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One-on-one: Stephen Gough, CEO, Melbourne Cricket Club

Stephen Gough, CEO of Melbourne Cricket Club, discusses the technology infrastructure upgrades being made to Melbourne Cricket Ground

 

Melbourne Cricket Club (MCC) is currently deep into a major AUS$45m (US$35m) investment into Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG), the venue it has managed and operated since 1853. Following the start of an AUS$8m (US$6.2m) sustainability project with Siemens last May, which the club hopes will result in the MCG generating enough energy savings annually to power 835 houses, its CEO Stephen Gough announced in early February plans to transform the world’s 13th-largest stadium into one of Australia’s most technically advanced and connected sports venues.

Working with Cockram Construction, IBM and Cisco, MCC is promising to deliver a range of technology infrastructure upgrades, including a super-fast, secure, high-density wi-fi network in and around the stadium; a state-of-the-art exterior LED lighting system that will enable teams to personalize and theme the stadium for their fans; a best-of-breed Internet Protocol Television (IPTV) system to deliver digital content to high-definition displays throughout the MCG, displaying information as it happens; and best-in-class facilities for media and broadcasters that will enable faster supply of event content.

Speaking exclusively to Stadia, Gough discusses the finer details of these upgrades, including how it will improve the game-day experience at MCG, the true cost of the project, and what might be next for the venue.

How long have these technology upgrades been in development?
It goes back to 2011 when we started looking at stadium-wide wi-fi networks, mainly because of the demand from patrons. We then spent a lot of time traveling overseas and talking to people at venues such as AT&T Stadium, MetLife Stadium, Yankee Stadium, Emirates Stadium and Staples Center, to name a few, to look at what was an appropriate long-term solution for us, particularly given the size of the MCG.

How much have these technology infrastructure upgrades cost?
The very first one was the two new Daktronics vision boards, which are the largest in Australia and cost about AUS$6m (US$4.7m); then the rest of it is made of around AUS$15m (US$11.7m) for the build, consultants, integration and the commissioning; about AUS$7m (US$5.5m) on the integrated network upgrades and our production room to drive all of this out; about AUS$3m (US$2.3m) for wi-fi; AUS$2m (US$1.5m) for the IPTV; and about AUS$1.5m (US$1.1m) spent on TV monitors around the stadium.

When will these solutions be put into operation?
The two new scoreboards went in a year ago, however the rest will be rolled out across 2015. The exterior LED lighting pack is planned for the end of April, the wi-fi and IPTV probably toward the end of the year, maybe heading into the Boxing Day test. To supplement the connectivity in the stadium, one of the issues we’ve had is with our telcos, and so we’re looking with the telcos at a DAS system just to help with our traffic. Hopefully that’ll be in by mid-2015. We think that with an expanded phone network with a large wi-fi, we should be in a better position to overcome the frustrations experienced by fans on match days.

Which of the upgrades has proven the most challenging to develop?
Wi-fi. When you look at an existing stadium and try to factor in getting coverage without interfering with another section of the stadium, that’s without a doubt been the biggest challenge. How do you make sure the signals get through blocks with overhanging concrete and steel? There aren’t many stadia the size of the MCG where we’ve been able to look at successful case studies of this issue. That said, the AT&T Stadium and Levi’s Stadium are examples of where the owners went in to try to provide full wi-fi coverage in what are very large capacity stadia. And while they were both new-builds, lessons from those guys have been pretty important to us in understanding the difficulties in getting coverage, particularly for concurrent users.

Which of these upgrades are you most excited to put into operation?
Well, the easiest one was putting in the big new scoreboards! They make a massive impact when fans see them, especially after the very small ones we had in previously. But I think the wi-fi network is going to be very exciting once its up and running. That’s where we’re probably going to get the most positive reaction from fans. It’s certainly the one we’re banking on.

How far outside the stadium will fans be able to get online before entering the MCG?
At this stage, we think it’ll just be within the stadium. So, as soon as you enter the gates it should become visible. We’re going to have about 700 antennas located throughout the stadium, so the network should allow for 25% concurrent connections for downloading and 75% open connections.

What type of digital content will be delivered via the IPTV system?
We think its got great advantages across a whole range of areas. From a stadium operations point of view, you can certainly get your messages out there, including commercial offers. We predominantly host both Australian football and cricket, and we can work with those clubs to tailor messages and commercial offers. Particularly in an AFL sense, you can dress the stadium in the home colors and can do more by using the IPTV in that way. That’s something that the clubs are keen to do with it.

Is this the first stadium in Australia to offer this service?

It’s something that’s starting to happen in Australia. I know Adelaide has looked at it and it’ll be part of Perth’s new stadium. I think just about everyone is trying to find a way to transform their stadium to meet the home team’s requirements.

What will the next phase of upgrades to the MCG include?
The technology infrastructure upgrade has been a big part of the overall project to improve the stadium and the next big one is to enhance the link between our location on the edge of the central business district with that of the Rod Laver Arena. Essentially, we have two major sporting arenas, or precincts, in the same area. So, the next stage will be how we link those areas and take it to another level as one of the world’s great sporting precincts. What that will be we’re not sure yet, but it’s certainly on our radar. We’re starting a feasibility study this year to look at the possibility of connecting the two areas over the railway track that currently separates the two venues, parkland and the city. There are many possibilities of what we could do. For example, from a broadcasting point of view, each venue currently has its own broadcasting center, so we could maybe get away with one and share the infrastructure.

What’s it been like to work with multiple companies on this project, especially during the Cricket World Cup?

This was one of the real challenges. Cockram Construction won the tender as the head contractor because one of their top guys had some experience with London 2012 and had seen a fair bit of connectivity work that had gone on there. So they had a good feel for this technology. The issue then was that we needed a head technical contractor to work under Cockram, which IBM won the tender for. IBM then subcontracted Cisco to provide the services and products, so the process has not been without its challenges, particularly in terms of figuring out how you contract in this model and how you ensure accountability across all of the elements. That’s then compounded by the fact that you’re trying to undertake works in a stadium that must stay operational – especially at the moment when we have the Cricket World Cup on and are doing preliminary work in between matches. This is difficult because there was a lot of overlay work that came in under the ICC banner that had to be dealt with prior to the event. There are different rules; we virtually hand the stadium over to the ICC and have to operate it on behalf of the ICC.

What advice would you give to venues looking to implement similar solutions?

Talk to and look at all the places that develop this technology and learn as much as you can. Get an understanding of who the vendors are and, particularly, separate the sales talk from the actual delivery. That’s where you need to see on-the-ground experience of the vendors delivering for stadia.

 

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