The Highest-Tech Stadium in Sports Is Pretty Much a Giant Tesla
For an arena that will soon play host to more than 17,500 fans nightly, the new Golden 1 Center doesn't make a huge first impression. Sacramento Kings owner Vivek Ranadive may have likened his team's new arena to the Roman Colosseum, and it may be a much-needed cultural centerpiece for a city that desperately needs one, but the arena feels almost modest in its proportions.
Except for what's underneath. Construction on the Golden 1 Center began in October 2014 after the city fought successfully to keep the Kings in Sacramento. Eventually Sacramento officials promised $255.5 million to the project, which Kings president Chris Granger says will be a billion-dollar project in all. And a not insignificant amount of that money is going toward building what the team hopes will be the most technologically advanced sports arena ever built.
In addition to the arena, crews are bustling to build a 16-story hotel, an open mall for restaurants and shops, and a plaza on the 1.5 million-square-foot site in the dead center of the city. (If you search Google Maps, the Golden 1 Center is directly underneath the word "Sacramento.") When it's done, the team hopes the arena will feel like not just a place for basketball but a space that's woven into the fabric of the city-not just physically, but digitally.
The challenge with building tech into a project as massive and expensive as a sports arena is that tomorrow's advances become yesterday's relics. Ranadive and company have set themselves the formidable task of not only building today's most up-to-date technology into the Golden 1 Center but creating an edifice flexible enough to adapt to what the future brings. That means building an arena that doesn't just have concrete at its core. It also has code.
One day this fall, here's the way Granger and his team hope you'll spend an evening. You unlock your phone, open up the Kings app, and look for tickets. You buy them (and a parking pass) in the app, which is connected to the team's loyalty program, so you're automatically on the list for last-minute ticket upgrades. As you approach the stadium, your phone buzzes: a notification from the team telling you which lot's the easiest to park in right now. You park, walk up to the arena, scan the ticket displayed on your smartwatch and stroll through the turnstile. Your app guides you to your seat and asks if you want a hot dog or a foam finger. Attendants can bring either one to your seat in a few minutes. You're late, but that's fine; the app has replays and stats. Or you can just look up at the 84-foot (that's foot, not inch) screen that's carefully designed to make sure you can see it perfectly no matter where you are in the stadium. (Or out of the stadium-more on that in a minute.)
'Every single night, your Tesla updates. So we need to have that same philosophy when it comes to our arena.'
If you would rather just watch people play basketball, says Kings CTO Ryan Montoya, that's fine. People experience games, concerts, fights, monster truck rallies, and everything else lots of different ways. But one thing's constant today: people want to stay connected. They want to send and receive texts, snaps, Instagrams, and Ellos. (Probably not so many Ellos.) The arena's job is to enable those connections.
"That's our philosophy," Montoya says, "that the fans would only be limited by their own devices."
So they've run 650 miles of fiber-optic cable and 300-plus miles of copper throughout the arena, and have put hundreds of Wi-Fi access points around the building. "A lot of systems-point of sale systems, building automation-a lot of that gets moved to Wi-Fi because it's so reliable," says Matt Eclavea, the team's vice president of technology. There's a 6,000-square-foot data center in the stadium. Another giant room will house a monstrous DAS (distributed antenna system) that will bring cell service to every nook and cranny of the building. The connection, the team says, will be enough to send 500,000 Snapchats per second. Which is probably enough.
Eclavea and his team have tried at every turn to future-proof their system. "A lot of thought goes into what it'll look like in five years," Eclavea says. "I want to put it in now. It's a lot easier than dealing with sheet rock."
He points to two racks a few feet below the ceiling that run the length of a sparse concrete hallway underneath the seats. These are for carrying an impossible number of cables-not just now but even more years from now. When I ask how much bandwidth he expects a full house will use when the arena opens, he holds up his thumb and index finger, almost touching, and squints through them. "Hardly any." Eclavea says Golden 1 Center's setup has enough headroom for 10, even 20 years of innovation before anything could possibly overwhelm their network. They're working with cutting-edge Wi-Fi standards like 802.11ac, and even truly bleeding-edge ones like small cell networking. "A lot of these things aren't even commercially available," Eclavea says. Given that Qualcomm chairman Paul Jacobs is an investor in the team, and that Ranadive made his fortune in software and analytics, it's not surprising that there's a constant drive toward the next thing.
A fast network that never fails happens to be good for a lot more than just Instagram. Around Golden 1 Center, nearly every object-from the turnstiles that let people in the building to the lines outside the bathrooms to that 84-foot screen-is connected in some way, feeding streams of data back into the system. From a centralized command center in the bowels of the arena, a group of employees will sit at a bank of 20 or so screens and watch everything that's happening everywhere. They'll be able to redirect people to shorter concession lines, stream live video to fans' phones, and run sales on merch when t-shirts just aren't flying off the shelves. Eventually, a sufficiently fast network could even make Golden 1 Center an ideal home for new kinds of events.
"We want to be able to host e-sports, drone racing, and stuff like that," Montoya says, "and for that you need a lot of bandwidth." He mentions how he's seen Tim Cook and others botch demos because of bad Wi-Fi at press events and extends an invitation. "They can come here and launch a product, and it'll work."
The City's Stadium
Beyond the massively torrent-friendly Wi-Fi speeds, Granger seems most proud of the arena's eco-friendly initiatives. He wants to be the first-ever stadium certified LEED Platinum, the industry's highest recognition of environmental friendliness. For starters, Golden 1 Center is entirely solar-powered: panels will cover the roof, and Sacramento's 300 days of sunshine will provide 15 percent of the necessary power. The rest will come from a local solar farm. To conserve water, they're installing low-flow toilets. They're cooling the arena from underneath rather than with giant air-conditioners in the ceiling. (One nifty upside of that feature: Granger says eventually each section will be able to set its own temperature by voting in the app.) Stadium kitchens will source nearly all their food from suppliers less than 150 miles away. Don't worry, you'll be able to get nachos, they'll just be farm-to-table nachos. The Kings want to be good Sacramento citizens, creating a building that represents the people inside.
Even what it means to be "inside" is a complicated question at Golden 1 Center. The whole facade is decorated with small holes that make the building itself feel like a canopy of trees. Giant hangar doors-made by Schweiss Doors, which made something similar for Elon Musk's SpaceX hangars-will fold up at the front of the arena so that anyone outside can see all the way in to the jumbotron. Large, angled windows jut out of the sides of the arena.
"The whole idea is anywhere you are outside, you can see inside," Granger says. "And anywhere you are inside, you can see outside." They're already talking with musicians about what it means to play a concert for the fans both inside and outside the arena. What can you do with the two 25-foot LED screens just outside the front doors? Or the nearly 600 other screens throughout the building? No one knows the answers, because no one's ever had this much tech to play with before.
The Self-Updating Stadium
The "highest-tech stadium" is an award no one ever gets to keep for long, but the Kings are definitely going to get it for a while. Before starting work on Golden 1 Center, the Kings crew toured a number of others, like nearby Levi's Stadium and Amway Arena in Orlando. Both are brand-new, highly connected arenas, and the Kings wanted to outdo both. More bandwidth, more servers, better infrastructure. They wanted a bigger screen than the 160-footer in Dallas Stadium, too, but NBA guidelines wouldn't allow it. Although, Montoya says gleefully, his is higher-res: 32 million pixels compared to 25 million in Dallas. Take that, Jerry Jones.
The team still has lots of ideas, even as we walk through the construction site. The best thing about making so much of the arena's functionality dependent on software is that they can upgrade it later without needing to build anything physically new. Right now, after many years of wrangling and a few of construction, the clock's ticking on Golden 1 Center. No, there's literally a clock, ticking down to the moment Paul McCartney hits the stage on October 4th. When I first meet Montoya, he rattles off that he has 127 days left like it's the only number he can think about. That's 127 days left to build an arena that will last for decades. That will only get better over time. "Let's look at Tesla," Ranadive told his team a while ago. "Every single night, your Tesla updates. So we need to have that same philosophy when it comes to our arena: every single night, the arena updates and improves itself."
If it all works, most fans will never even think about the technology. They'll just come in, easily find their way to their seat, and enjoy the game in any low- or high-tech way they please. Then they'll go home happy, full, and foam-fingered, and Granger, Montoya, and Eclavea will sleep soundly. Though they'll probably put in some more fiber first, just in case.