, the Sideline Viewing System app allows coaches and players to assess gameplay and tweak their strategy as needed.
“At the Super Bowl, you’ll see Surface devices continue to play a critical role using the Surface Sideline Viewing System to help players and coaches quickly plan and adapt in response to how the game unfolds,” Hansen said.
“Additionally, Microsoft Teams will play an important behind-the-scenes role by enabling real-time collaboration between the League’s department of gameday readiness at the NFL headquarters with the limited staff on on-site at the Super Bowl.”