College Sports on the Verge of a Venue Renaissance
Just as the rebuild of the venue infrastructure of professional-league sports seems to be winding down, the collegiate counterpart appears poised to start down its own road to renaissance. As with the pro venues, while HD video is leading the charge with new scoreboards and ribbon boards, stadium and arena sound is close behind.
As SVG’s College Sports Video Summit begins this week in Atlanta, new and upgraded sound systems are heading to or have already arrived at major university sites: UCLA, Penn State, Texas Christian University, University of North Carolina, and Notre Dame, among others.
Much of the upgrade on the collegiate-venue landscape is driven by a combination of more-affordable audio and video technology — a collateral benefit of two decades’ worth of pro-venue makeovers that saw competition among major systems manufacturers create more-powerful and easier-to-operate systems with economies of scale as increased deployments lowered the cost to purchase — and of increased investment by major television networks in broadcasting Division 1 college sports.
However, the renovation of the college sports-venue infrastructure comes at a time when the effects of the recession are lingering, reducing alumni donations and restricting expenditures for many schools. That is offset to a degree, though, by the fact that many schools have significant emotional investment in their existing venues, which means that, instead of the massive amounts of new construction that characterized the past two decades of pro sports, colleges and universities will largely follow a renovation/upgrade path.
“Many universities have rich histories that include landmarked buildings, and they’ll want to renovate those to maintain the tradition contained in those buildings,” says Brian Elwell, senior consultant at Acoustic Dimensions, who leads that company’s audio-systems design. He cites a recent renovation the company did for the Pauley Pavilion at UCLA: “UCLA is steeped in basketball tradition, and they wanted to keep the historical nature of the building.”
He adds that, while college venues are still opting for the same bells and whistles that characterize pro-league venues, they are focusing on speech intelligibility and improved music playback.
That’s because colleges are trying to give fans a higher-level entertainment experience, according to Mark Graham, an associate specializing in audio-system design at WJHW, which has recently worked on systems upgrades for the University of Michigan and the University of Oregon.
“The college venues are realizing that, like the pro arenas, they have to meet the fan expectations generated by better sound at other venues and on television, to get people to want to come to the game in person,” he explains. “On the other hand, schools have a built-in emotional tie for students, graduates, and people who live in the area, so they’re not in as competitive a situation as the pros might be in terms of how much they have to put into their sound systems.”
Graham points out that the need to remain in existing venues also imposes limitations on the kinds of system designs that colleges can access. For instance, the distributed systems that most new professional venues have opted for, which place a larger number of speakers closer to the seating areas, won’t work for the older open-seating bowl architecture, which lacks the tiers that allow close speaker placement.
“Instead, they may go with an end-zone cluster,” he says. “What’s been happening is that, when a school upgrades its scoreboard to HD, they’ll often go for a better point-source [sound] system attached to it.”
Volume, Volume, Volume
Systems companies that address the college-sports-venue market are expecting renovation/upgrade to develop into a steady if not spectacular business, with schools spending less on each project than the major leagues have done but making up for it with volume.
“There’s just a lot more college stadiums than there are professional stadiums,” Graham points out, adding that the collegiate moneymaker, football, is helping subsidize upgrades for other campus sports.
Fred Curdts, SVP of the special projects group at AVI-SPL, which has done recent sound-system upgrades for Rutgers football and basketball teams, as well as for UConn, Penn State, and the University of Virginia, agrees: “We’re now seeing more spending than we used to on non-revenue sports like lacrosse and baseball.”
As important, he adds, is the fact that colleges are also budgeting for an upgrade from triax cable to fiber, laying the foundation for the move to HD broadcast for a large array of sports, as well as building a more sophisticated infrastructure for coaching’s use of HD video replays and archiving of games.
As a result, sound-system manufacturers are paying even more attention to the college market. Acoustic Dimensions’ Elwell notes that a current project scheduled for completion by the end of the year was originally designed around a JBL PD series PA system but is now receiving last-minute bids from Bose and other manufacturers. “It’s a short window,” he says, “but colleges know that they’re the focus right now, and the manufacturers are getting more aggressive in pitching to the college market.”