Why So Many Stadiums Are Racing to Install 5G, Even With Live Events Paused

From marketing boasts to gaming revenues, venues are seeing the future in millimeter waves

Technicians spent three years designing and installing the 5G infrastructure in the new SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles. SoFi Stadium, Vantage Point Global, Inc.

If there is a such thing as a god of sports fans, it’s arguable that he had a hand in the blueprints for SoFi Stadium.

Los Angeles’ brand new, 3.1-million-square-foot, indoor-outdoor venue has—in addition to the Rams and the Chargers—more amenities than a decent Caribbean resort. The 80 million pixels of its Oculus 4K video board can dazzle the house’s 70,000 fans with 120 yards of moving imagery and 260 speakers’ worth of sound. The translucent roof canopy of ethylene tetrafluoroethylene keeps the expanse naturally cool even as it bathes the field in California sun.

For those who can afford more than just a seat, there are no fewer than 260 luxury suites, including a three-story “beach house,” field-level “bungalows” complete with huge sofas, and a 75,000-square-foot Executive Club with marble-paneled elevators and four bars, one each for wine, tequila, whiskey and champagne.

But the amenity that’s likely to please the greatest number of fans is one that none of them will be able to see.

It’s SoFi’s 5G network, the chief component of a two-stack matrix (the other is Wi-Fi 6 wireless broadband) that, once fans are finally allowed into the house at some point in the post-Covid future, will tickle them with a 2.5-gigabit-per-second data transmission speed that’s faster than the services in 99% of households in the United States.

While the millimeter-wave spectrum might be invisible, the behind-the-scenes infrastructure needed to make it work is not. Building and installing the distributed antenna system needed to make 5G a reality in a stadium whose seating can be expanded to 100,000 is a job that consumes each working day for SoFi’s chief technology officer Skarpi Hedinsson.

“It is one of the most difficult things from a technology standpoint,” Hedinsson told Adweek. “[The] infrastructure is so dense; it’s so large. We’ve been working on the wireless and 5G infrastructure for three years solid, from designing it to engineering it to procuring the equipment, installing it and fine tuning it. It’s an enormous investment.”

Hedinsson won’t put a dollar figure on just what kind of investment it is, but seeing as the stadium’s price tag hovers around $5 billion, it’s fair to say it’s not cheap. Nothing in this place is.

SoFi is part of a small but slowly growing vanguard of large arenas committing themselves to 5G broadband. On Feb. 8 of last year, AT&T Stadium claimed to be the first big venue to adopt it, even though the coverage was “limited.” Not to be outdone, Verizon announced that its own 5G network would be up and running in 13 NFL stadiums that same Sunday, though the NFL’s communications office similarly conceded that the “service will be concentrated in parts of the seating areas,” and not everyplace. “Having this cutting-edge technology in our stadiums will greatly enhance the game-day experience and bring a multitude of benefits to our fans,” NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said in a statement.

AT&T Stadium, home of the Dallas Cowboys, was the first mega-venue to get 5G, which also powers the “AR Immersive Columns” inside.Getty Images, AT&T

At press time, Verizon reported that the number of arenas it’s wired for 5G has now grown to 43, including New Orleans’ Mercedes-Benz Superdome, Citi Field in New York, and Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wis.

There’s nobody who wouldn’t like data speeds to be a little faster, of course, and stadium owners—in the endless game of one-upmanship they play with one another—are always happy for a new perk to talk about. But 5G, for now at least, is a technology still in its early stages. As SoFi’s experiences make clear, it is also a costly and complicated one to install. And with some analysts predicting that in-person events won’t fully return until 2022, it’s an investment that won’t start paying for itself for many months. A key question, then, is whether stadiums racing to install 5G should do it simply because fans will expect it or because it will provide venue owners and teams with concrete revenue and marketing benefits.

As it turns out, the answer is a little of both.

80,000 little marketers

While experts like to speculate on all of the yet-to-be-invented technologies 5G will enable, the most immediate benefits are the obvious ones. Even though they’re paying big bucks to attend a live event, fans still love to be in the virtual world simultaneously, opening their social media accounts to share content in real time. But when too many people log in, the standard 4G LTE widely in use now struggles under the demand.

“Bandwidth usage on 4G within an 80,000-seat stadium creates more latency; 5G will help deal with that,” observed Matthew J. Quint, director of Columbia University’s Center on Global Brand Leadership. While older fans may be content to simply watch the action, today’s typical attendee at a sporting event is increasingly a multitasker who is “on social media or on a sports website looking at stats and data, or sharing information about being at the game, or chatting with people on Twitter,” Quint said.

Kenneth L. Shropshire, the Adidas distinguished professor of global sport at Arizona State University, believes 5G will enable the rise of what he calls the “three-screener” fan. “You have the game, the scoreboard and whatever you get on your phone,” he said. “Or you have four different devices, or whatever it might be. So it enhances the viewing experience in a way that differentiates it from the viewing experience at home.”

Enabling greater connectivity doesn’t just make fans happier; it’s ultimately better for the venue. “Social media is basically turning our guests into sort of mini media empires,” SoFi’s Hedinsson said. “They are tweeting. They’re posting. In the stadiums, the upload is more important than the download.”

The invisible amenity

Right now, fans who grow bored sitting in their seats between plays are bound to whip out their phones anyway. But with 5G, there is the potential to get far more out of those little screens, including what Verizon’s chief media officer John Nitti calls “immersive experiences and additional in-stadium enhancements”—euphemisms, essentially, for augmented reality.

On Jan. 30, 2020, fans got to try out the 5G at Miami’s Hard Rock Stadium at the after party for the gamer event Twitch Rivals: Streamer BowlGetty Images

“What we’re talking about is: I can hold the phone up to the playing field with live action and there’s data overlaid on those players in real time,” explained Mario Natarelli, managing partner of branding agency MBLM. “Or I’m looking at multiple camera angles or historical playback. There’s a zillion things that we can’t even dream of that will enhance that experience.”

It’s logical that fans having a better experience might well spend additional money inside the venue, but 5G is also instrumental in upping the odds that they will by enabling targeted advertising in real time. In its basic form, that means reminding fans that there’s a snack bar nearby or sending them a message about what’s on the menu. But at SoFi Stadium, Hedinsson is excited about the direct-to-fan outreach he can do while guests move around the facility.

“If you are walking through our stadium,” he said, “and you come across a space like our SoFi Circle or our Pepsi Activation area, as soon as you step foot into that, we can deliver your message right there and then with an offer. ‘We see you’re here! We’re happy to have you! Here is a coupon for a two-for-one on Pepsi! Sign up for a SoFi credit card today and get 10% off purchases!’ Things like that. So the 5G network, with its lower latency [and] its higher capability, opens up this broad world of applications that we can do.”

Place your virtual bets

There’s something else 5G lets people do, though it’s a little more controversial than buying a beer. It’s gambling—or as the industry prefers to call it, gaming. Right now, sports betting is legal in 18 states, but very few of those states allow fans to place bets using their mobile devices. That restriction, however, is slowly loosening, and everyone from venue owners to e-bookies are jockeying for position.

Joe Favorito, a veteran sports publicist who teaches sports marketing at Columbia University, said that since a growing number of sports bets are placed while the game is in progress—betting on, say, whether a batter strikes out or a field goal will be good—only 5G will do.

“You need a clear, secure signal,” he said. “If you’re going to bet during games, there cannot be any latency. You can’t get an unfair advantage of the guy sitting or the woman sitting two seats from you because you’re getting better Wi-Fi than than he or she is.” Once 5G is more widespread and more states approve mobile betting (there are currently only three), Favorito predicts there will be “millions of points where you will be able to bet.”

The advantages here go well beyond giving fans another way to entertain themselves, since the gaming fees will flow into many different corporate coffers. “The upside is the money that the provider will be making on transactions,” Favorito said. “There’ll be millions of dollars in transaction fees for both the team and the league, depending on what the structure is.”

The foreseeable future

One of the business buzzwords you’ll hear bandied about these days is “future-proofing,” which means adopting measures and practices now that will enable a brand to be competitive down the road. It’s also a reason venue owners cite for adopting the technology now, even though 5G-enabled smartphones made up only 14% of those sold this year, according to Counterpoint Research, and only 20% of the world’s internet connections will be 5G by 2025, according to mobile operator trade group GSMA.

Apple’s iPhone 12 hit the market in October, but only a fifth of phones being made right now are 5G enabled.Getty Images

SoFi’s Hedinsson, for one, isn’t worried about that slow adoption rate. “We are building [our 5G system] for the next decades. In the future, whether it’s five years from now, eight years from now, sort of all of the carrier equipment and all of the devices will then migrated to 5G,” he said. “We’re not building this stadium for 2020. We are simply opening it in 2020.”

“Obviously, there’s the ‘we’re-cutting-edge and we’re-ahead-of-the-curve’ marketing and branding benefit for those people in their audience,” added Quint. “[But] this is preparation for the future.”

Yet even assuming that the world adopts 5G quickly, the marketing and branding benefits of 5G aren’t entirely clear cut. This is because stadiums aren’t like, say, cruise ships or hotels—venues that a consumer can freely select based on amenities. If a Boston fan wants to watch the Red Sox play a home game, he has no choice but to go to Fenway. A Justin Bieber fan who lives in Las Vegas and wants to catch his 2021 tour will have to buy a ticket for T-Mobile Arena, since the Biebs isn’t playing anywhere else in the state. In other words, you’re never going to hear anyone say: “Let’s go to XYZ Stadium tonight, since they have 5G!”

But that doesn’t mean 5G doesn’t have genuine branding benefits for arenas. It’s just that the benefits work more in the direction of building a favorable impression of the venue over the long haul. Quint posited that if a fan comes to an arena to watch his home team play and enjoys the 5G along with the other perks—decent food, good sight lines—perhaps he’ll be more likely to buy a T-shirt from the gift shop, or maybe he’ll pop for a 10-pack of tickets next season.

@UpperEastRob robert.klara@adweek.com Robert Klara is a senior editor, brands at Adweek, where he specializes in covering the evolution and impact of brands.