In what feels like a lifetime ago, the Winter Olympic Games in South Korea in 2018 provided an early testbed for pre-standardised 5G, providing some of the lessons which shaped the eventual network technology.

But five years later, how is 5G transforming major sporting events?  

The use of technology at the cutting edge of Formula 1 has been a regular feature of major mobile events for years and, while this continues to be the case, in this network generation, solid use cases for private networks are emerging for a wide range of sports.

Experts spoken to by Mobile World Live (MWL) pointed to flexibility of deployment, uncontested capacity and quality as major advantages of private 5G against alternatives including fibre and the mobile technology’s public peer.

Nokia enterprise head of PWLS campus, CNS cloud and network services David de Lancellotti highlighted edge computing as a key benefit of private 5G, alongside more well-publicised benefits of using the technology in a dedicated network.

“Private wireless provides the security and reliability that stadiums and sport teams require both today and for their future operations,” he added.

“The primary applications for businesses in the arena industry are safe, secure and reliable real-time communications and applications, as these venues and sports teams digitally transform their operations,” de Lancellotti stated.

In the 5G club
Data has completely transformed the sports world, with advanced analytics giving a greater view of player performance, improving spectator awareness of what is going on and opening new bookmaking opportunities.

The reach and speed of 5G communication has the potential to advance data collection and delivery even further, as Simon Wilson, CTO for UK and Ireland with HPE’s Aruba division, explained while discussing its work on golf contest The Ryder Cup.

Colleseum in Rome by sunset with two golfbags in the foreground

The latest edition of the competition took place in Rome during September and October, with the company using private 5G as part of a wider connectivity deployment. Part of the reasoning for this architecture was down to restrictions and logistics for installing other infrastructure.

“In Rome you’ve got archaeology everywhere, you can’t put a spade in the ground without picking up an artifact or coin from the Roman era,” Wilson said. “So there were areas of the course they weren’t allowed to run any cables”.

Alongside more general applications supported during the event, the vendor ran a proof-of-concept on using private 5G for rapidly sharing information on where the ball lands and how far it travelled.

“They [event organisers] have people walking around the course with tablets marking where Rory McIlroy or Jon Rahm’s ball has just landed,” he explained. “To do that, there needs to be complete coverage of the entire course.”

“There needs to be coverage, it [data] needs to be accurate and in real time. Lots of things are dependent on it: TV commentators, spectators looking at home and their apps, and increasingly spread betting over how far someone has hit the ball.”

“Making sure this is accurate, timely and shared with everyone simultaneously is really important,” he added.    

Touchdown touchpoints
Private networks are not purely a data play, however, as uncontested network availability for voice is already being used within the US National Football League (NFL) domestically and beyond.

On the sidelines of one of the NFL London games, Verizon Business head of stadiums, venues, media and entertainment for EMEA and APAC Leighton Griffiths told MWL the company is supporting teams’ coach-to-coach communications using private 5G parachuted in specifically for the event.

“What we’ve got for the international games is similar to what we use in the US to give the ability for the coach to communicate with the offence and defence [teams] in a secure environment”.

Headsets are connected via a SIM to a private network.

“It’s a completely non-contested network designed for low-latency, high-quality and resilient voice communication,” Griffiths noted, adding “venues are a very loud and complex environment. You have a number of services and operations, so to be able to use a non-contended committed communications network can be a real game changer”.   

Outside of coach communications, he noted Verizon Business is seeing a “real drive in the use of private networks for media broadcast”, explaining “when you look at all the cables and physical assets around the pitch, there’s no reason they can’t adopt private networks to give them that same level of certainty and quality of service. Media broadcast will be the next kick for adoption.”

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Media broadcast will be the next kick for adoption

Leighton Griffiths – head of stadiums, venues, media and entertainment for EMEA and APAC Verizon Business

Pet project
Several US stadia have been at the forefront of adopting the latest technology to enhance the all-round experience covering all major sports in the country.

Event coverage specialist Boingo Wireless has been deploying private 5G for a variety of use cases in its home market of the US.

Among these is baseball stadium Petco Park, which used the technology within its operations for logistical elements including cashless transactions, concessions, mobile tickets and operational IoT devices.

Boingo Wireless CCO Michael Zeto told MWL “the venue experience is now the connected venue experience. Seamless, fast, secure connectivity gives fans what they expect and operations teams what they need. 5G networks enable ticketless entry, cashless concessions, robotics, real-time data, virtual reality”.

“These innovations can boost the bottom line and drive revenue.”

Going for gold
Just as at the dawn of 5G, the Summer Olympic Games scheduled to take place in Paris in 2024 are set to provide inspirational examples of what the latest network technology can do, with Orange planning to deploy private networks in several venues across the city.

Speaking at MWL’s Unwrapped event last month, Bertrand Rojat, CTIO at Orange Events and Paris Olympics 2024, highlighted it would use the technology to support broadcast coverage so spectators can be “next to the athletes and understand what they are doing”.

“We will deploy private 5G across a number of sites next year, including stadium and major arenas for the opening ceremony,” he said.

“What people are looking for is to be as close as possible to what is happening in the stadium. To do that, you need more cameras that are close to the athletes, private 5G can enable that. You can use a very small camera and still get very high quality for broadcasting.”

These examples just touch the surface of the potential opportunities ahead for private 5G, with each sport having its own use cases, whether targeted at spectators or improving the games themselves.

Just as the Winter Olympic Games showed the early potential of 5G, its Summer peer in 2024 has the potential to showcase exactly how far the industry has come and, as other sports are beginning to discover, the technology can enable reliable near real-time communications with the potential to transform any event.