‘Ray Jay’ Stadium apostle of COVID safety


Raymond James Stadium preparations for Super Bowl 55 Image: wtsp.com

Thousands of Tampa Bay Buccaneers fans stormed the streets late Sunday night (February 7th) to celebrate the team’s historic Super Bowl LV win at home over Kansas City.

The Buccaneers captured the second NFL title in franchise history on Sunday with an utterly dominant 31-9 win over the Kansas City Chiefs at Raymond James Stadium. They were the first team ever to play a Super Bowl in their home stadium, and now they are the first to win one on their own field.

Most of the fans were not wearing masks, many were drunk and a few became dangerous and destructive.

Though the Raymond James Stadium hosted the biggest game of the year and the NFL took extra care to ensure that spectators were safe and did not fall sick, nevertheless, few fans let their guards down.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are a professional American football team based in Tampa, Florida (US). The Buccaneers compete in the National Football League (NFL) as a member club of the league’s National Football Conference South division.

The Kansas City Chiefs are a professional American football team based in Kansas City, Missouri (US). They compete in the National Football League (NFL) as a member club of the league’s American Football Conference (AFC) West division.

The National Football League is a professional American football league consisting of 32 teams, divided equally between the National Football Conference and the American Football Conference.

The 65,890-capacity Raymond James Stadium, also known by the nickname ‘Ray Jay’, is a multipurpose stadium located in Tampa, Florida. It is home to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers of the NFL.

The NFL was almost pushed to the corner with the COVID-19 continuing to blight the United States. Last summer, a big question mark hovered over the 2020-21 NFL season. However, the league has proved everybody wrong and has adopted strict COVID-19 protocols to ensure that its players and staff do not get infected with the dreaded disease and has also managed to keep cases to minimum.

wtsp.com stated that though the Raymond James Stadium staged the biggest sporting spectacle of the year, but Super Bowl LV was definitely held in the midst of the biggest global health emergency. Though roughly 75,000 people can pack into the facility, but the capacity was held to 25,000, with almost a third of them being vaccinated healthcare workers.

“The NFL brought 7,500 vaccinated healthcare workers to the game this year, a gift to our most important MVPs who have put everything on the line to help us as a nation recover from COVID-19,” stated NFL Events Director Daphne Wood.

It was not a scenario of full house and seats were empty and few fans inside the venue were also seated next to a cut-out of someone else from afar.

Strict physical distancing protocols were in place, KN-95 masks were given out and everything was digital this year, from ticket scanning to cashless purchases.

“It’s a unique year that we’re all working through with all of the protocols related to COVID. We’re really excited to be part of such a historic event on so many levels,” NFL Events Senior Director Eric Finkelstein said in a video.

The league pulled out all stops to keep the players and staff safe. There was about 20 feet of distance between the sidelines and fans in the stands, with giant LED screens covering the first several rows of each section.

wtsp.com further maintained that throughout the season, the NFL maintained that it and the NFL Players’ Association have strictly adhered to safety measures from COVID testing, contract tracing and more – and the same was applied in the case of the Super Bowl.

COVID-compliant venue

One thing is for sure, the Raymond James Stadium authorities worked through all of the protocols related to COVID and have put their best foot forward to this end. Around the concourse, the circles on the ground mentioned clearly ‘Stand Here’, and they were properly spaced apart to allow for proper distancing. In between the fans, 30,000 cutouts were placed to make it a fun atmosphere. Apart from the hand sanitizer stations that were set up, every attendee that came to the Super Bowl was handed over a PPE kit. All the tickets were digital for accessing and entering into the Super Bowl.

Signs were put up all over the stadium – ‘Face Covering Required’, ‘Wash Your Hands’, and ‘Social Distance’ to remind the people that everyone who is at the Super Bowl must wear masks at all times. To keep the players and staff safe, swab tests were conducted, temperature checks done, every space in the stadium was disinfected properly – everything from the locker rooms to the footballs, players maintaining distance in the locker rooms, and these became the NFL’s protocol. The teams were tested every single day. This season the NFL has done over one million tests on players, coaches and personnel. Over 17,000 coronavirus tests will be administered to stadium staff and vendors.

The NFL has made contact tracing mandatory for players, coaches and certain number of staff and by taking stringent measures they were able to limit the spread of the deadly virus within the Raymond James Stadium.

Tech leg-up

techrepublic.com reported that to make this year’s Super Bowl a ‘super’b experience for in-person attendees as well as for hardcore NFL fans who are glued to their television screens back home, several companies bolstered the local technical infrastructure offering multiple gameplay viewing angles, augmented reality (AR) features, and more.

Keeping connected

Extreme Networks provided a Wi-Fi network for the benefit of fans who attended the Super Bowl showdown at Raymond James Stadium. Overall, Extreme Networks stated that its stadium deployment features 1,522 access points (APs) with 950 APs installed within the bowl of the stadium. It goes without saying that deploying a Wi-Fi solution for large number of fans comes with its fair share of technical and logistical complexities and COVID-19 has further made it more complex.

Extreme Networks is a networking company based in San Jose, California (US). Extreme Networks designs, develops, and manufactures wired and wireless network infrastructure equipment and develops the software for network management, policy, analytics, security and access controls.

“It’s unique this year because we planned all the way from no one attending [the Super Bowl], to maybe it will be a full venue,” informed John Brams, Extreme Networks Senior Director of Venues, Retail and Logistics.

Added Brams, “That made the planning side of things a little bit more challenging because you can’t plan for every scenario but in this case, you had to.”

Earlier, the NFL said it expected about 25,000 in-person attendance and about 30,000 cutouts at Super Bowl LV, way less than the nearly 60,000 fans at last year’s championship game. When the Extreme Networks team designed the above network solution, they did it with 75,000 or 80,000 fans in mind, not the limited number which attended Sunday’s game. Bram stated that and to accommodate this capacity, the company needed to “tune the system to operate in that environment”.

Bram continued, “It’s a little bit counterintuitive when you have a smaller amount of people. You [might] think ‘Oh that makes it easy’. But that’s actually not the case.”

The general perception is that having fewer spectators minimizes network planning efforts. However, it is not so.

Brams explained, “That’s because humans and the physical space our bodies occupy play a role in radio frequency (RF) and connectivity at high-density Wi-Fi venues like Raymond James. From the RF perspective, if you have 80,000 people in their absorbing signals, that’s what we design the system to do. So, if you take away 60,000 of those people, they’re no longer doing that.”

As a result, the team had to tune the RF for a different type of environment with fewer attendees, he explained.

However, the Sunday Super Bowl showdown was not Extreme Network’s first test with limited fan attendance. Since Raymond James Stadium staged football during the regular season, this gave the company an “opportunity to do some [network] testing and validation,” Brams informed.

“The good news is that in the events that the Buccaneers did have in their games at the end of the year, they were roughly sized around that same [capacity], a little bit smaller and we were really happy with the performance,” Brams further informed.

5G boost

techrepublic.com further added that Verizon tapped 5G to boost the Super Bowl LV experiences for fans who attended the sporting extraordinaire physically and those who watched back home. Verizon announced that it had invested more than $80 million to expand “permanent 5G deployments in Tampa and at Raymond James Stadium”. This includes “70 miles of high speed fiber, an upgraded distributed antenna system (DAS)”, as well as 281 small cellular antennas designed to provide in and around the arena.

Verizon Communications Inc. is an American multinational telecommunications conglomerate and a corporate component of the Dow Jones Industrial Average. The company is based at 1095 Avenue of the Americas in Midtown Manhattan, New York City, but is incorporated in Delaware.

The NFL mobile app allowed iPhone 12 users access to the Verizon 5G SuperStadium, which offered in-person onlookers views from seven cameras, and five viewing angles for at-home fans, and AR capabilities for the NFL’s Next Gen Stats, as per Verizon.

Said Kyle Malady, Chief Technology Officer (CTO), Verizon, in a blog post, “We’re excited to bring 5G to Raymond James Stadium, home of Super Bowl LV. As the number of arenas and stadiums with Verizon 5G continues to grow, we’re seeing how our technology brings a new dimension to all aspects of the fan experience, from public safety to how fans interact with the action on the field.”

Verizon’s 5G Stadium in Fortnite Creative, touted as “the largest activation ever built in Fortnite’s Creative Mode”, offers gaming buffs a virtual twist on the traditional Super Bowl experience. This includes four football-themed games and fans were able to tune into a Twitch event to watch NFL players and professional gamers compete, according to Verizon.

Teeth to network

AT&T invested $75 million to give more teeth to its network around the Tampa area and Raymond James Stadium, according to a company representative, including four deployed temporary COWs (cell on wheels), two temporary dedicated FirstNet SatCOLTS (satellite cell on light truck) keeping the Super Bowl in mind.

AT&T Inc. is an American multinational conglomerate holding company, Delaware-registered but headquartered at Whitacre Tower in Downtown Dallas, Texas.

“Our team in Tampa has spent the last 18 months enhancing our network to give our customers, whether they live in Tampa or are visiting the area, the best wireless experience. We have successfully launched AT&T 5G in the Tampa market as well as delivered superfast AT&T 5G+ to iconic locations like Raymond James Stadium, Tampa International Airport, Busch Gardens and parts of downtown Tampa,” informed JR Luna, AT&T’s VPGM of Florida.

Added Luna, “We’ve also upgraded connectivity at more than two dozen other locations so our customers will get a best-in-class network experience. At AT&T, we’re all about creating connections and we’re proud to showcase this best in class experience at this year’s big game.”

The company has also delivered new and upgraded DAS at more than 30 area locations including practice facilities, and the offices of first responders, according to an AT&T representative, and Band 14 spectrum deployed across the Tampa area will be used to provide first responders on FirstNet with dedicated connectivity should this be needed.

“It’s not your typical year, but that doesn’t slow us down from preparing for the communications needs of our first responders,” maintained Fred Scalera, Response Operations Group, FirstNet Program at AT&T, via email, techrepublic.com added.

“We’ve added Band 14, a special lane of connectivity for public safety subscribers using FirstNet, throughout the Tampa market, and have brought in dedicated portable cell sites to help ensure public safety stay connected in any emergency during this year’s big game,” Scalera added.

Tech-savvy NFL

NFL teams today are heavily into technology to analyze performance and assess gameplay, but this has not always been the case. As stated in an NFL post, some coaches were still relying on analog tech (i.e., printed black and white materials) to analyze gameplay well into the 21st century. In recent years, the sideline tech has seen noticeable upgrades and Microsoft Surface devices are common sights on NFL sidelines and it was not different in the case of Super Bowl LV.

Microsoft Corporation is an American multinational technology company with headquarters in Redmond, Washington. It develops, manufactures, licenses, supports, and sells computer software, consumer electronics, personal computers, and related services.

Jeff Hansen, General Manager, Strategic Partnerships at Microsoft, explained some of the ways Microsoft tech has given a tech shot in the arm to NFL teams in recent years and especially during COVID-19 which continues to hound the United States.

“Over the course of our partnership with the NFL since 2013, we’ve worked together to develop creative and innovative technology solutions that address the League’s needs. This includes Microsoft Surface devices and more recently, Microsoft Teams,” Hansen said via email.

Added Hansen, “This season presented unique challenges and created an even greater need for technology to help the league, clubs, players, coaches, and staff to work more effectively together and remotely.”

On Surface tablets, the Sideline Viewing System app enables coaches and players to assess gameplay and tweak their strategy as required.

Concluded Hansen, “Microsoft teams played an important behind-the-scenes role by enabling real-time collaboration between the League’s department of gameday readiness at the NFL headquarters with the limited staff on on-site at the Super Bowl.”

The biggest names in the tech world gave their best shot to ensure the Super Bowl was an once-in-a-lifetime experience not only for the limited fans who attended the sporting extravaganza but also for the diehard supporters who closely watched every action in their living rooms back home.

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