AV in stadiums - game on?

Despite huge budgets stadium owners seem reluctant to install the highest quality AV systems into new stadium projects. Why is this? Steve Montgomery finds out.

With a few exceptions, stadiums of today bear little resemblance to those of just two decades ago.  Stadium operators are taking full advantage of this increase in popularity by offering more services and finding ways to keep avid supporters and spectators on site for longer, with the aim of getting them to spend more money. 

It comes at a cost.  The construction of a new stadium construction requires massive investment and many projects overrun the original budget: the cost of the new stadium for Tottenham Football Club in London has escalated from its estimated £400m in 2010 to £800m today.  Chelsea FC, again in London, is expected to be investing £1billion in a new stadium that will be the most expensive in Europe when it opens in 2018.

Of primary importance to the increased spectator experience are the AV entertainment systems provided outside the stadium, around the concourse and within the playing area, or bowl.  However, and again with some exceptions, stadium owners seem reluctant to install the highest quality AV systems, despite the enormous construction budgets and the benefits that AV systems can offer to the end product.

The situation seems to be worse in new build stadiums.  "Construction of a stadium is a very complex process, often with a short and fixed timescale to meet a new season of matches or a global sports occasion,” explains Roland Hemming CEO of RH Consulting.  “Stadiums must meet building regulations.  In the audio/video domain the most pertinent is that the public address and voice alarm system has to be sufficiently intelligible and loud to allow safety officials and the police to communicate with the crowd in the case of an emergency and guide them to safety.  Building contractors will often specify a system that meets the minimum basic requirement and is one that may be supplied by a specialist alarm company with a limited knowledge of high-end AV technology.”

Twickenham Stadium Mid tier and Pitch side LED

A separate AV entertainment system may then be installed in parallel, although there will usually be links between the two.  The situation is further complicated by the requirement of two distinct users: one handling concourse and pitch side advertising and another keeping the crowd entertained. Electronic advertising hoardings are operated by third party agencies whilst the entertainment system is run by the club themselves.  An additional complication is the requirement to supply broadcast feeds to outside broadcast operators and many clubs are beginning to set up their own broadcast centres.  The result is a miss-mash of separate systems used for distinct purposes with little connection or integration between them, as Hemmings points out: “Integration of all the audio and video systems and installation of high quality audio processing and speaker arrays pays dividends and greatly enhances the match-day spectator experience.  We endeavour to explain this to stadium owners as far as we can.  However, with budgetary and time constraints on new build stadiums the outcome is often different, with independent systems installed at the lowest possible cost and without sufficient time assigned to integrating and tuning the sound to achieve maximum effect.”

The situation is often different in refurbished stadiums.  Owners are more likely to consider upgrading to high quality systems; often in programmes that are carried out in separate stages, with different parts upgraded at different times.  This may be to spread the cost over several years or to alleviate the pressure on the implementation teams aiming to complete the jobs in a very small window during the close season, when other construction and renovation jobs are being tackled around them.  Football fixtures especially, leave a period of just six weeks or so in the summer between seasons. 

Paul Childerhouse, CEO of Pioneer Group agrees with this sentiment: “Audio and video tend to sit on separate networks in European stadiums, which is partly due to the nature of the sports here as they don’t lend themselves to audio engagement as readily as sports in the US or other markets.  Audio is currently mostly used for emergency and crowd announcements.  However the corporate hospitality areas are seeing increasing joint audio and video systems, to enable the spaces to be used flexibly for multiple purposes, like conferences, weddings and large gatherings of people.  These are an increasingly vital revenue stream for stadiums.”

Whilst the primary voice alarm systems may be initially installed by security and alarm installers, stadium owners will be more likely to turn to professional AV integrators to install later upgrades to the AV installations.  Childerhouse explains the prevailing situation in these cases: “AV provision like any AV project is given to teams who are passionate about delivering for that client, consistently, flexibly and under pressure. The size of the business is not important, but being able to upscale the workforce to account for match days and special events is a vital key to success for working with stadiums.”

AV system installation in stadiums, and particularly the audio element, is a highly specialised activity that is undertaken by a few focused and competent companies.  Although, as Hemmings points out: “There are quite a few organisations that carry out this work, but there are only a few with the competence to install top-notch systems.”  Vic Swain, consultant at PEL explains the complexity of the task: “To work in this industry integrators need to manage a wide variety of tasks and interact with many other specialists.  They may carry those skills within the company but will very often call on external consultants and specialists.  From initial sound modelling by acoustic engineers that helps them draw up an overall specification and system design to structural engineers who handle the placement and support structures behind speaker arrays, metal fabrication factories through to site construction staff and riggers.  All this has to be managed within strict timescales, often intricately linked to a range of construction activities going on around them.”

Flexibility is essential.  The installation of delicate AV screens and speaker systems is regularly left until the very end of a construction project: partly through necessity because walls and superstructure may be incomplete until that time, and partly to protect them from dust and damage from the hostile environment of a building site.  This impinges on the time available to the integration team and in some cases can adversely affect budgets: a project that overruns and overspends is likely to have expenditure on AV systems withdrawn or reduced. Swain comments on the problems: “Alignment of speaker systems, characterisation of digital signal processors (DSPs) and full testing of evacuation alarms and public address systems at maximum volume cannot be carried out practically with other tradesmen on site, or at night.”

There are huge advantages in combining alarm/PA and audio systems; perhaps the major one being the raising of quality of the statutory safety system to a higher level; enabling it to perform better and with greater clarity.  Several AV manufacturers are addressing this need by releasing AV-quality products that meet safety standards and regulations.  “Whilst there are many basic audio products designed to meet building safety regulations there are fewer high-quality audio systems that do so.  This is changing,” says James Kennedy, operations manager of Peavey Electronics.  “Some of the major professional audio manufacturers are releasing products that meet EN54 and BS5839 regulations.  This allows a single system to be introduced for both safety and entertainment applications and the result is a much higher level of quality with greater clarity and volume, single-point control, enhanced network accessibility and a greater ability to connect to other systems.”  This single system can then be used throughout the stadium: through the concourse, in hospitality and meeting areas and in the bowl itself.

AV integrators looking to deliver systems that are responsible for ensuring spectator safety must be conversant with the relevant safety regulations.  Unfortunately this is not a straightforward task.  Along with the building regulations, BS5839 and EN54, which Hemmings describes as: “confusing at best”, the Guide to Safety at Sports Grounds has been published by the UK Government’s Departure for Culture, Media and Sport.  Chris Wilcox, music and media manager at PEL is familiar with this document: “Whilst the Green Guide is not a regulatory document, and has no statutory force, it is often referred to in the specification of equipment for stadiums in many countries as it relates to best practice for stadium safety systems, borne from extensive research and experience of safety management and is regarded as the authoritative document in this field.”

Safety management techniques must adapt to changing situations.  Most regulations relate to internal threats; such as fires, but these are less frequently encountered nowadays.  Instead, the more likely threat is from terrorist activity; as experienced at the Stade de France in 2015.  Counter measures and responses have had to change: instead of a controlled evacuation the best procedure may be to manage the crowd within the stadium, moving people between areas.  This requires highly intelligible and sophisticated emergency and safety management systems.  Hemmings believes that this is an area that needs addressing.  “Stadium operators and consultants should work with safety officers and police forces to establish the response to different scenarios and draw up specifications for systems that can adequately handle them.  It may mean using audio equipment that is substantially better than the minimum requirement combined with coordinated digital signage pointing out escape routes in a clear and simple manner.  This is something that the AV community can help with.”

Stadiums are regularly used to host large concerts and events.  These bring particular requirements to the venue.   Major touring groups will bring their own sound equipment on stadium tours, along with lighting rigs and staging, so don’t need much support from the stadium facilities.  However when a high quality sound system is available they will make use of it.  Sound feeds, with a suitable delay, can be used to reinforce the main speakers to the audience around the upper and more distant audience seating levels.  But must be convenient for the tour sound engineers to access and use.  There are some good examples of stadiums that do this well, including Derby County’s stadium and Lord’s cricket ground in the UK and the Amsterdam ArenA in the Netherlands.  The additional cost of raising the performance to this level can be quite low: even as little as 5%.

No two stadiums are identical; each requires a specific and tailored solution, which adds to the workload of integrators.  Similarly, different sports have different requirements: audiovisual systems in football stadiums bear little resemblance to those in international swimming pools, velodromes or tennis clubs.  To be successful AV integrators need to be able to understand and respond to those requirements with world-class solutions.

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