Bidding & Hosting, Infrastructure, Football, Soccer, North America

How IBM created the optimal fan experience at Mercedes-Benz Stadium

Fan engagement is literally embedded into the new home of the Atlanta Falcons thanks to the venue’s technology partnership with IBM. The IT solutions company’s global chief technology architect Ben Brillat reveals how they built the world’s most advanced stadium.

by Tom Bassam
How IBM created the optimal fan experience at Mercedes-Benz Stadium

Just under a year out from its opening, the US$1.6 billion Mercedes-Benz Stadium’s marquee features are well-known. The eight-panel retractable roof, the 360-degree video ‘halo board’ in the rafters and the retractable lower-bowl seating all wow visitors.

Whilst those very visible feats of engineering might grab the attention, they would be just window dressing if the thousands of miles of cables embedded below the surface did not allow the Mercedes-Benz Stadium to function on game day. ‘Fan experience’ is a phrase trotted out regularly but in Atlanta it is literally embedded into the venue.

Stadium technology partner IBM was invited into the design process at the earliest possible stage and the team charged with ensuring Mercedes-Benz met the demands of its users was led by Ben Brillat, global chief technology architect for the IT solutions company.

‘Technology architect’ is an unusual job title but Brillat explains why it applies to his role with clients.

“We look at the whole lifecycle of technology that’s required to deliver a great experience,” he tells SportsPro at SportsPro Live 2018. “Where I fit in the puzzle is making sure that connectivity and technology exists to bring that bandwidth that they need to deliver or to bring the CCTV cameras to make sure people are safe at the venue; to be sure that you have the fibre pathways that you need to pull cable when the broadcaster shows up and get the HD cameras into the venue. To be sure that all those facilities – the power or the infrastructure – is there to support producing a sports event.

“I am responsible for the design of the technology solutions, making sure the products and designs that IBM is implementing are going to meet the goals and requirement that we have for those systems.

“In sports and entertainment, those goals are that the fans can show up and have a great day and operators can have a venue and that the infrastructure is going to deliver what you’re looking for.”

The Mercedes-Benz Stadium is the home of NFL's Atlanta Falcons and Atlanta United of MLS

‘Build it and they might come’ is not good enough

What the Atlanta Falcons and Atlanta United as tenants were looking for was a stadium that could help buck the trend of falling attendances in the National Football League’s (NFL) and support a new Major League Soccer (MLS) franchise establishing itself in a venue that dwarfs those used by far older clubs. In an age of mass distraction, Falcons and United owner Arthur Blank, alongside IBM as the chosen technology partner, needed Mercedes-Benz to be a venue beyond just simply a place where fans go to watch their team. It had to be a destination in its own right.

“You need to have a very compelling experience at the stadium to get people out of their homes and into the building,” says Brillat. “The competition is ever increasing as we get a better and better [sports] experience delivered on the iPhone, smartphone, etc, as well.

“When you can have a compelling sports experience on the train on the way home on your phone, you really need to be going the extra mile to be pulling that person into the stadium, into the venue, to deliver that interpersonal experience.”

You need to have a very compelling experience at the stadium to get people out of their homes and into the building

Creating an identity

With the venue’s one-year anniversary looming, it seems to be delivering enough of those experiences. The Falcons saw a 2.6 per cent regular season bump in attendance after moving from the Georgia Dome and during the post-season the gate topped 74,000. Atlanta United headed the MLS attendance charts with an average gate of 48,200 in 2017, with that figure rising again in 2018.

Of course, sports stadiums have been drawing and dealing with large numbers for years. Plenty of less advanced venues than the Mercedes-Benz have the technological capability to keep 74,000 people safe and entertained whilst watching an event.

However, if you are going aiming to go the extra mile then the venue is going to have to deliver a lot more than numbers and safety. For IBM, fan engagement at the Mercedes-Benz was about creating a seamless experience from a technological and operational standpoint.

In order to achieve that, in planning, IBM developed multiple identities of people who would be using the stadium.

Brillat explains the thinking behind the approach: “Are we building this facility for Mary who lives down the road who is coming to work every day? Or Joe and his family who are taking a once in a lifetime trip and coming to see their favourite team play.

“It is about identifying these specific, named people – we don’t just say ‘a fan’, we say, ‘Joe and his family, he has three children, he’s this age and he’s a lifelong fan of the Falcons.’ This allows us to dive into what they need and they want in order to have a great day – to be in engaged with the venue when they get there.”

This allows us to dive into what they need and they want in order to have a great day – to be in engaged with the venue when they get there

Falcons receiver Julio Jones shown with the 360-degree LED screen in the roof of the venue. Jones and his team hope to become the first ever team to play the Super Bowl in their home venue.

IBM designed ‘To Be Journeys’, which are essentially roadmaps for people who are going to an event at Mercedes-Benz, as well as for the few days before and after their visit.

“What we’re trying to do is identify each step and point when [people] are interacting with their visit to the Mercedes-Benz Stadium,” says Brillat. “This is so we can capture what technology and what platforms we need to have available and implement it in order for them to have a great day.

“We’re then able to take those ‘To Be Journeys’ and move them into architecture and applications that are supporting that, to create a prioritised roadmap of which technologies we need to have. And which of these show up in the most persona experiences so we can pick the products and technologies that are going to the most impactful.”

We can capture what technology and what platforms we need to have available and implement it in order for fans to have a great day

Say hello to Uncle Arthur

One of the features of Mercedes-Benz is the IBM-powered fan app that plays a key part in the experience. There are three different versions: one for Falcons fans, one for United fans and one for general visitors. One of the results of the ‘persona’ development process is that these apps are equipped with tools that assist with fundamental elements of someone’s visit, a key example being delivering stadium parking in real time.

The IBM planning process also considered this aspect from an operational perspective, such as working with vendors to provide mobile scanners, installing electronic parking gates or running fibre cable to the parking deck to ensure reliability for its servers. For Brillat, this 360-degree approach comes back to avoiding a basic but common problem.

“We don’t want you to enter the stadium upset because you drove around for an hour and a half looking for parking,” he says.

“Ideally, the experience should be that you don’t even notice that you’ve parked.”

Another feature of the apps is integrating IBM Watson, the company’s AI platform, as a resource to help Mercedes-Benz visitors navigate this monster of a building and find what they want. The apps for the stadium’s two major tenants both feature a natural-language AI persona based on Blank, which will respond to questions like an Amazon Alexa to assist visitors. In the United app, he is referred to by the affectionate name given to him by the fans, ‘Uncle Arthur’, and in the Falcons app he is just known as ‘Arthur’.

The app also encompasses all ticketing, so there is no paper ticketing at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Whilst that provides ease of use to the customer it also provides security to the operator. The operator is also able to use the app to collect data on how fans use the stadium, with the idea being they can learn from it to improve practical functionality. Brillat envisages future decisions being made on signage or how to streamline footfall using the information garnered from the mobile app.

Falcons owner Arthur Blank formally opening the stadium

Teething problems

That measurement ability looks like it will get an early test. In January the Georgia World Congress Center Authority (GWCCA) board, which has an oversight role over the state-owned, Falcons-operated stadium, raised concerns about some functional aspects of the facility following the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) College Football National Championship Game. Officials cited long wait times to get into the stadium and clogged concourses following the conclusion of the game. Concerns were also expressed about the quality of the sound system, with the fear that these problems could hurt the facility’s reputation at the national level.

In the immediate future, 2019 sees the Mercedes-Benz further tested as it hosts arguably the most strenuous event of all in the American sports calendar: the Super Bowl. Stadium operators have admitted they have work to do to ensure the NFL showpiece goes ahead without some of the issues that came up in the wake of the NCAA Championship Game.

Whilst a lot of those problems were related to physical infrastructure, such as number of exit doors, the sound system is a technological concern. Scott Jenkins, the stadium’s general manager, admitted back in February that they did not have an immediate solution. “It’s a complicated issue: we’re going to continue working on it,” he told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

He added on the building in general that “it takes two years [after opening], in my experience, to finish a building and get it running the way you want”.

Perhaps given that one of the biggest events in American sport was hosted at Mercedes-Benz less that nine months after opening, those issues can probably put down as teething problems. With the mass scale hardware and pre-planning for the Mercedes-Benz, they certainly should be.

Before the physical building even existed, IBM created the stadium environment in a laboratory to test much of its technology, including the ‘halo board’ and point-of-sale systems. IBM claims those systems were transferred with few or no hiccups for the stadium opening and that the problems came from last-minute additions they were not able to put through their paces prior to install.

Atlanta United have broken MLS attendance records in their time at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

That is an impressive claim, considering the Mercedes-Benz has what Brillat describes as city-scale infrastructure: a gigabit passive optical network, 4,000 miles of fibre optic cable, 15,000 ethernet ports, 2,000 wireless access points, nearly 4,000 speakers, 90 miles of audio cabling, 2,500 video displays, 500 security cameras and four petabytes of san storage.

“It’s all supporting capstone, which is the fan experience,” says Brillat. “The fan experience delivered through the in-person visits when you get there; the fan experience delivered through the 2,500 TV screens; the fan experience delivered the mobile apps with parking information, team content, mobile ticketing.

“One of the concepts of the stadium is that there should be enough TV screens such that during the game you don’t have to be looking at the field to see the action. Anywhere where you are in the facility, if you want to get up and go get a beer, then you can do and know that you can always see the game.”

Planning for the future

By looking at the technology that way, IBM has been able to design the building’s usability in the long run, what they describe as ‘future-flexible’. That is an important concept in an age when the lifespan of a stadium – especially in the fast-paced, highly leveraged American sports landscape – is getting shorter and shorter.

The predecessor to the Mercedes-Benz, the Georgia Dome, lasted just 25 years before being replaced. Across town, Turner Field – the 1996 Olympic Stadium converted for use by Major League Baseball’s Atlanta Braves from 1997 – lasted less than 20. At a cost of US$1.6 billion, Mercedes-Benz needs to be around longer than that and Brillat is confident it will be.

“No one has a crystal ball so we’re not sure where we’re really going to be,” he says. “[So it is about] making the best decisions we can possibly make with the information we have on hand.

“We know, for example, that data requirement will continue to increase; we don’t whether 3D will be the reason you’re using the data or whether it will be 8K HDR. What we do know is we’ll need more data in more places, you’ll need more connectivity, you’ll need more power.

“Based on knowing that, we can set up a facility as best we can to support a future with increased data consumption needs whilst also being flexible enough to have locations to have cameras to be installed or the ability to take future technology even though we may not know exactly what that is.

Fans gather at Mercedes-Benz Stadium for a Falcons game.

“In terms of the lifecycle of the facility, the lifecycle of the building will still be measured in decades.

“The Mercedes-Benz Stadium really is as you’ll hear the Falcons say – a future-flexible design.

“The key thing being fibre to the edge in that facility. We’ve eliminated the cat six copper in the walls that you would typically see. Copper has had a relatively short lifecycle of cat five to cat five E, to cat six, to cat six A cabling – all constantly needing to be ripped out.

“Whereas fibre-optic cable has been proven to have a lifespan that can be measured in decades and knowing that there is a path so that base-level connectivity can be upgraded and used for more and more bandwidth as the facility grows in the future.”

Measuring success

It is hard to argue that Mercedes-Benz has been anything other than a fan engagement success since it opened. Fans love it, the operators love it and the industry loves it.

The stadium’s tests will come down the road when newer, shinier venues open with more impressive specs and bolder fan engagement claims. In the next few years new NFL venues will open in Los Angeles and Las Vegas, markets where innovation goes with the territory. If IBM’s work in Atlanta is as ‘future-flexible’ as it claims then the venue will be able to maintain its status as a world leader long into its lifecycle.

Brillat’s view of what makes a successful project is far simpler.

“The ideal result for us and the statement that we’ve had the most successful technology project is that the fans don’t even realise that they were engaging with technology,” he says. “That they are able to live stream their video and it didn’t stutter on them or that they are able to pull up the alternate camera angle that they wanted to see and it showed up immediately and that what they saw was a great goal coming in from underneath the player. That they are able see and remember that sports experience rather than that they tried to see and the video froze halfway through.

“So if we’ve done our job right then the fan is really just experiencing the event they wanted to see rather than the technology that’s supporting it.”

The ideal result for us and the statement that we’ve had the most successful technology project is that the fans don’t even realise that they were engaging with technology