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Sports venues: complete system integration

Previously we revealed the growing commercial pressures around audio in sports venues, before considering the growth of the stadium sound market. To conclude, Phil Ward looks at how AV and PA-VA systems are being integrated to create the best fan experience, including examples of stadiums taking it to the next level.

Gareth Collyer is VP of the Institute of Sound & Communications Engineers (ISCE) and also Nexo’s sales manager for UK and Ireland. “At the ISCE, our main focus is how we maintain those safety standards with this influx of entertainment systems,” he says. “Safety is the primary requirement, not entertainment. At the same time, we’ve got our eye on the intelligibility of the DJs and so on, and would like to establish some proper training for the sports institutions and clubs.”

Manufacturing in this sector is taking note. Neil Voce is head of business development at voice alarm specialist ASL, and this is a company that has seen the writing on the AV wall, and has strategically added Dante to its systems as a direct consequence. “We offer EN54-qualified solutions, that’s the basic principle,” Voce points out. “Our latest amplification is much more dynamically variable and not just speech-orientated: full bandwidth, good SNR. The Dante compatibility gives the integrator the flexibility to use pro audio front-ends, interchangeable with most products. We’re now typically seeing high-value mixing desks managing the routing and presets, not wall panels, and that Dante network is part of our world – fully monitored and backed up. That’s exactly what we did in the U Arena.”

Opened in 2017 and now called the Paris La Défense Arena, this venue is a state-of-the-art multipurpose domed stadium in Nanterre to the West of Paris, home of rugby union club Racing 92. In a dense suburban setting, the stadium is obliged to combine sporting spectacle and entertainment in the modern way, on match days and between. “The voice alarm is secure and interference-free, but on top of that is a layer of versatile, multipurpose production sound – all managed through AV interfaces that people are familiar with,” confirms Voce.

“In Europe we don’t generally get the same level of integration as North America”
Roland Hemming, RH Consulting

Getting this kind of integration over the line is not easy and, according to Eddie Thomas, VP, Integrated Solutions for SSE Audio Group, pro audio specialists have a crucial role to play. “Consultants vary,” he says. “Some are focused on production sound, like Vanguardia, as well as VA; others are expert in construction and the fabric of the building. It’s all about the fan experience these days, and at SSE we’ve been developing an integration platform over the last few years that we’ve rolled out at the O2 Arena and at Tottenham Hotspur. It allows for quite simple integration of AV and PA/VA systems across the network, via Dante or via core-to-core streaming using our Q-SYS solutions.

“We’ve looked at many different platforms, and Q-SYS is the only one that lends itself to the level of integration that we’re achieving at the moment. It includes lighting control, AV, audio streaming and control… many different elements across the network on a single platform. That really helps with keeping down the commercial costs of the big new stadiums. It also helps with AV integration because, in effect, the AV suppliers are providing screens on the wall, input plates, all going back to their network switches and control systems, and basically we take those audio streams and distribute them via PA/VA loudspeaker zones.

“When you come to design a stadium sound system you’ve got to think about the PA/VA element – the standards, the performance criteria and so on – but also about the method by which the AV systems are going to use the loudspeaker zones. You may have a big PA/VA zone, like a hospitality area, but that may be made up of six different AV zones – all of which may have different content. You have to consider that integration. At Tottenham we have 256 AV zones and, in effect, 23 evacuation zones, and it’s all about how the client wants to use the facilities. They have conferences; they have private boxes with individual AV systems; they have lots of autonomous zones that are part of a bigger PA/VA zone.”

“The stakeholders at Tottenham understand the importance of audio to the atmosphere”
Ryan Penny, Harman

White hot lane
Tottenham Hotspur is a good model for reasons additional to technical ones, according to Ryan Penny, senior manager for entertainment, large venues at Harman in the UK. It is something of a cliché that audio is elbowed out of key decisions in large-scale production, and that therefore stadium and arena projects should guard against excesses of the spectacle that are achieved at the expense of sound. Thanks in part to its NFL commitments – a sport familiar to JBL – alongside the Premier League, Tottenham has imported a sensitivity to production sound that raises the bar.

Picture: Tottenham Hotspur FC via Getty Images

“The stakeholders at Tottenham understand the importance of audio to the atmosphere,” says Penny, who has been a senior consultant at Vanguardia as well as heading the audio team at the Rio Olympics opening and closing ceremonies. “It’s integral to the match experience, and everyone from chairman Daniel Levy down was directly responsible for so many of these elements coming together. They’re in touch with the stadium’s aspirations.

“It varies from club to club, but in general the marketing professionals driving content do value sound. FIFA’s specifications reflect brand standards, too, so there is a shared goal. We just need to demonstrate what good audio is, and align expectations with what people enjoy at home.”

“In Europe we don’t generally get the same level of integration as North America,” agrees RH Consulting’s Roland Hemming. “Sports presentation isn’t as sophisticated, and that impacts upon budgets for high-quality systems, by definition. There are notable exceptions, and where people have invested you see the results: greater fan engagement; longer dwell time; more repeat visitors and so on.”

If a stadium expects concerts, adds Hemming, there are three choices beyond the rental system that rolls in with the act: “Don’t sell the seats where the PA doesn’t reach – costly; put in a delay system for the gig – expensive; or add fixed stadium speakers as delays – rare, as to be powerful enough that’s a big commitment for a few nights a year. Typical VA tops out at 600W, which doesn’t cut it. One beautiful exception is Amsterdam ArenA, where the loudspeaker clusters physically rotate into concert mode. The UEFA consultant calls it ‘the reference’ for audio.”

Take a bow, RH Consulting. And hats off to Amsterdam and Tottenham: who knew that the UEFA Champions League semi-final between Ajax and Spurs was the battle of the integrators? With benchmarks like these we might soon be seeing growth in everyone’s ballpark figures.