New Ballpark Packs Video Power

When the Washington Nationals planned Major League Baseball’s newest stadium, the team understood that the fan experience goes way beyond balls and strikes.
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(click thumbnail)Washington Nationals Jason Bergmann pitches against Baltimore Orioles Brian Roberts during the second inning of the inaugural game at Nationals Park, the new home of the Washington Nationals baseball team, in Washington, March 29, 2008.
Reuters/Jason Reed/Landov
WASHINGTON
When the Washington Nationals planned Major League Baseball’s newest stadium, the team understood that the fan experience goes way beyond balls and strikes. And management grasped that in a city of iconic structures, fans nowadays demand a top-flight entertainment experience along with their hot-dogs. A dull, standard-definition video program on a run-of-the-mill scoreboard display just won’t do.

Sony, which has been courting big stadium and arena deals, provided much of the gear in the stadium control room—a video replay control center, they call it—along with Professional Products Inc., a systems integrator based in Gaithersburg, Md.

After a couple of test events, Nationals Park was ready for Opening Day March 30, with the Nationals hosting the Atlanta Braves, complete with an F-16 flyover and the ceremonial first pitch from President George W. Bush. The screen provided the kind of graphics, pictures and instant replays that shame the screens of old with their clunky motion and weak colors.

“Washington is on the front of the current wave of HD-replay sports facilities,” said Bruce Kaufmann, PPI president. “I know the Nationals fought very hard to make this a very high-class, high-technology, and high-resolution facility.”

HD EXPECTATIONS

Steve Stubelt, director of sales and marketing for Sony Systems Group, said the drive to HD and a more satisfying jumbo screen meets the growing expectations of fans used to HDTV in their homes, hotel rooms and an expanding list of other places. It started, said Stubelt, with the demands of luxury suiteholders—folks spending a couple of hundred thousand dollars a year for baseball games want top-flight monitors.

Sony’s growing sports practice, which involves installing its gear in new stadiums and upgrading existing ones, presents opportunities to bring the in-house video to a standard closer to that of TV production.

“We’ve tried, as we’ve worked in sports, to raise the level of consciousness about what kind of quality programming can be done,” Stubelt said.

The control room is responsible for all video displays in the park, including the 100-foot-wide 1552x720 Mitsubishi scoreboard screen and the fascia screens all around the front of the upper decks. The room has multiple connections to the cameras, slo-mos and other data coming from the production trucks; plus it has its own complement of wired, wireless and remote cameras.


(click thumbnail)Sony LCD monitors and an MVS-8000G switcher are at the center of the Nationals’ control room.It also has a Deko 3000 for graphics, a Click Effects Crossfire and servers, carts and VTRs to provide other content, such as advertising, highlight clips and the personalized song selections for the players as they step up to the plate.

Four 52-inch Sony LCD monitors along with multiple Sony Luma LCDs occupy the wall, powered by Evertz controllers.

Nationals Scoreboard Producer David Lundin said the arrangement provides plenty of flexibility for different types of events, or two different events can even happen in different parts of the stadium with different audio programs. On the different monitors around the stadium in the concourses, suites, bars and restaurants, operators can customize the picture as well as lower-thirds, crawls, bugs for different sections—bringing ads or useful information to fans and providing additional revenue sources.

Connected with the control room are Sony cameras—two HDC-1400s, and two wireless XDCAMs. There are also four remote-controlled BRC-H700 cameras around the top of the stadium for beauty shots, taking advantage of the dome of the U.S. Capitol beyond the left field wall.

At the center of the action is a three-M/E Sony MVS-8000G switcher.

The deployment gives technology companies a testing ground for some new products and methods. For example, Global Microwave Systems equipment handles the RF feed from the XDCAMs, and has supplied a component that allows operators to shade the cams remotely, something they had never done with this model of camera before. “So they’re physically upgrading their component to make us more functional and to make their product more valuable,” said Lundin.


(click thumbnail)Sony HD cameras like the HDC-1400 populate the park.Mid-Atlantic Sports Network, which carries every Orioles and Nationals game not carried by a national network, has begun HD coverage, planning a total of 80 games in HD this season. It also does live pre- and post-game shows for all of the 300-plus games.

Most cable systems that carry MASN also carry MASN HD, as does DirecTV (but not Dish). Some systems carry MASN content on a channel of another name—Mojo, in the case of Comcast.

Using NEP trucks, MASN says the new facility is a world apart from the Nats’ temporary home at the crumbling Robert F. Kennedy Stadium.

“The stadium folks listened to what television wanted,” said Jonathan Solomon, MASN chief engineer.

From the Triax and fiber drops at the 39 camera positions around the stadium to the truck parking area, the program has improved. At RFK, trucks used an outdoor position amongst the fans that was designed 40 years ago for smaller trucks. The new bay could easily tackle a game with two team broadcasters, a national broadcaster, plus the feed to Japan, said Solomon.

The interconnect panels are well laid out and well marked, and there’s even a crew lounge with a restroom.

Plus, with a new stadium and HD, it’s just a better show.

“Showing off the ballpark makes good TV,” said Solomon. “It definitely brings a brighter view to the fans.”

ENTERING THE MAJORS

Sony launched its sports sales practices about a year ago, targeting pro and college arenas and stadiums, particularly on retrofits to HD or new builds. The team worked on AT&T Park, home of the San Francisco Giants, on its screen in time for the 2007 season (and All-Star game), and on Bank One Ballpark, home of the Arizona Diamondbacks.

The Nationals and Sony agreed last summer to have Sony provide much of the control room gear (about half the equipment, as measured by cost) plus all 600 or so displays around the stadium.

The rise in production values characterized by venues such as the American Airlines Center in Dallas (home of the Mavericks of the NBA) and the American Airlines Arena in Miami (home to the NBA’s Heat) has led to control rooms with all the tools and capabilities of the production trucks—but with even more content to choose from, because the control room has access to all the truck channels plus its own cameras.

Kaufmann said there’s still the argument among venue officials about whether the premium paid for HD gear is worth it. But with the move toward bigger and bigger jumbo displays, the scale is tipping toward HD. And Sony, with its high-end gear, is working to ensure it has a piece of that market.

“They [Sony] have gotten very aggressive making sure their technology becomes more affordable to these teams, to get into these facilities,” said Kaufmann.

PPI did some integration work offsite and began moving into the facility in January, and had everything up and running for a test game (of college teams) March 22.

Stubelt said teams realize better video makes a better fan experience in a way that the teams can monetize.

“They’re controlling what you’re seeing, and what they’re realizing is they have a captive audience, and they can sell the branding to the marketing partners.” he said. “The dynamic is changing a lot. From our standpoint as a vendor, we can not only intro higher levels of capability, but it really is moving to a new level of sophistication.”

He predicted that four or five more stadiums will bust a move toward HD within the next year, and such displays will be the rule within about five years.

Another Sony-centric element of the stadium as entertainment center is the PlayStation 3 pavilion, an area with multiple games played on large HD screens. The team plans to hold competitions and show the action on the big screen—including shots from a Karaoke-style video game, so wannabe singers can belt it out large.

Nationals Park will get its next big event—and worldwide exposure—April 17, when Pope Benedict XVI gives a mass there in his only Washington-area public appearance on his current U.S. visit.