Inside the Sacramento Kings’ arena it calls the ’21st century communal fireplace’

Watching sporting events isn’t what it used to be. Teams have to find innovative and technologically savvy ways to attract fans and keep them captivated. “It’s about how you enhance the experience,” Kenny Lauer, vice president of digital and marketing for the NBA’s Golden State Warriors, once told VentureBeat.

To the Sacramento Kings, the “experience” is more than just getting people into the seats, but also how to impact the surrounding community. The basketball team has faced quite a conundrum in the past few years: In 2013, former Microsoft chief executive Steve Ballmer led a group of investor in offering $500 million to buy the Kings and relocate it to Seattle.

Faced with the prospect of losing a major symbol of the city, Sacramento banded together to partner with a team organized by businessman Vivek Ranadivé to purchase the Kings for $348 million. However, a caveat of ownership was that Ranadivé had to find and build a new home for the team by 2017. This presented the Kings with not only a challenge, but an opportunity: How to not only develop a new arena, but one that brought a new experience to fans and deepened ties with the city’s business and residential communities.

The Kings’ new home will open in October with legendary artist Paul McCartney performing sold-out shows and the team will officially play its first regular season game on October 27 against the San Antonio Spurs.

Civilization 3.0

For Ranadivé, formerly a minority owner of the Warriors, the new Kings home — called the Golden 1 Center — is more than a sports complex. It’s the centerpiece of what he calls “civilization 3.0” where cities will be a place people both work and reside. Currently, downtown Sacramento is a commuter town, one that typically clears out at the close of business. But with the Kings relocating into the heart of the city, the expectation is that California’s capital city will be see renewed life.

The original signage of Tower Records now hangs in the concourse of The Golden 1 Center, home of the Sacramento Kings.

Above: The original signage of Tower Records now hangs in the concourse of The Golden 1 Center, home of the Sacramento Kings.

Image Credit: Ken Yeung/VentureBeat

The Golden 1 Center is the “21st century communal fireplace” for the new chapter of Sacramento, according to Ranadivé. “It’s the things that you do around the fireplace will be what people figure out,” he said. “[The Kings] will provide the fire.” The team has invested $1 billion into building something that isn’t just a place to watch sports, but a gathering place for people. Kings president Chris Granger explained that an additional $500 million has been put into building out restaurants, stores, and a 16-story hotel adjacent to the arena. The point is to have people hang around longer instead of coming in for work and leaving hours later.

“We wanted this to be the first arena of the 21st century,” Ranadivé told us. “We wanted to flip the notion of what an arena is…you shouldn’t check into the arena, the arena should check into you.”

That may sound ridiculous, but the point he’s trying to make is that the arena concept hasn’t changed for decades. It’s no longer just a building, but a place that should be more accommodating to guests and the Sacramento Kings are able to start from scratch and incorporate the technology necessary to achieve Ranadivé’s vision.

The Sacramento Kings have developed an app for The Golden 1 Center that lets fans personalize their experience in the arena.

Above: The Sacramento Kings have developed an app for The Golden 1 Center that lets fans personalize their experience in the arena.

Image Credit: Ken Yeung/VentureBeat

A key part of the team’s master plan is a mobile app that lets fans personalize their experience, similar to what other sports teams have implemented. But it’s more than just ordering food from your seat or watching highlights — the Kings app serves as a “remote control” for the arena, not just for the game. Fans can request Uber to give them a ride to and from the arena, “reserve” parking in a nearby lot, find out information on concession stand lines, and more. The app also gives data to the Kings so that it can proactively provide customer service and support — as team chief technology officer Ryan Montoya described it: If a fan tweets about dropping a hot dog, the Kings will see that and will swoop in with a replacement.

The Kings’ mobile app will provide you with real-time updates about what’s going on during a game, but also gives fans the ability to manage their tickets within the app. Both Granger and Montoya shared the team’s desire to move away from a paper system, suggesting that by going completely digital, it’ll offers more opportunities to customize a fan’s experience.

One thing that’s unique to the team’s app is the inclusion of KAI, or Kings Artificial Intelligence for short. This messaging bot is powered by JiffyBots and answers fan questions not only about the team, what’s going on during the game, but also about the Golden 1 Center.

The Sacramento Kings' command and mission control in the Golden 1 Center.

Above: The Sacramento Kings’ command and mission control in the Golden 1 Center.

Image Credit: Sacramento Kings

The app is just one of the signals that the Kings use to achieve Ranadivé vision for the arena. Inside the structure rests a 6,000 square foot data center and command center that displays not only social media stats, but also weather, police and traffic, and other pertinent information that’s useful in providing the best experience so fans just have to focus on the game.

It’s here at “mission control” where the Kings and arena staff know all about you, well at least the people who have opted-in to receive personalized experiences. Montoya shared that in moments, staff can see that you’ve passed through one of the building’s “smart turnstiles”, what you’ve ordered, where you’re sitting, and where you are at that moment. In fact, the technology will be able to read tickets from smartphones, smart watches, and tablets — yes, the Kings said that tablets are a popular device at games. It’s said that these turnstiles will be faster at admitting fans, churning through 1,000 fans an hour.

With its data-driven infrastructure, the Kings could posit that if you’ve been at the past three home games, you might be a season ticket holder. Then an attendant, armed with an iPad Pro, could track you down and offer white glove service — perhaps even an upgraded seat?

The command center is also the place where the Kings liaise with local police, fire, and transportation officials in order to provide a safe and secure experience. There’s also a room for video where the Kings can control the hundreds of monitors stationed throughout the arena, and there’s even a small studio where quick interviews and clips can be assembled and posted online in an expedited fashion.

The “bus” that keeps things going

The mobile app and the command center are just part of what the Kings call its “arena bus”, a system designed to combine the intelligence of everything that’s involved in every game and event that’ll be held in the arena. From police, building operations, guest services, parking, communications, traffic, social, security, food and beverage, fan bus, and tickets, the data goes into providing what Ranadivé hopes will be a “seamless, frictionless experience.”

The arena bus system for the Sacramento Kings

Above: The arena bus system for the Sacramento Kings

Image Credit: Sacramento Kings

In developing its arena, Ranadivé thought of it being a platform that not only future proofs the arena as technology advances, but also enables additional third-party integrations when needed. Over time, the team said that it will be opening up an API that developers can take advantage of and contribute to the fan experience. Ranadivé said the Kings won’t be too strict in limiting what apps use its API, as they just see themselves as a platform.

The Golden 1 Center doesn’t appear too unassuming in the heart of downtown Sacramento, but it’s hard to miss. It encompasses 3 acres (approximately 6 city blocks), but it’s not this giant obstruction towering over other buildings. Granger stated that the Kings dug 39 feet below the surface so that when you walk into the arena, you’re looking down to the court, unlike some sports stadiums where you have to truck up stairs. The design is pretty good and blends well with the surrounding area, seemingly integrating with the community instead of bragging about its arrival in the neighborhood.

To highlight Ranadivé’s goal of turning the arena into a “communal fireplace”, there are courtyards and public spaces surrounding the Golden 1 Center that offer people a nice place to sit and have a meal during the day. The main entrance of the arena consists of several large airport hangar doors that can open to provide those outsides with a better view of what’s happening inside. This is what makes the Kings’ new home the first indoor/outdoor arena.

The Sacramento Kings have installed a 4K scoreboard in its new arena, The Golden 1 Center,

Above: The Sacramento Kings have installed a 4K scoreboard in its new arena, The Golden 1 Center,

Image Credit: Ken Yeung/VentureBeat

Technologically speaking, the arena is perhaps the most advanced one in the world. Most probably know that it’s has the first 4K ultra high-definition scoreboard in the NBA, covering 6,100 square feet and has 38 million pixels. Hanging over the court, the four screens will display pertinent information about the game and be tilted in such a way that the teams at courtside need only angle their heads slightly to get a clear view.

Beyond the famous scoreboard, Golden 1 houses more than 1,000 access points, providing internet for every 17 guests — there are 800 in the arena bowl alone. The building is wired with over 1,000 miles of cable and has a 200 gigabit per second ethernet connection. To put that speed into context, more than 500,000 Snapchat posts can be processed each second. The Kings have wired Category 6A copper wire throughout Golden 1 to enable high-speed data transmission.

The Sacramento Kings have wired The Golden 1 Center with more than 1,000 miles of cables.

Above: The Sacramento Kings have wired The Golden 1 Center with more than 1,000 miles of cables.

Image Credit: Ken Yeung/VentureBeat

“This infrastructure will ensure that all fans experience the fastest speeds available – no more Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter posts that don’t send or realtime statistics that don’t load,” the Kings explained in its tech feet.

There are more than 1 million square feet of Wi-Fi and cell coverage in Golden 1, powered by Ruckus Wireless.

The building has received LEED platinum certification because it uses 100 percent sustainable energy, reduces its water consumption, and sources food for its concession stands locally. The team has partnered with California Safe Soil, a firm that won the Kings’ startup contest Capitalize earlier this year. California Safe Soil provides a full-cycle process that recycles the stadium’s food, converting it into liquid fertilizer product, and puts it back into the soil to grow more food. Golden 1 Center also has solar panels on its roof.

Its data centers have also been designed around maximum output using the least amount of energy. Walking into its main center, there are two columns of approximately 10 sets of data modules. Because of the Kings’ goal of future-proofing itself, Montoya explained that not all the racks would be filled, but there’s enough space for more servers if needed. The equipment in the room absorbs all the signals from the various smart sensors positioned throughout the arena along with data from the mobile app and other sources, basically acting as the central nervous system for the building. What’s unique about the data center is that each server module contains a sealed door that keeps each set of servers temperature controlled, eliminating the need for the entire room to be frozen.

The Kings are using enterprise Point of Sale and inventory system provider Appetize at its concession stands, which enables fans to pay for their food using not only bitcoin, but also Apple, Android, and Samsung Pay through the system’s NFC terminals.

“If you think of it as just being a sports team, it has limited value,” Ranadivé commented. “But if you think of it as a social network and leverage the technology, the value is 5 to 10 times greater.” He believes the Kings are ahead of the curve when it comes to sports leagues adopting technology, but says other teams “have a very open mind.”

“When I became an entrepreneur 25 to 30 years ago, banks were the early adopters of technology, now it’s going to be sports leagues and arenas,” he claimed. And while the San Francisco Giants’ AT&T ballpark and the San Francisco 49er’s Levi’s Stadium have been heralded as high tech, Ranadivé believes it’s a 20th century model.

The main entrance of The Golden 1 Center is made up of giant airplane hangar doors that retract in nice weather.

Above: The main entrance of The Golden 1 Center is made up of giant airplane hangar doors that retract in nice weather.

Image Credit: Sacramento Kings

“Mr. Real Time”

Vivek Ranadive, serial entrepreneur and owner of the NBA's Sacramento Kings

Above: Vivek Ranadive, serial entrepreneur and owner of the NBA’s Sacramento Kings

Ranadivé is certainly no stranger to the world of sports and technology. Before purchasing the Kings, he was a minority owner of the Golden State Warriors and had a hand in the digital transformation of the San Francisco Bay Area team. But prior to that, he founded the real-time computing company TIBCO and also Teknekron Software Systems, of which he’s credited with modernizing Wall Street in the 1980s.

Throughout his years, Ranadivé has been all about the real-time aspect of doing things. With Teknekron Software Systems, he worked with Goldman Sachs to provide real-time international transactions right from the trading floors. Then at TIBCO, he brought the real-time software applications to other industries, including with CBS Sportsline so the outlet could provide real-time news about the major sports leagues.

While the Warriors may have gotten more attention than the Kings, Ranadivé was adamant that his team should be considered to be the more technologically advanced ones. He explained that Sacramento was the first to explore virtual reality’s usage — some of the Kings’ games will be broadcast in VR this season and fans in attendance will be able to watch VR replays from any seat; it also was the first team to accept bitcoin, use social media, use robots and drones, experiment with Google Glass, and deploy beacons.

But having the most connected building in the NBA wasn’t enough for Ranadivé and he pushed his team to focus on four goals: The arena had to be iconic, something that you’d feature on a postcard; It also had to be “ecologically on magnitude” with what hasn’t been done before — he said the Golden 1 Center was referred to as the “Tesla of arenas”; the building had to also provide a positive impact on the community; and provide “an unparalleled fan experience.”

Part of his effort to inspire his team involved bringing them to meet with Silicon Valley companies, such as Apple, IDEO, and others. Of course it wasn’t that difficult to instill a pro-technology perspective, especially since the owners are a who’s who of tech elite, including former Facebook senior executive Chris Kelly, and the founders of Qualcomm.

The Kings hope that the Golden 1 Center will be an example for how arenas should be constructed, moving beyond just being a place of seats and concrete to a truly immersive entertainment complex. As other teams, such as the Warriors, develop their new homes, it’s likely that while they have a wish list of technological innovations they want to provide fans, the Sacramento Kings will be heavily cited as a team that has brought together communities to not only keep it in California’s capital city, but also create a destination that rises above basketball.

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