In-stadium tech reinvents ad game

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Attending a game in one of the nation's new state-of-the-art sports facilities is fast becoming a ticket to a full-body multimedia experience.

Huge new LED screens provide crisply detailed game close-ups and replays visible from any seat, accompanied by thudding sound systems and elaborate video production facilities that rival TV networks'. At any second, dozens of signs in a stadium or arena offering diverse messages might suddenly freeze and bring what experts in such media call "a moment of exclusivity" for a single advertiser.

Such innovations, plus the opportunity to run commercials in massive formats before thousands of fans, are transforming in-arena advertising.

"Advancements in digital technology for LED systems, from the size and clarity of the screens to the software interfaces, have revolutionized the fan's experience inside the stadium," says Jerry Cifarelli, president of ANC Sports, a leading provider of in-stadium screens and signs. "In the next few years, advanced LED systems will expand rapidly in all types of sports venues."

Two of the largest in-stadium LED screens in the U.S., each measuring 27 by 96 feet, made their debut last August at Philadelphia's new Lincoln Financial Field, home to the National Football League's Eagles. Manufactured by Daktronics, the screens are backed by more than 1,000 high-volume speakers capable of cranking out 100,000 watts of sound.

The 68,532-seat stadium is also wired so that fans will someday be able to select their own replays to watch on hand-held electronic devices and cell phones, and participate in real-time polls on coaches' decisions from inside the stadium. The interactive element of the system is expected to be enabled within "a few years," says a stadium spokesman.

special lighted screens

The new light-emitting diode screens cost about $2 million each to install in stadiums, say industry suppliers. Stadiums getting major facelifts this year with costly LED screens included the Chicago Bears' Soldier Field and Green Bay Packers' Lambeau Field.

The eye-stunning array of technologies and sizes for stadium signage these days makes it difficult to put an average price tag on using such venues for advertising. Also, on-site advertising might be just one element in larger sponsorship packages signed by local, regional or national marketers. An advertiser can pay anywhere from a few thousand dollars to $1 million-plus to get its name into a stadium.

The new high-tech screens are also invading baseball fields and indoor arenas, creating new opportunities for mostly local advertisers. But it's the lower-tech devices, even in the most futuristic new sports arenas, that continue to attract the more lucrative national advertisers.

"LED screens are all the rage, and they enhance the fan's experience, but they don't generate much revenue, because they are primarily centered on local advertisers," says John Massoni, president of DornaUSA, New York, one of the nation's leading marketers of rotational signage.

Industry observers say the sturdiest stream of ad revenue in baseball parks and basketball arenas still comes from strategically placed rotating signs that appear during TV broadcasts of Major League Baseball, National Basketball Association and National Hockey League games, seen simultaneously by thousands in person and millions at home.

One of the newest streams of arena ad revenue in recent years is springing up from the washroom. Score Media places poster-size ads outside the washrooms at major sports venues nationwide, including 24 out of 41 NBA and NHL arenas.

"Eventually, everyone at an event has to go past our signs," says Martin Grant, president-CEO of Score Media. "For arenas with year-round event traffic, an average of 2 million people per year see our signs."

Several arenas are also experimenting with wrapping entry turnstiles with ad messages, a tactic that's showing signs of catching on among local advertisers.

Major stadium naming-rights deals, which deflated somewhat after the dot-com run-up in the late 1990s, have heated up again, says Dean Bonham, chairman-CEO of the Bonham Group, a Denver-based sports marketing research and consulting company.

There have been 13 major naming rights deals negotiated in the U.S. in the last 14 months, he says, and several more are in the pipeline.

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