Slam Dunk

March 16, 2006
American Airlines Center scores winning digital signage

American Airlines Center, the $420 million home of the Dallas Mavericks and Stars, located in an up-and-coming brownfield development just north of the city’s historic West End, isn’t the latest arena to open. It is, however, a seminal one. In terms of digital signage, it broke ground on the latest generation of stadium display technology. Its electronic features - at the time considered not only over-the-top expensive but downright risky - have become de rigueur. And the facility is actually credited with fundamentally changing how advertisers participate in professional sports venues.

An $8 million package for the bowl, which contains the athletic surface and the spectator seating areas, amounted to about 2 percent of the total project cost, a lofty figure when the facility was built in 2001. Part of the cost went toward a large total area of light-emitting diode (LED) array for game information, video, and advertising messages. And behind the scenes, an integrated scoring, video, and information system extended its cable tentacles to the scoreboard, message displays, two dozen clocks, and even ticket-window boards.

When it was being built, the arena’s digital signage was billed by its owners as “the largest and most sophisticated in the world for a sports-and-entertainment venue.” Most observers dismissed the rhetoric as the usual hype that accompanies a stadium project. In retrospect, however, the naysayers might have been wrong.

Technological Firsts
First, a few facts. American Airlines Center contains several technological firsts that have become standard since. For example, the building was the first to use high-definition television (HDTV) wide screens throughout the building. In the bowl, sports fans for the first time would be treated to three major sources of game-related information and entertainment: a scoreboard, “end-zone” screens, and a long LED array, known as a fascia or ring-beam display, that rings the entire bowl. And the circular screen - only the third in the world at the time - was the first to be architecturally designed into a sports bowl.

Clearly, this was a milestone for architect-integrated digital signage. “When it opened in 2001, the center had more electronic displays in the bowl than any other in the country, and the largest center-hung display in the world,” says Joe Laakman, project manager and vice president of Dallas-based HKS Inc., the architect of record.

The full-color LED arrays offered many options for the event producers, advertisers, and sponsors. Too many, perhaps?

“When we first took the concept of digitized signage to this level, mostly we were concerned that the advertisers get the same benefits as with traditional display approaches, because with static signage the sign is always there,” says Brad Mayne, president and CEO of American Airlines Center. According to Mayne, the arena’s ownership took a high-stakes gamble that the benefits would far outweigh any such losses.

The gamble paid off. Since they made that call, American Airlines Center has helped change way advertising is bought and sold for sports games.

Its success lay in a novel sponsorship concept that gives willing (and paying) advertisers the run of the house - on a time-share basis. “The improved technology allowed sponsors to buy signage by exclusivity and time, rather than the traditional square footage,” Mayne recalls. “As a sponsor, you could advertise exclusively on the scoreboard for an entire period, or around the bowl of the arena. Or you could create special times during the event when it is exclusive for one sponsor.”

Mayne’s new axiom: “Exclusivity means more impact.”

Architectural Novelty
While leveraging digital signage inside the bowl was paramount for their revenue model, the owners wanted an attractive and dynamic experience “off the playing field,” too. Their main competitor was the 1980 Reunion Arena, a high-tech-looking affair a few miles away sporting a red-bordered band of dark ribbon windows and a newly refurbished interior.

For the American Airlines Center, the architectural imagery had to be unique. Planners at Ross Perot Jr.’s real estate company Hillwood chose to go traditional, hiring the classicist David M. Schwarz of Washington, D.C. Unsurprisingly, his solution was a rigorously symmetrical plan clad in brick, limestone, and granite, with entrances on each of four sides. Impressive balconies on the north and south façades offered views to the city and environs.

Inside, Schwarz and HKS emphasized “fan friendliness” over efficiency. Ringing the bowl were ample concourses lined with concessions, exhibits, and public artwork.

“For the overall design, we didn’t want the concourses to be a racetrack, common looking throughout,” says Laakman. “So we used signage to give identity to various areas.” The concourses are dedicated to individual sponsors: Ford, Coors Light, American Airlines. In addition to static posters and digital displays, like a large video wall for American Airlines, the design relies heavily on 3-D elements - oversized beer cans, pickup trucks, and museum-quality airplane models.

Stodgy Newcomer?
With its neotraditional ornament and historical references to the Dallas of yore, American Airlines Center might have been viewed as a stodgy old newcomer. But the project’s planner had an ace in the hole: digital sign technology.

According to Mayne, the project team stealthily developed a display infrastructure generations beyond that of Reunion Arena. Integration was its underpinning and diversity of expression its hallmark. The project checklist included a huge center-hung scoreboard with 24 screens; 16 full-color digital advertising displays; more than 200 static and rotating panels; 24 ticket-window displays; two video arrays outside to promote events; and luxury suites with flat-panel plasma screens and Internet access, totaling 770 TV monitors.

Even better, the new building was riding atop an underground information superhighway of fiber-optic cable. Its location turned out to be a technological boon.

“The signage at American Airlines Center will have a huge impact on the fan experience,” Mayne predicted at the time. Other benefits would accrue to sponsors: no costs for sign materials and designs, for example. “You can just take a picture of the product, digitize it, and change it with special effects. Create motion, flash it, twist it - anything a computer can do. And you can make changes on the fly.”

The most visible place to morph one’s product or logo is on the gargantuan eight-sided scoreboard hanging 35 feet above the athletic surface. At 25 feet tall and 50 feet long, the 80,000-pound high-tech chandelier features full-color LED-based video boards rendering 68 billion colors. In total, 2.4 million red, green, and blue LEDs grouped in modular plug-in boards are housed in the assembly. Two dozen displays show live video, instant replays, animation, graphics, game information, and advertising messages.

The 360-degree fascia display had only been installed in two other arenas at the time - the Xcel Center in St. Paul, MN, and the Pepsi Center in Denver. Called an “electronic message board” at the time, the very long, flat-panel LED array runs along the precast-concrete ring beams of the so-called “Platinum Level,” encircling the space. It seems well integrated into the architecture, and there’s a reason: “We were the first to have the fascia ring designed into the bowl itself,” Mayne says proudly.

In fact, the circular screen was planned for a higher level, the upper concourse, says Laakman. “But they decided to lower the display, because they realized that the lower elevation gave them the opportunity for more TV shots.”

Since the American Airlines Center was built, the use of ring-beam displays has skyrocketed, says Mark Steinkamp, a marketing executive with Daktronics, the Brookings, SD-based supplier of the digital signage. “A lot of existing venues are installing them now. It’s almost commonplace and expected.” Some universities and office buildings employ them as architectural elements, he adds. “There’s lots of room for creative movement and, if they’re programmed well, lots of good exposure for sponsors.”

“It creates an atmosphere that enhances the game experience,” says Mayne, adding that the extra design work was worth the effort. “It’s an incredible revenue generator.”

Infrastructure and Environs
Other aspects of the architecture support the media installation. For example, instead of metal bars for guardrails and handrails, Schwarz and HKS detailed protective Plexiglas panels to allow undisturbed sightlines. For acoustical control, Dallas-based Wrightson, Johnson, Haddon & Williams Inc. (WJHW) developed tiles, nylon swags, and large, flat surfaces for the ceiling plane. During music performances, the nylon banners absorb sound; the acoustical planes bounce audience noise toward the event level during sports games.

Engineering focused on redundancy and growth - yes, even more digital signage to come. Extra raceway, ductwork, and conduit were included for future wiring, and the utility closets contained ample room for upgrades. “They pushed the envelope at that time, definitely,” Steinkamp comments. “They really went out of their way to make sure there was lots of information for the fans.”

Even on the exterior of the arena, arriving crowds are entertained by a large video-capable marquee and numerous signs attached to snorkel-shaped air-intake vents.

Although the America Airlines Center was the first building to open on a large urban development, Victory, the arena’s contents and exterior would presage the eventual look of the entire project. Digital signage, it seemed, became a fixation for Perot. He announced an “unprecedented outdoor media installation” for the two-building Victory Plaza complex of retail and office space (see A Victory for Signage, page 16). The LED-based video walls are being built at the stadium’s doorstep.

LEDs Drive Applications
Inside and out, the arena’s signage specification was LED, which appealed for several reasons. First, costs have decreased substantially in recent years as the systems achieved better brightness levels, higher efficiencies, and longer lifetimes. Second, the advent of high-power LEDs for full-color use paved the way for architectural adoption. Third, the relatively small light sources are flexible and easily programmable in digital arrays. Last, only compact-fluorescent lamps are more energy efficient, while LEDs last as much as five times longer than the fluorescent sources.

“This technology is applicable to any building that has space available in a high-traffic area,” says David Laird, president of the Strategy Institute, a Toronto-based research and education company. “Instead of traditional static signs, now multiple advertising campaigns can be generating multiple dollars for the property owners.”

Echoes Laakman, “Displays are getting better today, and they give operators more revenue streams. At baseball games, the imagery behind home plate changes every inning.” Steinkamp adds that new LED-based applications are on the way, including a transparent basketball shot clock, a courtside digital scorers’ table, and plastic hockey-rink barriers embedded with displays.

Digital signs bring ancillary benefits as well, notes Laird, such as integration into building-wide security and notification systems - not to mention alleviating customer boredom while they wait in lines.

Seen in this light, the American Airlines Center is a mere drop in the bucket. But its influential introduction a few years ago shaped the future of professional and collegiate sports signage. “American Airlines Center has raised the technology bar for arenas throughout the country,” said Jack Wrightson, a WJHW technology consultant.

Mayne sums up: “We call it ‘the second experience,’ a way to create atmosphere that enhances the primary experience.”

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