Q&A With Panasonic’s Ballard: Inside the New 4K Videoboard at Churchill Downs
The Kentucky Derby attracted the second-largest crowd of racing fans ever yesterday (164,906), and the Panasonic executives involved in the installation of the new 170×80-ft. 4K videoboard were on hand not only to observe but to celebrate. Richard Ballard, VP of sales and marketing for Panasonic Eco Solutions North America, discussed the project with SVG on race day.
How did we get to this point, where there is a massive 4K videoboard here at Churchill Downs?
Churchill Downs had a vision of creating a great fan experience, and we started by going on visits to other facilities, particularly Charlotte Motor Speedway, so they could get a sense of the size, scope, and feel of a big board.
The idea here was to create something unique, and one of the opportunities was obviously to put a big board in here that matched the environment and was the right size for the facility.
But we also want to give them something that was great because this place is so high-end. And the ultimate HD video screen is 4K. And what we have here is the largest 4K in the world at 170 ft. wide and 80 ft. high.
What’s unique about the construction here is, there is a river that runs under the grounds here so we had a lot of construction challenges. We had to move things around a bit, like cabling and wiring, and we’re about 45 ft. deep in the bedrock. Plus, with the airport [nearby], we had to get clearance from the FAA. So there was a lot to deal with from a construction standpoint.
But we ended up with a great partnership with Churchill Downs. And now we have a system that is powered by Vizrt, and, for us, it’s now a platform for Ultra HD and the next generation of broadcasting.
It seems that venues can embrace 4K a lot more easily than broadcasters can because there are not the issues related to transmission.
We can easily do this in any of our venues as long as we have the lines of resolution needed for 4K.
So do you think there is a minimum size for a 4K screen?
Envision this as if it’s your living room. In your living room, you get the right-size screen for the room size, and here you have a screen that is the right size and scope for this venue. You can make them as big or as small as you want, but it comes down to viewing distance. So that’s why we put in the size of the screen we did.
Here and at Charlotte and Texas Motor Speedway, we don’t design for world-record–size boards. But they turn out to be world records because of the size of the venues.
So how do you encourage stadiums and venues to go 4K?
It’s all about the fan experience. Everyone understands something extra has to be done to get fans to come to the venues, because it’s easy to sit at home in front of your Panasonic 4K screen and not go to the event. So, if you aren’t doing something special, the fans won’t come out.
But, when you give them the benefits of an at-home experience with a live-event experience, you have the ultimate experience.
What has been the reaction so far to the new screen?
I think, if you ask anyone here, the comments have all been positive. You can watch the horses go by, and everyone’s eyes are fixed on the screen. And those fans in the infield have never had the opportunity before to see the race, and the prime seats are right up against the rail in front of the scoreboard. And I think that is the vision Churchill Downs had as you can not only see the difference; you can feel the difference. You can feel the presence of the screen and the energy it puts into the crowd.
You mention two racetracks earlier that have gone with big screens. Do you think racetracks can embrace 4K and these massive boards, and how much larger can they get?
I think they are going to get much larger. But it becomes a balance between the economics of the board and the impact it has. Does it need to be much bigger? That’s a personal choice. But you want to make sure the fans get the ultimate experience and ownership supports the economics.
Given the life cycle of the screens today, it seems 4K should be a consideration if a venue wants to be futureproofed.
Anyone that does business with the public tends to renovate about every seven years to keep the facility and interiors fresh. And you need to entertain the fans because there is so much competition for the entertainment dollar in every city. So, if you aren’t doing that, you’re going to fall behind. And there is an arms race, so to speak, in professional and college sports. In college, it’s really about recruiting and entertaining the fan while, in professional sports, it’s just all about entertaining. And that’s why we’re here.