CIOs in higher education frequently share their expertise with a wide array of areas on campus. They often act in conjunction with other campus leaders on issues over which they may not have full authority or control. One day that might mean working with the medical school to coordinate fulfillment of high-performance computing technology supporting a research grant. The next day, they might consult with the third parties that operate on-campus dining experiences to coordinate campus ID card changes — updates that affect point-of-sale systems integration. The following day, they might be working on the latest status report for a new enterprise system or on contingencies for a security breach. CIOs definitely have many hats to wear — and on rare occasions, that might even mean a hard hat on a construction site, whether for a new residential building, a new research facility, or a new athletic stadium.
Discover here a tale of two universities — and two stadiums. One university has embarked on the new-stadium journey that the other has just completed. Colorado State University’s Patrick Burns and Baylor University’s Pattie Orr offer thoughts, insights, and discussion about what it means to lead efforts to ensure that technology remains at the forefront in providing an excellent fan experience, along with facilities capabilities to maintain security (physical and digital) and smooth operations for the entire stadium.
Patrick Burns is dean of libraries and vice president for IT at CSU. IT has been involved with facilities projects and the university’s 1968 Hughes Stadium for a long time, he said, running fiber to the stadium six or seven years ago and providing Internet connectivity from the campus network. His group makes sure that all the technology provided for building projects integrates smoothly as essential infrastructure in facilities, “just like electricity and water.”
The planning process for the new stadium has taken three years, with completion expected in time for the 2017 football season. The CSU Board of Governors approved the plan in late 2014, with financing (the sale of revenue bonds) approved the following February. Plans include the addition of an alumni center and academic spaces, and infrastructure improvements by the city of Fort Collins.
IT advised building the best Wi-Fi network affordable, with comprehensive coverage at high density. IT wants to make sure they have ultra-high-speed Internet connectivity to the stadium — “they’re going to need massive capacity” — so it makes sense for the campus to share its Internet connectivity. As Burns noted, “They shouldn't have to buy really, really expensive connectivity for six game days a year.” A special requirement is implementing a huge capacity guest network for Wi-Fi, which must have equally large transport capabilities through the campus LAN and WAN and back to the Internet service provider.
A control station has already been established in the Fum McGraw Athletic Center. As Burns noted, “We need to make sure all that technology can be remotely controlled.” All kinds of issues could come up that require IT involvement, including transport signals and latency. “We want the stadium to be all digitally controlled via Web interfaces — lights, power, video, audio, all of that needs to be digitally controlled.”
Much of the technology infrastructure remains conceptual during these early days of construction. Burns noted that IT staff work closely with facilities architect and faculty member Mike Rush in sketching out what the final technology might look like. But, “At the very least, we're going to recommend putting in the conduits, raceways, switches, and wireless so we can expand it and connect the Internet of Things” in the future.
Dan Loosbrock works for ICON Venue Group, which CSU hired as the contractually designated representative (more commonly known as an owner's representative) for the multipurpose stadium. He observed that CSU’s most common theme is the fan experience. Some aspects include the LED video board, measuring 38 feet by 68 feet with 16-millimeter resolution — “on the cutting edge as far as the resolution,” said Loosbrock.
Fascia display boards run at each end of the stadium, about 360 linear feet, with 20-millimeter resolution video display as well. Returning to the fan focus, Loosbrock said the group is trying to add in a distributed antennae system to enhance and allow for cellular coverage within the stadium.
CSU also has plans to instrument the stadium for academic purposes and research, said Burns. One example involves putting strain gauges in the facility to study the stress, strain, and loads during games. “We're thinking about monitoring water usage and gray water recycling, sound control, and remediation,” Burns said. “Those are some academic things that we're thinking of trying to get faculty interested in.”
The Information Science and Technology Center (ISTeC), directed by Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering Ed Chong, in early 2015 established a Vertically Integrated Project (VIP) team of students and faculty to unite undergraduate education with faculty research interests, which could include work on stadium-based academic projects. According to Chong, ISTeC deals with all aspects related to information science and technology, ranging from research to teaching and outreach. Members of ISTeC come from all colleges of the university, including Computer Science and Engineering, Liberal Arts, College of Business, Veterinary Medicine, and Education and Applied Human Sciences. As he explained, “Our definition of information science and technology includes the design and innovative application of computer communication and information systems.”
Students in the VIP program can apply for stadium-related projects, which might involve customizing web portals to replay major events on the field, deliver video content, post players statistics, and present other data to viewers. They will get to develop code, said Chong, both for the server and clients.
Chong noted that ISTeC has shared recommendations for the kind of power and communication infrastructure that VIP will need to carry out academic studies in the stadium. This includes space for instrumentation and IT infrastructure — rooms for servers, for example — or high-speed connections between the stadium and offsite servers. Optical fiber is one option. Other considerations involve levels of power available for researchers and locations of power outlets where they might be needed. As Chong said, “We want to have power-sensing instruments in the stadium.” The recommendations from ISTeC affect not just running the stadium but also supporting the kind of research the VIP team will propose as it matures.
Chong’s recommendations affect the new stadium’s ability to support research and other academic uses of the facility. As he observed, most stadiums would not include the additional power outlets, non-standard power levels, academic spaces, and sensors required for proposed research projects. These capabilities should go into the technology infrastructure plan for the new stadium, which is still in development, but must also be approved by the main stakeholders and garner the levels of investment needed for implementation.
Loosbrock recommended engaging not just stakeholders but also those who don't have a direct say or a direct line of responsibility. “You still want to make sure they get involved and understand what's going on,” he said. They need to understand the project and the benefits that will come with it.
Burns had three recommendations for others planning similar projects, based on CSU’s experience to date.
Loosbrock reiterated that the CSU stadium is actually a multipurpose facility. The university is evaluating other sports that could be played within the stadium, and administration offices will be housed within the confines of the building, along with space for alumni and some academic activities. Know what you want to get out of your planned stadium, advised Loosbrock, and understand the ultimate experience you want people to have, not just at games but also at other stadium-based events. “That'll help dictate size, and that'll help dictate price, and that'll help dictate a lot of things to make it a successful project,” said Loosbrock.
“It's an exciting and interesting time,” Burns concluded. “We fully intend to do well, do good, and have fun doing this.”
According to Pattie Orr, vice president for IT and dean of libraries at Baylor University Libraries, and Bob Hartland, associate vice president of IT infrastructure, the two year timeline for the stadium build created a unique set of constraints — that’s an aggressive timetable for a small building, not to mention a stadium. The time limit certainly stretched their ability to multitask, but with a good mix of partners, they wanted to seize the opportunity.
High-profile projects can be years, even decades in the making — and they’re designed to last for decades longer. It’s uncommon for IT departments to get this type of exposure and be able to contribute in such interesting ways to an athletics facility. In many ways, building a new stadium serves as a microcosm of the CIO experience.
"A stadium is really like a city. It needs everything, and everything — almost — is driven by IT. The security cameras, the elevators, the HVAC, the digital signage, the TVs/cable, the vendors for point of sale, the ticketing, the scanning of tickets, the Wi-Fi, the media and their special tech needs, social media, our In-Game app, the video production room, etc. ... I could go on and on." ~ Pattie Orr
Balancing projects and tasks when IT staff still have a university to support is a major challenge, requiring careful prioritization of the competing demands. The new stadium was meant to host not just sporting events but also year-round special events, to house the Baylor bookstore and the Baylor Club, and to sell Baylor gear. Uncertainty about exact specifications also demanded flexibility.
Why do stadiums and other large physical properties often get built on time (and on budget), whereas projects like enterprise resource planning systems and other major change initiatives seem more prone to failure? Is one type of project treated more rigorously than the other? Do brick-and-mortar projects have unique attributes not found in technology implementations? Do they have characteristics that make them less prone to scope creep, squishy deadlines, or stakeholder demands for more involvement?
Orr believes that the talent and experience of the architectural firm, Populous, were critical, along with the technical project managers who helped facilitate the project. She noted that an academic project can sometimes have a different set of challenges. With academic projects that span multiple colleges, sometimes aspirations diverge, and many stakeholders need to weigh in. That can introduce uncertainty and risk. As Hartland ruefully said, “Scope creep is a risk for any type of project.” With the stadium, however, Orr and Hartland were careful to distinguish between “first game” requirements and what they could phase in later on, which helped in setting priorities and keeping to the schedule.
The campus team worked with two types of vendors: vendors that were already long-term campus partners and new vendors. The team spent time getting to know the new vendors, meeting with them on a regular basis throughout the project. At the very beginning of the project, Orr began talking with the CIO of the group that was going to manage the stadium. Because vendors often have policies of their own on information security or performance standards, she said, it was critical that the campus CISO, the vendor CISOs, the network staff, and the CIOs sort out various disagreements.
One issue in particular required a lot of coordination: the Wi-Fi used by the various vendors. The IT team members wanted to avoid having vendors bring in Wi-Fi that might conflict or cause a lot of crossover between systems. “That was a tough one,” said Orr, “but we did in the end work through it with them.... You almost always can find a way if there's a will to do that.”
“The group managing our stadium has done many, many professional events,” continued Orr. Their CIO had a lot of advice on what to build into the stadium to support outside groups like concerts, which eliminates major technology set-ups prior to different events — the technology is already there.
“The Baylor In-Game app is a lot of fun,” said Orr. “We've actually had over 28,000 downloads of our app, which we thought was terrific for that first year.” The most popular feature, by far, is "At the game." Users can access an interactive site to get directions for parking, for example, or to find specific bricks in the stadium (thousands of bricks, with inscriptions from the contributors, were dedicated at the stadium’s opening August 31, 2014).
Other app features that garnered fan approval include the video coverage. Six cameras provide different angles, with one supplying the big screen and five others covering various parts of the field. Instant replay proved popular as well, showing major plays like touchdowns or field goals. Orr particularly likes “Keepsakes,” which lets fans take a photo of themselves, then add a digital image like a helmet or a jersey. At times like homecoming, fans can put a special frame around their photos and send them to friends or post them to social media.
To monitor the technologies throughout the stadium and facilitate security and crowd control, the Game Day Management Center keeps 30–40 people at a time on-site, said Hartland. The control center is managed by several key partners: Baylor Athletics, the Texas Department of Public Safety, The McLennan County Sheriff’s Office, and the Baylor Department of Public Safety. Also involved are concessions, cleaning, and facilities services. As Hartland explained: “It's neat having everybody in that one center, so literally any question that might be called in, any issue that may be reported, all the expertise is there to jump on it quickly and deal with it efficiently.”
Orr and Hartland mentioned the Wi-Fi coaching program as a key factor in making the technology implementation in the facility a successful experience for fans. The idea of using Management Information Systems students as coaches came up as the team approached the Wi-Fi rollout. MIS professor, Dr. Hope Koch, said that Orr and Becky King, associate vice president for IT and deputy CIO, contacted her because “they needed people with nice personalities [who] understood technology to work with the fans.” Koch explained that MIS blends business and technology: “Our students know the technology, but they also know that you have to help people with the technology, and they’re pretty people-focused.... Dean Orr contacted us … and said that she would like our students to become Wi-Fi coaches at the stadium.”
Amanda Best and Jamison Venegas, two of the student Wi-Fi coaches, explained that their excitement about the coaching opportunity arose largely because no university had ever done something this before. Professional sports, yes, but university-wide sports, no. One of the restrictions was that the coaches weren’t allowed to touch anyone’s phones to fix problems for fans; they had to talk people through solutions. Venegas’s concern about checking Wi-Fi access eased when he learned that a group made up of the Wi-Fi coaches and ITS staff would use WhatsApp Messenger as a communication platform, with the coaches reporting places in the stadium that had faulty Wi-Fi connections, and the ITS network managers fixing them in real time.
Best observed that during the first two football games of 2014, many of the people they helped simply didn’t realize that Wi-Fi was available. The number of people at the first game challenged the new coaches, as did dead access points that the IT support staff in the control center had to reboot. The student section in particular suffered from connectivity issues because of the heavy use. By the second game, Best noted, more access points had been added. Two-person coaching teams walked the concourse to help people until the end of halftime at games. Halfway through the season, the IT staff released “Tweet your Wi-Fi coach” on Twitter and established a Wi-Fi support email account. Best observed, “[These] allowed us to go specifically to the seats where people were having issues.” She particularly appreciated growing with her team: “I got to polish a lot of my skills.”
After each football game, ITS debriefed the student coaches, explained Koch. “They talked about what went well and what didn't go well, so it was like an agile environment. Every week the students would try some new things to solve the problems that the fans had. It was a real partnership with information technology services.”
Orr saw other benefits from using student coaches: “I think our students also learned a lot about how hard it is to support someone when they’re unhappy that things just aren’t working on their phone.... It was a great experience and a great way to connect a project that we would normally think of as strictly a sports entertainment project to the academic mission.”
Venegas shared some statistics about the service, noting that in early games, his team of two coaches solved about 10–12 problems per game, a number that later dropped to 5–8. He said that on average, 14,000 people connect to the network and 10,000 people use the In-Game app, numbers they can track.
With so many people attending events at the stadium and using the network and app, how does Baylor balance the needs for privacy, security, and network performance in the stadium’s integrated systems?
Orr noted that the Baylor team worked closely with all the vendors to be sure that everything would be secure on its network and that the vendors understood what needed to be set up for security. Doing so required diligence: “It was a lot of work.”
Hartland felt that one of the biggest takeaways from the stadium project is the need to have good partners. Having good partners, he explained, allowed IT team members to offload many of the things they would otherwise have taken on themselves.
Scope creep, a particular concern, generated a discussion whenever it loomed. The team categorized what the stadium required for the first-game rollout and what could be phased in later if needed. This prioritization process helped the team stay on track.
The number of attendees expected for events also raised issues. As Hartland noted: “We have large classrooms, but none of them seat 45,000 people.” This high density posed unique problems, particularly for the Wi-Fi access points, which would experience loads and signal interference never seen on campus. They took lessons learned from the technology deployment at McLane stadium, said Hartland, and are now applying them to some of the larger classrooms on campus. That positive takeaway benefits the university’s academic mission.
The high-density environment challenged the IT team, although Hartland said the sophisticated management system, trained personnel, and monitoring systems helped the team address multiple sectors at once. On the other hand, he admitted that team members encountered situations they had not anticipated. Recall the student coach’s story about complaints from the student sector regarding connectivity during the opening game? “For the life of us, we just couldn’t understand why they were not getting as good of coverage as we were seeing throughout the rest of the stadium,” said Hartland. The IT staff deployed their “Wi-Fi SWAT Team” to go check the signal and determine the problem. “What we didn’t anticipate was fans standing on their seats,” literally blocking the signal, Hartland said. For the next game, they had to move the antennas serving that section to a higher elevation. The main benefit from that situation was the demonstration of IT’s flexibility: “Our design was flexible enough to recover from something like that, but I would have to admit, I did not anticipate that issue coming up.”
Student Wi-Fi coach Best had her own take: “Sometimes even if you don't have the right answer, just being there gives people that comfort. That was something that I learned that I can take on into the future, because I'm also one of those people … I'm going to find the answer for you.”
Hartland had clear advice on what campuses need when tackling a large building project: “good partnerships, a well-defined goal and objective of what you want to do, determination, and a clear line of sight to what you’re trying to achieve.”
Koch expressed her satisfaction with the student coaches’ excitement about taking on a new role and being part of a major university initiative: “They like what they got to learn and how it developed their skills.” Her advice for other campuses using students in the design of Wi-Fi programs? “Giving the students special uniforms and letting them into the football games for free, that was a real bonus in terms of motivating them.” She added that the skills they learned will serve them well when they move into their careers.
Orr found the help from other CIOs, in both the NFL and higher education, especially valuable: “We had a CIO support group.” Those CIOs whose campuses were building or renovating stadiums talked regularly and shared their experiences. “The colleagues in our community have been very helpful.”
Whether a campus builds a stadium, events center, library, or other large facility, technology has an important role in serving future users. At a minimum, Wi-Fi availability and a strong, reliable network provide a key tool to enrich and expand the user experience.
"At the end of the day, it's helping the fans, making sure that they get to experience the Wi-Fi and making sure that they leave happy after watching the game." ~ Jamison Venegas
The same could be said of student teams working in the campus library or faculty demonstrating molecular structures in a virtual reality theater. Given the investment of limited budget funds and staff time in these large projects, a major goal is to create a facility that serves the institution not just today but years into the future, at the highest level of quality the project can reasonably achieve.
A new stadium especially raises excitement in the campus community, with members anticipating their future uses of the facility. Getting to the opening requires staff and vendors to communicate well and frequently about assumptions and expectations, along the way addressing challenges that come from multiple directions. No single path leads to a successful project, however. In this tale of two university stadiums, CSU has chosen to add technology as feasible, whereas Baylor integrated technology from the earliest stages of the design. As different as the results may be, both universities have the satisfaction of scoring a win: building stadiums that will serve their stakeholders well, now and into the future.
Many thanks to Colorado State University and Baylor University staff, students, and vendors for their assistance in telling this story of two university stadiums. Special thanks to Patrick Burns, dean of libraries and vice president for IT, CSU; Ed Chong, professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering, CSU; Dan Loosbrock, ICON Venue Group; Pattie Orr, vice president of IT and dean of the Baylor University Libraries; Bob Hartland, associate vice president of IT Infrastructure, Baylor; and student coaches Amanda Best and Jamison Venegas, Baylor. Their willingness to share their personal experiences with their respective stadium projects adds a human dimension to these major facilities projects.
© 2015 EDUCAUSE. Published September 28, 2015
This EDUCAUSE Review article is licensed under Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 4.0 International.