The Stadium 5G Use Case Remains Decidedly Unconvincing

The Sacramento Kings have pledged to remain on the cutting edge of the 5G technology revolution. But in a deep dive with the team's networking executives, it's became clear that 5G might really just be another drag on the bottom line of the sports franchise.

Mike Dano, Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies

February 24, 2019

8 Min Read
The Stadium 5G Use Case Remains Decidedly Unconvincing

5G will enable amazing new services and offerings, ones that will generate a wide range of new revenue streams, right? Well, a deep dive into the 5G opportunity in major sports stadiums reveals as many concerns as it does opportunities.

Take for example the NBA's Sacramento Kings basketball team. It's partly owned by Qualcomm's Paul Jacobs, and the outfit has specifically made it a point to remain on the forefront of cutting-edge technology. After all, this is the sports franchise that accepts Bitcoin and mines cryptocurrency, and the team's stadium boasts fully 96 strands of fiber for backhaul across two 100-Gig pipes.

So what specifically are the Sacramento Kings planning to do with 5G?

Ryan Montoya, the team's CTO, said the Kings are planning to offer 5G throughout their stadium in Sacramento in part so that fans in nosebleed seats can come down to a lounge area and put on VR goggles to watch the game from a courtside viewpoint.

"Imagine if you are in one of the upper bowl seats, you paid a certain amount for those tickets, and then we give you the opportunity to come to a lounge where you can get that upgraded experience, but also have that courtside experience. We believe a lot of fans would be interested in that," he told Light Reading.

"Really?" I asked. "Yes," he said.

But wait! That's not the only amazing experience that the Kings are working on (sarcasm intended). According to Montoya, the Kings are also working on 5G technology that would allow stadium attendees to listen to multiple broadcasters call play-by-plays of the games. Specifically, Montoya said fans would be able to chose from broadcasts by the team's existing callers, YouTube celebrities, comedians or even a random 12-year-old kid. "It's really how they want to react and interact with the game," he said.

This is seriously something that Montoya said the Kings are testing thanks to 5G network technology.

If you ask me, these kinds of 5G stadium use cases aren't compelling at all. Why would I want to watch a game wearing VR goggles in a lounge when I paid for tickets to watch the game with my own eyes? More importantly, why would 5G be necessary for me to tune into a YouTube broadcast of a game I bought tickets to watch in real life? And would anyone in their right minds want to listen to a 12-year-old call the plays on a game they're watching in the actual Kings stadium?

These are some of the questions I put to Montoya, and he assured me that Kings fans would be interested in all of these use cases.

I have to say, I'm decidedly unconvinced. (To be fair though, I'm the CTO of exactly nothing, with the salary to prove it, and my interest in basketball has been fading since Michael Jordan retired.)

Stadiums as a trend-setter
So why is this all important? It's important because sports stadiums have long stood as one of the principal locations for advanced wireless technology network deployments. Verizon, for example, spent almost $100 million upgrading its LTE network in and around Atlanta ahead of the recent Super Bowl LIII. And after the game, AT&T reported that it recorded the transmission of fully 11.5 terabytes of data in and around the stadium on game day.

So it's clear that sports stadiums remain a major proving ground for new and advanced wireless technologies. Indeed, Amdocs recently reported that consumers' first 5G experience will likely be at a 2020 sporting event, and that 63% of network operators plan to offer augmented and virtual reality services over 5G in support of sports events.

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And that's why it's a bit concerning that, when it comes to 5G, Montoya's ambitions are distinctly pedestrian. When questioned about the Kings' broader 5G plans, Montoya explained that his goal is mainly to outfit the stadium with additional 5G connections. (He said that, currently, the venue boasts Verizon's fixed 5G service in three different locations throughout the stadium complex.)

When pressed, Montoya provided some further insights into the Kings' long-term 5G outlook. "We think the future involves mixed reality," he said, explaining that he expects fans at the stadium to eventually use augmented reality on 5G to get more data on what's happening on the court, like seeing reports on a phone screen or AR goggles on the height of a player's jump or the force of a slam dunk. "It will essentially augment the experience," he said.

"We definitely see a world where you're going to have immersive games and experiences, and that's a world where we blur the lines between the digital and the physical world. As a sports team, we want to be right in the mix of that," Montoya said.

But Montoya clearly isn't an expert on 5G. During a discussion about the technology, Montoya briefly mentioned that a number of 5G phones are available today. (The reality is that, so far, there are no commercial 5G phones available to anyone outside of a testing environment.) His confusion, albeit slight, over the technology only serves to highlight the complicated nature of nascent 5G deployments, and potentially operators' duplicitous marketing around 5G.

5G misunderstandings are clearly one of the many obstacles that mobile operators will need to overcome as they work to sell the technology. Verizon, for its part, has been working with the Kings on the 5G deployments in the stadium -- that's not a surprise considering Sacramento is one of Verizon's four 5G deployment cities.

Verizon's stadium elucidation
"You're probably hearing a little vagueness [from the Kings] because of where we're at with the whole stage of the technology. I think, compared to last year, we are very crisp" in our 5G efforts, Verizon's Nicki Palmer, the operator's chief network officer, told Light Reading. She said that, overall, the development of 5G technology is progressing much faster than 4G technology before it.

It's also not surprising that Palmer offered far more use cases for 5G in stadiums than the Kings did. After all, in her relatively new role as chief network officer, Palmer is now in charge not only of building out 5G but also in finding revenue-producing use cases from 5G. Thus, when questioned on the topic, Palmer immediately rattled off a wide range of 5G use cases for stadium owners:

  • real-time updates on how to best get to your seat,

  • wait times at concession stands or restrooms,

  • behind-the-scenes action in the locker room,

  • new perspectives of coaches and players,

  • real-time betting with other people in the stadium,

  • AR games and cloud gaming during time outs,

  • And participation in quizzes and polls.

"These are just some things, I'm sure it's not even half of what will eventually be developed. That's the exciting thing," she said.

And Palmer's list actually gets more interesting as the use cases move beyond stadiums. "So If you have a 5G connection at home you can get this deep, immersive content, that would really make it seem like you've got the best seat at the stadium," she said in discussing the sale of VR access to courtside video streams (Montoya also mentioned this use case). "I wonder how much those would go for?" Palmer said.

Finally, Palmer outlined what 5G might mean for the actual players in the stadiums themselves, from health monitors to VR training. "This is a step even beyond visualization," she said.

"It's kind of endless [in terms of 5G use cases] and I'm sure we're just scratching the surface here. But stadiums and the Super Bowl [where Verizon held several 5G demos] is a good way to test the limits of where we think the technology is headed. It gives us an idea," she said.

Nonetheless, the disconnect between the Kings and Verizon over the future of 5G in stadiums is telling. Verizon, of course, is working hard to sell the 5G opportunity to investors, consumers and enterprises alike, so it's no surprise that the company's executives have a well-thought-out list of 5G use cases ready to go for stadiums and other venues.

The Kings, meanwhile, may well ultimately view 5G with a significant amount of skepticism, or at the very least trepidation. Although the team has pledged its desire to remain on the cutting edge of technology, it nonetheless must be both expensive and tiring to be pushed into yet another new wireless technology after spending so much time and effort deploying suitable WiFi and 4G networks. (Montoya said the stadium isn't even done with 4G yet; Sprint is in the final stages of adding support for its services to the team's neutral host LTE Distributed Antenna System at the venue.)

5G may really just be another drag on Montoya's P&L statement, at least initially.

In conclusion, Montoya made it clear that the Kings will invest in 5G technology in order to stay abreast of developments among its fans. But it's also clear that Verizon -- at least at this point -- is much more vested in the future of 5G than those in charge of a stadium in one of the company's initial 5G markets.

Mike Dano, Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies, Light Reading | @mikeddano

About the Author(s)

Mike Dano

Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies, Light Reading

Mike Dano is Light Reading's Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies. Mike can be reached at [email protected], @mikeddano or on LinkedIn.

Based in Denver, Mike has covered the wireless industry as a journalist for almost two decades, first at RCR Wireless News and then at FierceWireless and recalls once writing a story about the transition from black and white to color screens on cell phones.

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