trends in digital media for athletic facilities

Let’s take a look at lighting and digital media trends in athletic facilities.

All of the lighting and signage in a sports facility, from the center line of the court/field/pitch to the ends of the farthest parking lots, have become digitally controlled and cloud-connected.  Such unification of technologies opens up many new opportunities to create innovative guest experiences.

Let’s break this down into four overall trends:

#1: Pitch lighting becomes creative

Remember sitting in an arena in the old days when the electricity failed?  The old metal halide lamps would have to cool off enough that they could slowly “restrike” themselves.  As the arc lamps restruck, the halide salts would glow at different rates, creating garish ranges of green to pink lighting.  The whole process would take 10-15 minutes.  During professional sports broadcasts, this would cost literally millions of dollars of lost broadcast airtime.  

Then comes the LED revolution, and about 5 years ago LEDs finally achieved the performance levels needed to light the entire pitch.  LEDs can start instantly and dim smoothly, plus they can be designed to work flawlessly (no flicker) with extreme slow-motion HDTV replays.  And along with LEDs comes digital controls, so the pitch lighting can be fully animated or controlled as precisely as needed.  Different lighting configurations can be easily programmed for multi-sport facilities.  And most noticeably, the pitch lighting becomes a key part of the experience, helping to create dramatic entrance or half-time shows, particularly when mixed in with other theatrical lighting or digital signage.

#2: Every sign goes digital

For two decades LED signage has increased dramatically in quality, reduced the minimum pixel pitch, increased in brightness and proliferated into a variety of formats.  As Asian suppliers came to dominate the market, these trends only fiercely accelerated with a steady and dramatic cost reduction.  It is now possible to include nearly any format/quality/price point of digital signage desired, from the premiere “jumbotrons” down to the fast-food signage.

Architectural-scale LED signage progressed from the automation of the score board, to the addition of “jumbotron” screens for instant replays, to the replacement of the entire perimeter advertising borders wrapping around the pitch and upper seating decks.   

Along with LED media displays, basic LCD displays are now ubiquitous for nearly every other type of signage, from fast-food service menus to event boards to directional wayfinding.

Obviously, a modern facility will conceive of every signage point – from wayfinding to advertising – as digital media.  This opens up amazing opportunities (and new revenue streams) to “custom brand” an entire facility for special events.

But beyond typical signage applications, LED media screens are now being treated as an integral architectural element during the conception of stadiums.  Check out the dramatic LED screen that wraps around the top of the seating areas at Krasnodar stadium, or the revitalized external facade lighting at the Munich Alliance stadium:

#3: Sports surfaces go digital

Particularly in smaller arenas, digital projection systems are being used for dramatic effects on the court surface.  This is being driven by the dramatic increases in power and resolution and dropping prices of large digital projectors.  See below for a typical example from a basketball arena.  

And beyond “canned” projection shows, it is also possible to generate live-rendered visual effects and even to track athletes or performers on the field, opening up exciting new possibilities for interactive performances or game challenges.

#4: Comprehensive facility control

I’m sure you’ve heard the buzzwords: “smart lighting,” the “Internet of Things,” or “connected lighting” …or whatever marketing gibberish is du jour.  Although not as sexy or showy as the above trends, every light point in an entire sports complex can be digitally networked and connected to cloud-based control networks – from the owner’s VIP box right down to the utility light in the janitor’s closet. 

With good lighting design and system execution, you can always ensure the right light at the right place at the right time for whatever event your facility is being used.  And on top of these IP-based lighting networks, a variety of sensing and facility monitoring systems can be easily integrated.  So from a facility management point of view,  digitally connected lighting introduces a host of new capabilities for energy management, climate monitoring, crowd control, show control, space utilization, etc.   With the massive scale of many modern athletic complexes, these savings really add up.

Cool! But what’s next?

From a design point of view, let’s synthesize a few meta-trends:

Event costs drop – opening up new possibilities for innovative event concepts

In a state-of-the-art facility, so much digital lighting and digital signage is built-in and readily available for control via unified digital networks, that it can be easily integrated into event staging to greatly reduce those staging costs. 

Giving events easy access to the digital media infrastructure of a facility  opens up opportunities to create elaborate one-off events at lower price points.  Facilities can “rent” the media systems to the events for a new revenue stream.   The cost of producing sophisticated one-time-only events drops tremendously, opening up vast new markets for facilities. 

U2 provides an early example of this opportunity.  Always a leader in digital media technologies, on the 2005 Vertigo Tour, U2 cleverly incorporated the LED advertising bands on the upper decks of arenas into the staging concept for their show.  Chasing ribbons of red light started on the circular stage and exploded out into the expanse of the audience.

Innovative new events, competitions, hybrid digital/physical sports leagues

Facilities with extensive and well-integrated digital media concepts have the potential to be innovators in staging entirely new types and formats of competitions. 

There is a huge and growing trend for “eSports” competitions.  Certainly, all of the above concepts for digital lighting, signage and media controls feeds into the staging of ever-more elaborate eSports entertainment programs.  An excellent video from Populous nicely summarizes all of these current and future trends:

However, I think the above video misses an important future trend that is still rooted in physical sports.  With so much digital media in these athletic facilities waiting to be exploited, exciting new hybrids of sports, digital media and video games can potentially be created for participatory entertainment.  Facilities with extensive digital media infrastructures allow event organizers to conduct small experiments in one-off specialty concepts without the prohibitive cost of traditional theatrical staging.  Some of these concepts may grow into larger entertainment concepts and innovative new revenue streams.

See the videos below for two interesting examples from Nike.  Nike staged a special 3×3 football promotion using a video floor from ASB Glass Floors, which integrates LED display screens beneath sports-ready transparent glass floors.  I saw a similar demo for this flooring technology for a 3×3 basketball tournament held in Amsterdam’s RAI convention center. 

The second video is a special exhibition for Kobe Bryant that Nike staged, with a basketball court consisting of a complete interactive LED screen.

These video floors turn athletic courts into live, interactive gaming surfaces for basketball, soccer, or other sports.

Conclusion – digital interactivity for 365 days of facility programming

Let’s consider the fusion of athletics, personal health, gaming, and digital media systems for facility design.  Envision a future where modern athletic centers use digital media systems to fill their dockets for 365 days a year.  Digital media systems require no down-time for staging or setup.  They can fundamentally change a facility’s branding, usage and functioning — instantaneously.  One day its the Big Game — the following day a political rally.  During midweek its an innovative league of interactive gaming for 3×3 teams.  Such flexibility is an important consideration as more and more athletic centers are being integrated into urban entertainment concepts throughout the world.