Installation Profile: Entertaining Venues
May 1, 2007 12:00 PM, By Jack Kontney
Professional sports arenas add value with AV to compete for fans’ limited time and money.
Concert promoters, theme parks, museums, and restaurants all pursue the same basic goal — to lure limited leisure dollars from an eager public. In the world of professional sports, athletes routinely sign multimillion-dollar contracts, and ticket prices are always going up. With limited entertainment dollars to spend, fans have therefore come to expect more for their money these days.
As a consequence, the real competition has moved off the playing field. Beyond championships and trophies, today's sports franchises are really competing for entertainment dollars. To this end, franchises have been expanding their offerings beyond the basic presentation of core events. The goal is to attract and retain more customers by offering a more complete and diverse package of activities before, during, and after the main event.
Hardcore fans will always be the bread and butter of major sports franchises, but in order to push attendance — and income — to new heights, the casual fan is being enticed with value-added amenities. This can include upgraded food offerings, more comfortable seating, activity areas for kids, and more. But in recent years, the more progressive franchises have gone even further to set themselves apart. To promote their sports as end-to-end entertainment events, teams are increasingly reaching toward other forms of entertainment. Giant video displays, cheerleaders, and mascots keep fans entertained during the main event. The old halftime marching band pales in comparison.
Smart sports franchises know they need to offer value outside the playing field. That means doing a cold-eyed assessment of their facilities, looking for portions of the physical plant that can increase the entertainment experience, and thus attract the marginal fan. The goal is not so much to extract more income as it is to promote fan loyalty by increasing perceived ticket value.
The following are examples of how two major sports franchises have gone about reconstituting their facilities in partnership with a Nashville, Tenn.-based integration company to improve their ability to play into this new entertainment paradigm.
ATLANTA BRAVES: GRAND ENTRY PLAZA, TURNER FIELD
Turner Field, home of baseball's Atlanta Braves, is an excellent case in point. Originally built as the track-and-field stadium for the 1996 Olympics, the structure was renovated into a baseball park in time for the following season. In that process, the north end of the stadium was removed and replaced by outfield bleachers. The concrete area beyond the outfield was converted into the Grand Entry Plaza, which provides primary access to the park.
The Grand Entry Plaza is a large open-air pavilion between the entry gates and the ballpark itself. It includes a variety of functional areas and fan attractions, including a ticketing area, souvenir shop, restaurants, and a kids' activity area known as Cartoon Network's Tooner Field. The Braves Hall of Fame Museum is adjacent. A large video display atop the souvenir shop ensures patrons won't miss any of the game action, while a raised concrete area in front of the souvenir shop serves as a stage for music groups and other entertainers. The entire area is designed to encourage fans to arrive early and extend their ballpark experience.
The plaza is a popular area for families, but it had outgrown its original audio capabilities over the course of a decade. So during the last off-season, the team decided to upgrade the plaza's audio infrastructure. (Read more about using audio to increase entertainment value in multi-use venues on p. 28.) For the job, the Braves engaged Durrell Sports, a Nashville-based AV integrator that installs, operates, and services audio systems for a wide array of sports stadiums and NASCAR tracks across the country.
“The goal of the project was to provide high-quality audio throughout the Grand Entry Plaza,” says John Horrell, project leader and president of Durrell Sports. “The original sound system didn't accommodate all they were trying to do. The complexity got out of control, and reliability got a little problematic. So they looked to us to come in, update the system, and refine their procedures.”
Over its first decade of operation, the Grand Entry Plaza had evolved to require four possible sound sources, and two separate speaker zones. Source points included the plaza's stage input, the public address system from inside the ballpark, repeating announcements advertising ticketing, and a separate mixing console used for larger productions. Each needed to be routed to either the area's main PA or a separate speaker zone near the ticketing area.
The challenges included the reflective nature of the plaza itself, which is made of concrete, and the fact that the loudspeakers needed to be mounted above the souvenir shop located behind the stage area. The diamond-shaped area created unusual reflection patterns, complicated by the fact that all its surfaces were highly reflective. After running white noise through a known sound system to identify reflective frequencies that would be an issue, Durrell used its measurements to determine the type of speaker system that would be optimal for the facility.
The stage area itself was somewhat problematic. In reality, the “stage” is really just a raised area of concrete in front of the souvenir shop. Being outdoors and lacking natural separation from the audience, the speakers had to be mounted on the steel canopy overhanging the souvenir shop, about 12ft. above and behind the stage area. Another limitation was the fact that there was no space for frontfills. It was also important to avoid aesthetic interference, which meant mounting the speakers on either end of a long ribbon-style message board atop the canopy. Faced with a separation of roughly 125ft. between stacks, this meant the PA system would need a wide horizontal dispersion in order to provide full coverage to the center nearfield area, as well as precise vertical dispersion in order to shoot above the frontline mics and still hit the front of the audience.
Working within these parameters, Durrell picked Renkus-Heinz PNX102/LA outdoor line arrays as the right solution for this challenge.
“The Renkus-Heinz boxes were ideal due to their being outdoor-rated and providing 150-degree horizontal coverage,” Horrell says. “The system has full-range sound, so it easily provides the 105dB of output the Braves had asked for, and also fit the aesthetics of the space very nicely.”
The design called for two stacks of four PNX102/LA speakers. The next issue was to find a secure mounting solution without penetrating the structural I-beams of the canopy. Chris Horrell, Durrell Sports operations manager, handled that task.
His design called for compressing the stacks between two 4in.-wide steel bars connected by a threaded rod. Brackets were constructed of 4"×4" angle stock, allowing the speakers to be hard-mounted as ground stacks using existing mounting points. For coverage, the bottom two speakers were angled slightly downward, while the top two were splayed at zero.
“At [approximately] 100ft. apart, they have enough separation that we could miss the band as much as possible and still have a viable line array,” Chris Horrell says.
After testing and service, it was determined that the existing infrastructure of Crest CKS 1200 and CKS 800 amplifiers was still serviceable after 10 years, making the unpowered version of the PNX102/LA appropriate. To fill out the bottom end, four subwoofers were required. Durrell specified the DAS Sub-218R, powered by Crest Pro 9001 amplifiers and housed within wet-approved cabinets near the big-screen display above the souvenir shop.
Signal routing was the next concern. The existing routing system was housed in a master control room nearly 800ft. from the plaza itself. As a result, the area lacked the flexibility to easily change from source to source as the situation dictated. While not overly complex, the PA system needed enough flexibility to handle everything from a single wireless microphone to a full rock band without a hitch. For this task, John Horrell specified the Shure P4800 digital signal processor.
There might be a band playing before the game, and then during the game, they might have the normal broadcast PA going out there, or maybe a clown might come up and want to use a microphone.
“The ability to select the right inputs just did not previously exist,” John Horrell says. “The P4800 has excellent reliability, and sonically we've found it to be one of the better products out on the market. For the Braves, we just interfaced it with an existing computer system to give them a turnkey routing system. Now they can just use a switch on the wall, and that input becomes hot.”
Behind the scenes, the output from the Shure P4800 goes to the amp rack. The unit provides EQ and delay for fine-tuning the line arrays and also controls the conventional 70V systems in the area, both powered by distributed amplifiers. Usable legacy devices, including a Monster Power Pro 2500 rack power center and Klark-Teknik DN7204 delay/EQ, were retained.
The smaller adjunct outputs included the existing speaker system for ticketing and the outer plaza area, powered by a Crest CKV 1600 amplifier that Durrell reconditioned. A small stage near ticketing was upgraded with three new Community Professional R.5-66TX loudspeakers, powered by a Crown Com-Tech 410 amp.
With this new system in place for the current season, the Braves are now free to schedule whatever entertainment fits the bill, both prior to and during the games. In addition, separate events, such as concerts and private parties, can now be scheduled in the Grand Entry Plaza when the Braves are out of town.
NASHVILLE PREDATORS: MAIN ENTRANCE, NASHVILLE ARENA
Another Durrell Sports customer expanding its horizons is the Nashville Predators, a National Hockey League franchise working to gain fan loyalty in Music City. Formed in 1998, the Predators signify the city's transformation into a major market capable of supporting pro sports franchises. Given their Nashville location, integration of music into Predator game presentations was a natural move.
“We've been doing that since the very beginning,” says Blake Grant, the team's director of technical operations. “We've had a band that plays on a stage above our Zamboni tunnel at every intermission. Live music has been a part of every game since the team's inception.”
Nashville Arena (until recently known as the Gaylord Entertainment Center) is located just across from the famed Ryman Auditorium and only a few blocks from downtown Nashville's many nightclubs. When not being used by the hockey team, the arena hosts a wide variety of other events, including major music concerts, the Nashville Kats Arena Football League team, and special events such as the Country Music Association's CMA Awards and college basketball tournaments.
Near the beginning and end of the hockey season, when the weather co-operates, the Predators partner with Sony BMG Nashville to add an occasional free outdoor concert to the programming. At the arena's main entrance, a concrete apron creates an open area of about half an acre. A raised concrete area of the plaza is used as a stage, and a high-powered portable PA is wheeled in. Inflatable play areas for the kids are also installed, helping promote the team's family-friendly vibe.
For ease of setup for the concert, Durrell Sports uses its BFS301 Rolling Thunder portable PA system at the facility — a self-contained rolling cart originally designed to help NFL teams prepare for games in loud stadiums by simulating crowd noise. The BFS301 offers 15,000W of power capable of producing 137dB of full-range output with built-in peak limiting and a wireless system link.
“We used DAS boxes in designing this system,” John Horrell says. “They provide a lot of energy from a small container. They've been used for concerts, for NFL draft parties, all kinds of uses. It's so easy — you just plug it in, and you've got a sound system.”
An acoustically transparent, weatherproof cover ensures full performance in any weather conditions.
According to Grant, the idea is not only to help ensure a packed stadium, but also to create more excitement.
“The fan experience is very important to us,” he says. “We feel it's very much a part of our product. Of course, it's hockey and the hard-core fans love that, but we understand that it's entertainment at the same time. Our challenge is to keep everyone happy.”
In order to create that excitement in a downtown area as music-centered as Nashville's, the Predators must compete for the entertainment dollar.
“The great thing about these concerts is that they take us outside our four walls. It lets us create excitement as people drive and walk past,” Grant says. “Our fans can come early to enjoy the music, and the inflatables are there for the kids. It encourages people to come early and gets them excited about what's going to happen inside.
“These concerts really do create added value. It's great exposure for the artists, great exposure for the hockey team, and we get to entertain the fans. The expenses we have are shared by Sony, so it's really just good business. The fans win, the team wins, and the artist wins.”
The trend toward expanding entertainment opportunities at sporting events has been slowly growing for several years. All teams are looking for ways to increase the value of tickets without revamping their entire AV systems. Durrell Sports and similar companies answer that need by concentrating on turnkey system design and service for such venues.
According to John Horrell, the opportunity for integrators often lies in maintaining existing systems and making it easier for teams to upgrade.
“As technology changes in our industry, people look to us to upgrade,” he says. “With a lease or maintenance agreement, we can help them do that without a big capital investment. Then you design systems that are turnkey in nature so they'll actually get used.”
When upgrading a typical outdoor facility, Durrell Sports purchases the old equipment, and then looks for other stadiums that can use that equipment as part of a maintenance program. At the same time, it uses IP control to handle preventive maintenance remotely from its Nashville headquarters.
“For instance, here's a trick that Ralph Heinz of Renkus-Heinz taught me,” Horrell says. “Outdoor loudspeakers become frozen and brittle over the winter, because their ferrofluid literally freezes. We'll fire up the stadium system, and just run white noise through them for a couple hours to loosen the speakers back up.”
For outdoor facilities and events, the key element is the ability to provide equipment that will excel despite the ravages of the weather. Fortunately, the industry has taken notice.
“About a year ago, you couldn't find a truly outdoor-rated line array,” John Horrell says. “Then Renkus-Heinz came out with theirs, and we were really impressed. Now, you've got Renkus-Heinz, EAW, and Community, all with good products for outdoor applications. So technology is catching up with the demands.”
From the client's perspective, it's all about finding business partners who can help realize their vision of end-to-end entertainment for customers. As Grant says, “The fan experience is very much a part of our product. They want to make a night of it, and the more memorable we can make it for them, the more likely it is they'll come back.”
Integrators looking for expansion opportunities would be well advised to think of the term “AV” as one with a double meaning — not just audiovisual, but also added value.
For More Information
Community Professional Loudspeakers
D.A.S. Audio, S.A.
Jack Kontney is president of Kontney Communications, a Chicago-based content creation and marketing consultancy specializing in professional audio. He can be contacted at www.kontneycomm.com.
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