- By Tim Tucker The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Even the Chick-fil-A cow has gone high-tech at SunTrust Park.
Rather than holding a hand-painted sign, as the iconic fiberglass-and-steel cow did at Turner Field, it holds an electronic LED board at the new stadium.
That is a not-so-subtle symbol of how technology has been ratcheted up in all corners of the Braves’ new home.
The Braves promise fans the fastest WiFi service of any stadium in the country, as well as a deep lineup of video, lighting and sound effects.
“This is the next generation of ballpark and stadium presentations,” said Greg Mize, the Braves’ director of digital.
The challenge might be to stop short of overwhelming the game and disorienting the fans with all the new bells and whistles.
“We’re not looking to wipe the slate clean and start anew because there are elements our fans relate to and expect,” Mize said. “But the strategy is … how to use all these toys at our disposal to really take it to the next level.
“There will be noticeable differences when people get here on opening day in what happens after a home run, what happens after a Braves victory. At the same time, there will be elements of the game presentation that will not change. If you’re going to a Braves game, you know you’re going to do the tomahawk chop.”
And for most fans these days, you know you’re going to use your mobile phone.
The Braves and technology partner Comcast have pledged for years that the stadium will end the connectivity frustrations that fans often experience at large sports venues.
How well they have delivered on that pledge will be answered immediately, with a sold-out crowd expected to pack the park for Friday night’s home opener against the San Diego Padres.
“Probably the simplest way to describe it is that at SunTrust Park the days are gone of trying to upload a photo to Instagram or get your email or text someone and not having all those go through,” Mize said.
Comcast Cable director of product management Eric McLoughlin said the stadium opens with dual 100-gigabit internet bandwidth, a total of 200 gigabits, which he described as “unheard of from any other stadium that is out there.”
“Really, what 200 gigs means is if everyone at the game wants to be on their phone — whether it’s to upload a photo, watch a video — at the same time, that’s going to be able to happen,” Mize said.
By comparison, the San Francisco 49ers’ Levi’s Stadium, widely considered the nation’s most technologically advanced sports venue since its opening in 2014, became the first stadium with 40 gigabits of available bandwidth.
The 41,149-seat SunTrust Park has 800 WiFi hot spots, plus another 300 in the adjacent mixed-use development, McLoughlin said. More than 250 miles of fiber optic cable run throughout the stadium and The Battery Atlanta.
McLoughlin anticipated the next question.
“So why should a baseball fan care that they’ve got this incredible technology?” he said. “I am a self-described huge baseball fan. I follow stats, I follow the division standings, and if I’ve got access to information while I’m sitting in the stands watching my team play, that gives me information I’m really interested in.”
He compared it with the days when his father and grandfather would take transistor radios to games and listen to the broadcasts for additional information about what was happening on the field.
“We have that capability (via smartphones) with streaming,” McLoughlin said. “The capabilities of streaming whatever content you want to help enhance the game experience, that’s really the key.”
He suggested one potential application in the near future: augmented reality in which fans can point on their mobile phones to a certain position on the field and get live statistics for the player standing there.
Beyond connectivity, technology touches many parts of the the new ballpark.
The “BravesVision” video board, which is 121 feet wide and 64 feet tall, and the other screens will be operated by a game-day staff of 30 in the stadium’s control room. Screens include a 90-by-30-foot out-of-town scoreboard beyond left-center field, two 90-by-6-foot displays above the bullpens and a giant baseball sculpture wrapped in a spherical LED display in the plaza that connects the ballpark and The Battery.
Four water cannons in the “batter’s eye” area beyond center field are programmed to shoot 2.8 gallons of water 50 feet into the air when a Braves player hits a home run, the team wins a game and the like.
And the lights, which turn on and off instantly, will be used for dramatic effects, such as celebrating big plays and varying the glow color of the large canopy that overhangs the upper deck.
“With old stadium lights, you had to take time for them to come on,” Mize said. “With these LED lights, there is a lot we can do as it relates to player introductions and certain plays in the game. When the Braves hit a home run, the lights can sparkle, the lights can chase. … We’re programming all of that to the point that it takes one push of a button.”
Some Braves players expressed concern about some of the experimentation with the lights during the March 31 exhibition game against the Yankees, such as when the lights flashed after a strikeout of an opposing batter.
Mike Plant, the Braves’ president of development, acknowledged the use of lighting is a work in progress with “a long way to go on that yet.”
Similarly, the new sound system provides the ability to play with stereo effects.
“We’re still exploring how to do all these things,” said Derek Schiller, the Braves’ president of business. “We’ve got this great new ballpark with all these bells and whistles, and we’re still trying to figure out how to use them effectively. … The technology here is extremely complex.”
The Braves have pushed hard for fans to use technology before they arrive at the stadium, too, by purchasing tickets and parking passes in advance and finding their way to their specific parking lots with the Waze navigation and traffic app.
Inside the stadium, the Chick-fil-A cow looks over the field from a light tower beyond right field. Its LED screen displays rotating Chick-fil-A messages and can play video.
But the cow’s new position and electronic sign came with a trade-off: It no longer is equipped to do the tomahawk chop.