Asia’s 5G rollout creates ‘game-changing’ opportunities for stadium owners

(David Ramos/Getty Images)

  • Great possibilities in Asia Pacific as 5G antennas are being installed in the region
  • This could revolutionise the experience that savvy arena owners can offer their fans
  • Better quality, and easy-to-access images can make a more lucrative broadcasting deal

Sitting back in your seat and tapping a screen, you order a drink, pull up vital information and watch a video. But you are not sitting on an airplane, you are in a 5G-enabled sports stadium – and probably entered it using your face as your ticket.

The latest wave of mobile connectivity set to sweep Asia-Pacific could revolutionise the experience that savvy arena owners can offer their customers.

“We are exploring in-seat control systems,” says Echo Li Ying, managing director, Greater China, at marketing and entertainment agency Lagardère Sports. “One possibility is similar to being in business class on a flight where you can watch replays, check statistics, order food and more.”

Lagardère is advising a number of local authorities in China on the potential for their stadiums as 5G takes hold. Li believes the next-generation network can solve some of the biggest problems currently facing venue owners.

“Statistics show that a reason a lot of fans don’t go to stadiums is the risk of having two hours without a smooth internet connection,” she says. “They want to share when they are at exciting matches. It may sound minor, but it is a key complaint and 5G can resolve it.

“Another element is when people think their seat is not ideal and they might as well have stayed at home and watched on TV. We have been exploring how 5G technology can enable augmented reality and virtual reality glasses to enhance the viewer experience. You can give the fan an angle from a more desirable seat.”

This is just the tip of the iceberg of possibilities floating towards stadium chiefs as wave after wave of 5G antennas are installed across Asia.

Significantly faster and more reliable mobile data will allow clubs to confidently launch much more powerful apps that connect them with customers long before they reach their seat on a matchday.

“All this will help get fans into stadiums and potentially increase ticket prices,” says Li. “If you look at the Bundesliga, they have full stadia but they are still exploring ways of increasing revenues – using 5G they could offer virtual reality glasses as a premium ticket, for example.”

Global network provider Vodafone is rolling out 5G infrastructure across Asia-Pacific, with New Zealand, Australia and Singapore among those expected to benefit in 2020.

China and Korea have already started building 5G services. Trials were run in Japan at the recent Rugby World Cup. The sport industry is on the cusp of big change.

“5G is one of the most fundamental shifts in the telecoms space in recent years,” says Vodafone head of solution sales, Asia Pacific, Eric Wong.

“It gives us speed, which is a huge element, but actually the game-changer is low latency, which gives a level of reliability and accuracy that enables the network to support life-and-death matters such as autonomous driving and even remote surgery.

“Fan experience and engagement are what everyone in sport are talking about. In Formula E you see driver’s view cameras. In basketball they try to share statistics on a player on-screen or by announcement, but they are limited by the size of the screen and the speed of the play moving on.”

In Formula E fans can watch the action through a driver’s view camera (Photo by FIA Formula E/Handout/Getty Images)

As such, stadiums in the better-connected future could offer fans video and statistics to interact with at their choosing through their mobile phones. But it’s not just enjoyment of the action itself that can be improved by 5G.

“Clubs can manage things like parking space allocation and security using facial recognition technology,” says Wong. “You can have a seamless ticketing entry to the stadium.”

Vodafone is working in partnership with a technology company that offers facial recognition security at entry points to major banks and warehouses. As well as smoothing the arrival process at big events, this system could allow clubs to identify when VIPs turn up at games so they can be welcomed or ushered to a certain area. And there’s more:

“The company we are working with has deployed body-worn cameras for the police in Manilla so officers can recognise someone on a blacklist,” says Wong. “Extending this, stadium security guards could get an alert if a trouble-maker was in the area. Someone who has been banned would not get in. And if the police [decide to] share their database there are other angles such as preventing terrorism.”

Technology enabled by 5G can also benefit stadium owners in the building and maintenance of the arenas themselves. The next-generation network will have capacity for far more devices to connect, allowing sensors in lifts, for example, to let facilities management teams know exactly how they are performing.

Christopher Lee, managing director at Populous (EMEA), says work is “well underway” to allow venues to deliver “more intimate and hi-tech experiences” using better connectivity.

“5G will quite literally be a game-changer for sport,” he says. “The technology opens up a wealth of digital potential, with many in the sport industry viewing it as the key to drawing more people – particularly younger generations – into stadiums than ever before.

“Augmented reality will provide digital layers of additional information over the top of live play, such as the names of players as they run around the pitch. With virtual reality, fans could view ultra-high-definition replays and slow-motion footage of goals, tries or touchdowns all via a headset connected to their smartphone during breaks in play.”

Angela Logothetis, vice-president and head of CTO at software and services provider Amdocs’ Open Network division, says it is hard to comprehend the opportunities on the horizon for sports businesses. Just as no-one imagined the vast app economy before 4G offered high-speed mobile browsing, so it is difficult to predict the next revolution, she says.

“The advent of 5G is a much bigger change than the steps we’ve had from 1G to 4G. It delivers 10 times the speed of 4G; it gives 10 times the capacity and a 30-fold improvement in latency, or speed of response. It can cope with millions of devices trying to connect; it will be more uniform with fewer drop-outs; and the way it works means battery life will be improved.

“Also, 5G is coming at the same time as the arrival of other technological advances – cloud computing, edge computing, artificial intelligence, video processing. Look at it as an ecosystem and you can see 5G is going to be transformative.”

As well as monetising digital services – offering VIP packages including different levels of virtual experience, for example – clubs could benefit from importing data from customers, says Logothetis.

“The stadiums can start to see where people spend time, where to put food and beverage, what to sell when. They can push special offers linked to man of the match jerseys. They can make the event better each time.

“With 5G, everyone becomes a broadcaster. There will be a lot of video uploaded. It can be captured in a mini-cloud and the stadium can give it to the team or fans. Whether through an advertising model or a subscription plan there is an opportunity because they have something people want.”

Competitors play a mobile game during the esports and Music Festival Hong Kong (Photo by Ivan Abreu/Getty Images for Hong Kong Tourism Board)

It’s not just traditional stadium owners who will benefit either.

“Esports is interesting,” says Logothetis. “It is the fastest-growing sport in the world and Asia leads the way. Player devices are starting to use 5G because it gives the ability to run big events without wiring up – you can have an event on the roof. Set-up is quicker and cheaper, and it makes more exciting television.

“In golf, you used to need days laying hundreds of kilometres of cable over a course. Now you can put a 5G camera in every bunker and send the images over the network.”

Better quality, and easier-to-access images can make a more lucrative broadcasting deal – another plus for rights-holders.

The main obstacles standing in the way of the sports business technology revolution are quality of mobile networks and the difficulty of scientifically quantifying the benefits of forthcoming technology in business cases.

But with more than a third of the world expected to have the opportunity to connect to 5G networks by 2025, and trials beginning to take place to prove the willingness of fans to pay for the benefits the network can bring, the direction of travel appears inevitable.

“We can’t predict what sport will look like in five years’ time,” says Logothetis. “But it will be more personalised, more immersive.

“If you’re at the event you will have a more virtual experience; and when you’re away from the event you will feel closer to actually being there.”

Read this: NFL stadiums are key testing ground for 5G mobile rollout in US

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