Live From NHL Stadium Series: Levi’s Stadium, 49ers Studios Host Outdoor Hockey

With his cellphone pressed to his ear, Aron Kennedy stands in Levi’s Stadium’s video-control room, looking out over a building that he knows all too well but that looks very different today.

49ers Studios and Van agner Big Screen Network Productions will entertain nearly 70,000 fans at Levi's Stadium during Saturday's NHL Coors Light Stadium Series game between the Los Angeles Kings and the San Jose Sharks.

49ers Studios and Van Wagner Big Screen Network Productions will entertain nearly 70,000 fans at Levi’s Stadium during Saturday’s NHL Coors Light Stadium Series game between the Los Angeles Kings and the San Jose Sharks.

“Just incredible,” he says, dropping his phone to his side as he stares out over a glistening dichotomy of season and sport. It’s a picturesque, 68-degree early afternoon in Santa Clara, CA, at the stunning new home of the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers. But today, it’s the largest hockey rink in the world.

With most of the country seemingly covered in a sheet of ice this weekend, it’s almost fitting: why not here, too?

The National Hockey League has taken over Levi’s Stadium for Saturday night’s Coors Light Stadium Series showdown between the Los Angeles Kings and the San Jose Sharks (NBCSN, 10 p.m. ET/7 p.m. PT). It’s the latest in the league’s ultra-popular collection of outdoor hockey games designed to accomplish exactly what’s happening in Santa Clara tonight: offering a unique feast for the eyes.

Behind the scenes at the stadium, all hands are on deck from the 49ers Studios video-production staff to help provide an ultra-sleek fan experience for the nearly 70,000 in attendance. The NHL and its in-venue entertainment partner, Van Wagner Big Screen Network Productions (VWBSN), have been planning with 49ers Studios for months in advance of tonight’s game to get the most out of the tech-savvy stadium.

The league and VWBSN will serve as primary producers of the event, but many members of 49ers Studios’ team will serve in various key positions (technical director, camera op, replay op), given their intimate knowledge of the stadium’s split control room and technological infrastructure.

“My job here is to make sure that the [control] room lives up to [the league’s and VWBSN’s] expectations,” says Kennedy, who is director of gameday production and broadcast operations for the 49ers. “We’ve been hitting home runs — I know that’s not the right sports analogy. The infrastructure here is so robust that there’s not many requests that have come to us that we haven’t been able to fulfill. You can get an event and a vast production like this into an older stadium, and it might not have the ability to handle it. [Levi’s Stadium] is a charm here.”

At the traditional center of the stadium’s in-venue video entertainment are a pair of 48 ft. high by 200 ft. wide LED boards from Daktronics.

A split control room located in the stadium’s upper reaches powers the displays. One room overlooks the awesome sites on the field and serves as home to the executive producer, audio op, DJ, Dak operator, entertainment coordinators, and the stadium PA Announcer. About 50 ft. down the hall, the rest of the control room is in a window-less area and hosts the technical director, director, clips operator, replay operations, engineers, and CG.

Levi’s Stadium is a Sony house. The control room is anchored by a MVS7000X production switcher, and the bowl is filled with seven PMWF55 CineAlta 4K digital cinema cameras — six of which will be used for the game tonight.

Evertz also plays a huge role. An EQX enterprise hybrid video/audio/IP router serves as the glue pulling the production together. Also, the control rooms feature three eight-channel DreamCatchers to process all the 4K content being acquired by the cameras (the show will be produced in 1080i HD). Will Blackwell, regularly a senior producer for 49ers Studios, will serve as the chief replay operator and will operate and monitor one of the DreamCatchers throughout the game.

The NHL has also worked closely with Levi’s Stadium to maximize its innovative Stadium App. In classic Silicon Valley fashion, the 49ers’ tech start-up, VenueNext, is the brains behind the app, which offers everything from mobile ticketing and parking to mobile food and beverage ordering to wayfinding. During the football season, the app also pushed the boundaries on exclusive in-venue video entertainment serving up dedicated camera angles and the ability to control replays in the app’s Game Center.

For the Stadium Series game, many of these features will be available; the league has posted signage around the building’s entrances encouraging fans to download the app and interact with it throughout the game. The video teams are offering four individual camera feeds and a program feed exclusive for fans at the game to access.

The draw of the Stadium Series is that it is more than just a game, and this edition in Santa Clara is no different, as fans will be treated to musical performances by John Fogerty, Melissa Etheridge, and more. As a result, there has been a strong emphasis on audio and ensuring that all aspects of the event, from the scratch of a skate blade to the strum of a guitar, sound perfect. In a unique setup, a front-of-house mixing console has been positioned on the field, and an A1 will send full audio mixes to the TV-production compound and to the in-stadium control room for the WJHW-installed in-house speaker system.

Kennedy will bounce back and forth between the two control rooms throughout the night, assisting in any way he can, while also filling duties on the engineering side. Kennedy’s boss, Robert Alberino, the 49ers’ VP/executive producer of 49ers Studios, is on the road with the football-coaching staff at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis. So Aron is calling the shots.

Big events like this are what brought Kennedy across the country to the Bay Area. A former member of the Philadelphia Eagles video team, Kennedy joined the 49ers two years ago when Alberino, who also spent 13 years with the Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field, offered the opportunity.

Of course, there’s no bigger event than the Super Bowl, and the countdown is already on for Super Bowl 50, which will take place  in this arena in February 2016. While 49ers games are big events on their own, Kennedy says it’s key for the stadium staff to acquaint themselves with an event like the Stadium Series, which includes a wealth of entertainment options in addition to the actual sports event.

“This is in no way a rehearsal, because this event is a really big deal for us,” says Kennedy, “but this is a great event to tax the stadium, knowing that the Super Bowl is only 50 weeks away.”

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