Technologies revolutionising the fan experience in stadiums and arenas

Thermal cameras, ChatGPT and private 5G mobile networks are some of the technologies used by arenas and stadiums to improve fan experiences. Tim Kridel investigates use cases and bottom-line benefits.

When it comes to attending concerts and sporting events, arguably the best fan experience is getting home alive. That almost wasn’t the case for a handful of fans at an outdoor Ariana Grande concert. The story of how their lives were saved also highlights how AV’s role in fan experiences increasingly goes beyond just wowing them with great lighting, video and sound.

The concert organiser deployed a network of surveillance cameras — and not just optical. Some were thermal to ensure visibility in the unusual lighting conditions that are the norm for concerts.

“You've got the lights going, and it's almost like a strobe effect, which really can mess up your video,” says Scott Dunn, Axis Communications senior advisor for strategic initiatives. “They were really concerned about safety in the crowd in that sort of compacted area. The thermal cameras were able to detect four to five patrons that had fallen down and were getting crushed. They were able to send in security staff to pull those people out.”

That’s just one example of the kind of outside-the-box thinking aimed at providing fans with better experiences. Many of these applications have clear bottom-line benefits for venue owners/operators and teams, which helps grease the skids from a sales perspective.

One example is surveillance cameras that monitor each concession stand to analyse queue length. These insights can be used in real time to update wayfinding digital signage so fans can see that another concession stand around the corner has a much shorter wait. That’s leading to sales that otherwise would have been lost if frustrated fans gave up. 

This use case could take advantage of the artificial intelligence (AI) that some vendors now embed in their cameras for security applications such as dropped bag detection. Other options include using AI in the cloud so existing cameras don’t have to be replaced or not using AI at all, all of which can help lower the barrier to adoption by leveraging existing functionality.

“AI could be used in this type of environment; however, simpler solutions such as audience measurements tools may be easier to implement,” says Pete Colquitt, solutions business development manager for Samsung’s European display organisation. “A connected camera, for example, can gather data on the volume of people in a specific area, which can then drive content change on one or multiple displays. The screens can then be used to divert people from an overused concession/ kiosk in order to move to an underutilised option. A fan with a hot dog is a much happier fan than one without.”


Artificial reality

Besides real-time applications, AI can be used for forensics, such as identifying and eliminating bottlenecks and other chronic problems that make it a hassle for fans to get the hot dog, beer or toilet they need.

“AI can be added to enhance and automate this experience, predicting when the busiest periods are,” Colquitt says. “This data can be collected and used by displays, generating useful proof-of-play (PoP) information, but can also be linked to point-of-sales (PoS) information. This gives concession owners invaluable information comparing PoP [with] PoS, showing successful periods, best sellers and success of marketing campaigns. As AI integration into productivity tools continues to grow, we can expect it to play an increasingly valuable role in the delivery of content in the AV industry.”


For example, some vendors are exploring how ChatGPT could be used on the fly to create content or make changes faster than if humans were involved.

“We have partners now building applications to automate the generation of content,” Colquitt says.

“Due to the flexibility of ChatGPT, it can be added to the above scenarios, starting with the audience measurement example. ChatGPT creates script based on quantity of recorded viewers. This then uses AI to generate (in real time) new content tailored to larger/smaller audiences. This can be enhanced by identifying audience demographics (i.e., if the majority of the audience is male, show adverts specific to this). The list goes on. Thanks to enhancements in AI, this is now a reality, but we would see the use cases behind this grow due to the increased accessibility of these solutions.”


Go big or go home

The quest for ever-better experiences has advanced to the point that there’s now at least one organisation devoted to it: The Innovation Institute for Fan Experience (IIFX), whose members include Intel, the Arsenal Football Club and Tottenham Hotspur Stadium. In the case of sports, the business case sometimes focuses on making steep ticket prices seem more palatable by providing experiences that they can’t get from watching the game on TV at home or in a pub.

One example is enormous pitchside displays that enable fans in the cheap seats to see plays that were too distant to discern, and see adverts that pay for those displays. Some of these technologies and business models are initially vetted abroad.

“In the UK, stadiums are striving to keep up with their counterparts in the US when it comes to fan engagement,” says Paul Childerhouse, Pioneer Group managing director. “Many of them are anxious to see how new technologies being implemented in American sports arenas will pan out. Yet for most, it is not lack of technological advancement that stands as an obstacle but rather a lack of sufficient funding. The implementation of such technologies in UK venues requires substantial financial resources.

“As a result, many UK stadiums are falling behind their US counterparts in terms of fan engagement and the overall game experience due to inadequate resource allocation. With more available funding, these venues could implement state-of-the-art technologies such as augmented reality platforms and real-time analytics systems that would revolutionise the fan experience and help them catch up with their American counterparts.”


A solid network is key

Virtually all fan experience use cases require a solid network, which can be Wi-Fi, category cable, fibre or private 5G mobile. Designing and installing these networks could be another business opportunity for AV integrators.

“When we work with teams, and when you start talking about fan experience, first and foremost it's about safety and security,” says Axis’ Dunn, who’s also an advisory committee member for the National Center for Spectator Sports and Safety. “Secondly, you get into infrastructure because the more technology you're going to put in — whether it's for safety and security or for fan experience — you're going need excellent infrastructure. Today, with the advent of 5G and other sorts of higher powered wireless technologies, we're finding that we could serve both somewhat effectively.”

Soonthorn Wongsaita/

But IT and telecom firms are already heavily in the stadium/arena market with Wi-Fi and 4G mobile networks. AV firms could partner with them to support these kinds of wireless fan applications. Or they could add the skills necessary to compete for the network infrastructure part of the fan experience market.

“Pioneer Group have installed high density Wi-Fi at Celtic FC,” Childerhouse says. “As a turnkey provider, we are able to provide [a] full infrastructure IT project, but many traditional AV companies don’t offer this service. AV firms could partner with Wi-Fi and 4G mobile network providers to supply the necessary cameras, monitors, screens and audio systems, etc. required for capturing the video feed from the event. But they do need to understand the technology to a high level for this sort of collaboration to be successful.”


Choose your experience

In addition to concerts and games, arenas and stadiums are often used for trade shows and congresses, especially if they’re collocated with a convention center. Some fan-focused technologies can be used to enhance attendee experiences, too, which enhances the potential return on investment in the venue owner’s eyes. One example is providing the play-by-play commentary that’s available only on TV or radio.

“I personally as a fan [feel] it's a great experience to go to a game and be there personally,” Dunn says. “But you lose a lot of the experience when you're not at home watching it on your own TV because you're losing commentary. You're losing statistical information and replay unless it's on a big screen. But maybe it's not the replay I want to watch. So a lot of these stadium and team owners are collaborating on creating a new experience through social media, through apps on their phones. And of course that gets back to working on infrastructure to be able to support that.”

One example is Odiho, whose system delivers content to an app on fans’ smartphones. “We are not an expensive system,” says Gauthier Dalle, co-founder and CEO. “A basic commentary will cost the organiser roughly from US$0.60 to US$0.90 per person. We can use the smartphone screen for sponsors to finance the system, and then for the organiser it's a flat fee.

“The first idea would be a general commentary, which is totally absent now from the stadium,”

Dalle says. “I think it's a strength to get the commentary because very few people are specialists in football. Few people know all the names of the players, the names of the coaches and so on. It's good to have commentary. The TV viewers are better treated than the spectator who pays for a ticket and makes the effort to go to the stadium.”


Explanatory commentary could be particularly helpful for fans who have never seen a particular sport in person. One example is the five National Football League (NFL) games that US teams will play later this year in Germany and the UK.

There also could be multiple streams of commentary and other content. For example, season ticket holders or other fans who pay an upcharge might get exclusive access to audio feeds from mics in players’ helmets. Another possibility is commentary targeted by demographic or language.

“You may have a commentary for men, another for women, another for children,” Dalle says.

When a venue is hosting events other than games, Odiho’s system could support additional applications. For example, if the pitch is filled with exhibition booths, attendees could use the app to pull up the audio feed for the product demo that they’re standing in front of — and not have to strain to hear the presenter over the crowd noise and demos at nearby booths. AI also could enable real-time translation.

Another overlapping use case is advertising. Trade shows, concerts and sporting events are all opportunities for brands to get in front of demographics they want to target. Digital signage around concourses or even pitchside displays could show a QR code that can be scanned with Odiho’s app to get more information, such as the full trailer for a movie.

That could make the venue’s digital signage network more attractive to advertisers or drive patrons to concession stands for an item that they weren’t aware of until the ad piqued their interest. One reason is because the app enables people to get audio content that would be difficult or impossible to provide in the cacophony of a concourse or show floor.

“You get this giant billboard screen and animated advertisement,” Dalle says. “It's kind of sound in silence.”

Top image credit: Piotr Piatrouski/

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