Cisco Systems recently invited me to a behind-the-scenes tour of the new football field in Los Angeles, SoFi Stadium, home to the L.A. Rams and L.A. Chargers. I personally have toured about two dozen arenas, rinks, and stadiums across North America and even a few in Europe, and SoFi's was certainly the most impressive display of technology that I have seen to date.
Before I get into the technology, it's worth noting the size and scope of the environment. The stadium is in Inglewood on the site of the former Hollywood Park racetrack. SoFi is the first "indoor-outdoor" stadium in the NFL at 3.1 million square feet. The indoor-outdoor aspect is interesting because it's an outdoor stadium with a cover-over top, which is detached and acts as a sun umbrella. Seating capacity is 70,000 for NFL games but is expandable to 100,000 for other events if needed. In addition to the stadium, the IT organization is responsible for American Airlines Plaza and the 6,000-seat YouTube Theater.
But that's not where the project ends. There are plans to build an additional 500,000 square-foot retail district that will house residences, retail shops, restaurants, and an NFL building -- in addition to 25 acres of public parks and open spaces. When complete, Hollywood Park will be the second-largest commercial development in the country, behind only Hudson Yard in New York.
Who runs the massive network deployment?
Skarpi Hedinsson, CTO of SoFi Stadium and Hollywood Park, is responsible for ensuring all systems are running smoothly. For the deployment, he worked with technology integrator AmpThink, which is well-versed in venues like SoFi; his organization has done 70 such deployments in the past.
During the tour, Hedinsson spent a good amount of time explaining the challenges behind such a massive network deployment. From an experience standpoint, every fan, consumer, or concertgoer expects an excellent one each time. The stadium has gone 100% digital, which has raised the value of the network. Tickets are only available in mobile format, and all purchases are cashless. If someone tries to conduct a transaction and the network isn't functioning, the person may just abandon it, causing the stakeholder to miss out.
While the stadium was loaded with technology, the signature item is the 70,000-square-foot, 4K Infinity Screen by Samsung. While all stadiums now have big screens, this one is truly next-level. The dual-sided display hangs 122 feet above the playing surface and is oval in shape, so no matter where you sit, you have a view of it. One of the fascinating aspects of the display is that each of the panels can be uniquely or concurrently configured with content. This lets the content creation team use the network from a centralized location to serve up statistics, live video, animations, replays, or other content.
Technical components are impressive
SoFi chose to deploy a full-stack Cisco Systems network for its network requirements. This is a massive deployment and includes the following technical components:
Enterprise and data center networks: SoFi stadium is built on a single, converged network that connects every point of sale, TV, collaboration Wi-Fi, and other endpoints. The data center and broadcast (control room) networks are built on Nexus 9000 switches in a leaf-spine configuration to simplify the design. The original design called for about 150 to 200 servers, but using virtualization and Cisco Hyperflex hyper-converged infrastructure, they were able to run the stadium on only a handful of servers in a few racks. The broadcast video that runs on the network is uncompressed 4K video, which consumes about 12Gbps and significantly loads the network.
The rest of the stadium network is connected via 229 telecom rooms and pedestals, which collapse down to two racks. SoFi uses Catalyst 9606 in the racks and 9400s everywhere else. The singular network connects all building management systems, the PA system, IPTV screens, Wi-Fi APs, collaboration endpoints, and TV broadcasts. This network also connects to the NFL network via 100 Gig-E interfaces.
The SoFi deployment consists of 273 Nexus and Catalyst switches.
Wi-Fi 6 deployment: SoFi has the largest Wi-Fi 6 deployment in a sports venue. The Wi-Fi 6 is needed for the fastest possible experience while being much more reliable than Wi-Fi 5; it is more efficient with power and saves on battery life, which is important for the fan. There are about 2,500 access points as part of the deployment.
IP fabric for media: The Cisco IP fabric for media solution enables the only 4K HDR live production facility in the U.S. By using IP infrastructure, a single cable can carry multiple bidirectional traffic flow sizes without requiring any changes to be made to the physical infrastructure.
IPTV: Digital signage has become increasingly popular in stadium venues, but SoFi has one of the most advanced I have seen. The stadium has the first all 4K digital signage solution and uses Cisco's IPTV solution to push content to more than 2,000 4K displays located in the concourses, concession stands, suites, and across Hollywood Park. The stadium and park operators can quickly customize content on each screen from a central location, including the previously mentioned Infinity display.
SoFi provided the following usage statistics, which underscore how important the network has become to sports and entertainment.
Football: Average data consumed 18TB with peak utilization of 24TB
Concerts: Average data 20TB with a peak of 32TB
Average data consumed per client: 533MB
Average concurrent take rate (fans on the network): 69% with a peak of 84%. This is higher than what I have seen at other stadiums.
While this is a highly specialized use case -- a massive entertainment facility -- it does highlight how most other industries are changing. Because of hybrid work and digital transformation, there is more use of video, IoT, cloud, and mobility -- all of which are network-centric. Most businesses I have worked with delayed network upgrades during the COVID-19 pandemic, but network modernization is critical to the digital future of almost all businesses, no matter what.
SoFi Stadium gives us a view of what's possible -- not just in entertainment, but everywhere.