FutureStructure

New Sacramento, Calif., Arena Combines Silicon Valley Innovation with Smart Infrastructure

Vivek Ranadive, owner of the Sacramento Kings, is excited to unveil the team's new arena fit with smart turnstiles, plenty of bandwidth and sensors that let guests know which bathroom has the shortest line.

by Dale Kasler, The Sacramento Bee / September 28, 2016
Artists rendering of the new arena in downtown Sacramento, Calif. Witter/Sacramento Kings

(TNS) -- Vivek Ranadive is a creature of Silicon Valley. He built two successful software companies, wears an Apple watch and last year took his employees on a tour of Tesla’s electric car factory. He seeks advice from the man who designed the computer mouse for Steve Jobs.

So it’s no wonder the chairman of the Sacramento Kings has produced what he calls “the Tesla of arenas” – a building where fans can use a cellphone app to order food from their seat, summon Uber for a ride home or find the bathroom with the shortest line. Eventually, Ranadive hopes to install facial recognition technology that would eliminate the need for tickets – digital or otherwise.

“It’s a technology marvel,” he said.

Golden 1 Center, built for an eye-popping $557 million, will be one of the most high-tech sports facilities anywhere. Fans will speed through “smart turnstiles” to enter and tap their cellphones to find their seat. Tweeting and posting photos to Instagram should be a breeze; the arena comes with enough bandwidth to support a stadium four times as big. And don’t worry about getting a headache from staring at the world’s largest indoor video scoreboard; it was designed by a Walt Disney Co. engineer to minimize eye movement.

Opening with a pair of Paul McCartney concerts Oct. 4 and 5, the downtown arena is an extension of Ranadive’s worldview. An electrical engineer by trade, he is fascinated with the newest, greatest and most advanced. Golden 1 is state of the art, and then some.

In the hands of a non-tech owner, “I think it would be a 20th-century structure,” Ranadive said. “The way a non-tech guy would do it, they would just try to do everything the same.”

Golden 1 will surely be different. Start with the Kings’ new smartphone app, which fits hand in glove with the new arena. Unveiled last week, the app will let fans dial up live-streamed video of the Kings in action from multiple angles, and make friendly, non-cash wagers as the game progresses. Team merchandise and food can be delivered to them, whether they’re lounging in a luxury suite or sitting in the nosebleed seats, Ranadive said.

“All of the resources of the arena are at their fingertips with the touch of a button on their iPhone or on their Android,” Ranadive said.

Even the stuff that seems low-tech at first blush fits into Ranadive’s obsession with bigger and better. Take the 40-foot-high aircraft hangar doors that loom over the arena’s main entrance, which can be left open during games and concerts. Though the Kings haven’t decided when to deploy them – plenty of details have to be worked out first – Ranadive loves the idea of several thousand spectators watching an event from the exterior of what Ranadive calls the world’s first “indoor-outdoor arena.”

Ranadive noted the doors were manufactured by the same company that built the hangars at SpaceX, the private space-launch company founded by Tesla’s Elon Musk.

“It’s part of my technologist thing,” Ranadive said. “We think this is pretty cool.”

Golden 1 supports another Ranadive credo: The Kings organization isn’t so much a basketball team as a “purveyor of experiences.” Ranadive likes to talk about the convergence of sports and entertainment, and surrounds himself with pop stars such as Drake. To add to the Golden 1 experience, he’s having a recording studio built inside the arena.

When it opens in a few months, the studio will be accessible to selected fans – contest winners, maybe honor students from area schools – as well as musicians who perform at Golden 1. It could also become a perk for Kings players.

“The players, they all aspire to be musicians,” Ranadive said.

‘Culture of Exceptionalism’

Bill Sutton, a Florida sports-marketing consultant who used to work for the NBA, said team owners generally try to outdo each other when it comes to new arenas. “There’s a little bit of ego there,” Sutton said. “You’re always trying to be the biggest and the best.”

Sutton said owners are also catering to the modern-day sports fans, who demand comfort, amenities and an entertainment experience that goes well beyond staring at a basketball court.

“If everybody was a basketball fan, that would be great, but not everybody’s a basketball fan,” Sutton said. “It’s the videos, it’s the music, it’s everything.”

Ranadive said ego had nothing to do with Golden 1. The arena is more “a testament to what the city could do if it put its mind to it,” he said.

The team chairman said he believes Golden 1 will be part of the transformation of Sacramento – not just the downtown area, but the whole city. Even the solar panels that cover most of the roof, and the arena’s LEED Platinum status – a recognition of efficient energy design – make a statement about Golden 1 as “a platform for good,” Ranadive said.

Shortly after Ranadive and other investors bought the Kings in 2013, he led a pilgrimage of team executives to Ideo, a consulting firm in Palo Alto, to get ideas on the new arena. There they met with David Kelley, a Silicon Valley legend who helped design the various tech gadgets, including the mouse for the early Apple computers.

Kelley advised the Kings group to “eliminate the points of friction,” Ranadive said. In other words, find ways to make attending a game easier, an important consideration at a downtown arena where parking and traffic could increase the hassles.

That concept was incorporated in many of the features in the team’s new smartphone app, which will enable fans to reserve parking in advance and connect with Uber.

It also shows up in the arena’s self-service “smart turnstiles,” which in addition to paper tickets can read smartphones, smart watches and some other forms of technology that handheld scanners can’t. All told, each turnstile can admit 1,000 fans per hour, or three times as many as an usher with a handheld device.

Golden 1 embodies Ranadive’s attempt to instill what he calls a “culture of exceptionalism” in a franchise that hasn’t made the playoffs in 10 years. Wins and losses are out of his control, but a top-flight arena is essentially a matter of spending money. If it costs $11.6 million to build the world’s largest indoor scoreboard and other video screens throughout the arena, so be it.

“We’ve shown a willingness to spend money,” said Ranadive, who has taken his lumps from sportswriters over the Kings’ continued losing ways. The arena’s construction budget has ballooned by $80 million since the October 2014 groundbreaking; team officials say every additional penny has been spent on upgrades, not cost overruns.

The city’s arena subsidy is capped at $255 million. So all those extra costs have been shouldered by Ranadive and his fellow owners, many of whom share his technology background.

The investor group, including current and former executives from Qualcomm, Apple and Facebook, hasn’t been shy about putting its high-tech imprint on the franchise. The Kings have broadcast a game via Google Glass, started accepting the online currency bitcoin as payment for tickets, and dispatched a security robot to help patrol the concourse at old Sleep Train Arena.

‘Future Proofed’

For Ranadive, a crowd of 17,500 at Golden 1 is simply a mass generator of computer data, reams of bits and bytes that can be used to help fans enjoy themselves – and spend more money.

The company he used to run, Tibco Software Inc. of Palo Alto, built an earlier version of the Kings’ app and specializes in managing data for big corporations. One of its software products helps casinos analyze the gambling habits of their frequent customers.

Many of the same concepts are built into Golden 1 and the new Kings app. Real-time traffic information around the arena will be available. Sensors will tell fans whether there’s a long line at the nearest concession stands.

And for those who opt in by creating an account to manage their purchases, the app will give the Kings insight into the fans’ likes and dislikes. Do they prefer hamburgers or hot dogs? How often do they buy team jerseys? Do they seem ripe for purchasing season tickets? The Kings’ computer system can reach out with purchasing suggestions, maybe accompanied by a coupon.

“It knows about your preferences; it knows about your (buying) habits,” Ranadive said.

There also will be real-time “wagering” of sorts; the app will allow fans in the arena to bet on the outcomes of different plays, awarding them points that can be redeemed for assorted goodies. Ranadive believes this non-cash betting could be a precursor to legalized sports betting.

The arena will use facial recognition software to guard access to the players’ entrance. Eventually, Ranadive wants to use the same technology for admitting fans – although it would be limited to those who opt into the system through the app.

“The arena should recognize you,” he said. “I don’t want you to even pull your phone out” to enter the building.

Pulling everything together is “mission control,” a spacious room in the bowels of the arena. It’s home to about a dozen employees who will monitor the arena’s vital signs moment by moment: security, guest services and more. If a fan posts on Twitter that her hot dog is lousy, a Kings employee will attempt to track her down and address the complaint.

Golden 1’s techno-wizardry is fueled by a remarkable amount of raw computing power. The arena has roughly as much Wi-Fi capability as the San Francisco 49ers’ Levi’s Stadium, which holds four times as many people. Next to “mission control” is a roomful of servers, a data center comparable to what’s found at major tech companies like Amazon, said the Kings’ chief technology officer, Ryan Montoya. The arena is stitched together with enough Category 6A copper wire, the kind that transmits data at ultra-high speeds, to stretch to the Oregon border.

“We have more computing power than any sports team, any NFL team, in the world,” Montoya said.

Does Golden 1 really need that much muscle? Montoya and Ranadive said it’s a must.

Fans increasingly come to games armed with data-consuming electronic devices – phones, tablets, watches – and all that extra bandwidth is needed to accommodate future usage.

“It had to be future-proofed,” Ranadive said. “It’s not going to be obsolete anytime in the near future.”

©2016 The Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, Calif.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.