Bringing the game: A day in the life of Athletics information technology

Another Penn State home football season is in the books. Equipment has been moved to other campus facilities, and the team has shifted its plays — and replays — indoors. This team’s roster of special, less well-known players delivers behind-the-scenes technical innovations that enhance the game-day experience at Beaver Stadium and beyond.

From directing the electronic ribbon encircling the middle of the stadium to running the twin Jumbotrons playing sound effects and showing replays and stats overhead, recap a typical fall Saturday with Athletics’ information technology team.

6:30 a.m. - The Huddle

In the pre-dawn light, Penn State Athletics’ IT Manager Rand Allison and Senior Systems Analyst Phil Mansfield, his second-in-command, sit at a table on the fourth level of Beaver Stadium, talking animatedly with staff from security, ticketing, broadcasting, customer service, emergency operations and maintenance. It's game day, and representatives are strategizing what will unfold over the next eight hours — ensuring that every aspect of technology in the stadium will deliver and uphold what has been dubbed "the greatest show in college sports."

The unit managers issue orders in quiet voices, as the morning light begins to hit the conference room window overlooking the field. Many have been doing this for years — and they know each other’s routines like well choreographed dance partners.

Allison double checks his list, then signals to his team. It's time for the technology crew to go into action.

8 a.m. - The Snap

Allison and Mansfield sip coffee in their tiny office one level down on the east side of the stadium. Rather than taking in the view of the broad, well-manicured field 60 feet down, they intently monitor a large display screen and its graphical map of IT connection signals. Each line on the map pulses with color, indicating phone, Internet, broadcast and television capabilities in every part of Beaver Stadium and across University Park.

This is one of the seven days each year when State College swells to more than three times its size with thousands of fans surging into town, creating one of the largest temporary cities in Pennsylvania. But in the stadium itself, Allison's IT team is managing a city of its own, tackling a host of technology needs and guaranteeing enthusiasts both here, and across the nation, can see a show unlike any other.

“We’d like to think we have it down to a science,” Allison says, closely scrutinizing the monitor. “But until you pack that stadium full of 100,000-plus people, and you get 200 or 300 media people in there, and you have student bookstore kiosks and credit card scanners cranked up — you can’t really test for the actual game.”

Allison’s crew is a lean group of five who manage not just the IT needs in the stadium, but also oversee technology for all Penn State Athletics events, including baseball, basketball, volleyball, soccer, rugby, squash and hockey games, plus tennis, fencing, boxing and wrestling matches — in such venues as the Bryce Jordan Center, the new Pegula Ice Arena and Rec Hall.

They also serve as the technical staff for more than 350 Athletics employees throughout University Park.

9:30 a.m. - The Rush

Few might guess the bleachers of Beaver Stadium hide a high-bandwidth highway of cabling that wraps around the entire complex, providing network access to vendors, photographers, security personnel and reporters. Supporting these networks are 16 telecommunications closets located throughout the facility, the largest of which connects to the newly renovated athletics control center in the adjacent Bryce Jordan Center via 48 pairs of fiber-optic cable, and houses AT&T’s Wi-Fi services hub.

Allison’s team monitors all these IT centers, ensuring the systems are humming quietly and ready to support players, officials, coaches, journalists, speakers, band members and a slew of television crews from around the eastern U.S.

After a minute or two, several more team members join Allison and Mansfield in the upstairs office. They study the graphical display a bit more, searching for any blinking red lights that signal connection errors, before quickly filtering out to make the rounds.

On level two, Mansfield opens the door of a small tech closet and leans inside to check the connections.

“For all that we have to do and support, we’re running a very trim organization,” he stresses while inspecting the wires. “Each of us in the unit supports about 80 individuals and their technology.”

Allison adds that their work with other programs keeps the team extraordinarily busy. “Truth is, we rarely take advantage of our vacation perks,” he says, with a grin.

11 a.m. - The Tackle

Allison’s cell phone rings loudly, surprising everyone. It’s the Command Center, requesting immediate tech help. He and Patrick Daniels, an IT support specialist with Penn State Athletics, race up the stairs to the top level of the stadium.

Shrouded in a wall of glass, Penn State’s Operations Command Center houses University Public Safety personnel and State Police, who monitor security through the use of 60 400mm cameras spread around the stadium and the region. Some cameras are located on the roadways coming into campus, enabling security personnel to monitor the safety of fans as they arrive.

An array of 25 monitors can switch between video feeds and radio equipment, allowing for rapid communication in the event of an emergency.

The center’s cameras are capable of zooming into such details as an eyelash on the face of a fan 200 yards away in the stands.

Moments earlier, one of the center’s critical displays went down, so Daniels reconfigures it just in time for the image of a fan, struggling with her broken wheelchair in an adjacent parking lot, to pop up on the screen.

“They’ll have medics to that parking lot in seconds,” Allison says. “The response time is instantaneous from up here — every part of the stadium, the surrounding fields, parking lots and the east side of campus can be monitored by police and emergency personnel.”

12:30 p.m. - Line of Scrimmage

Seconds later, Allison’s beeper crackles and he radios downstairs to Jeff Nelson, assistant athletic director for communications.

“It’s press box time,” he says, ushering everyone into the elevator.

Perched atop the southwestern edge of stadium, Penn State’s press box is a pivotal point from which 300 reporters from all over the mid-Atlantic take in the Nittany Lion skirmishes. Extending nearly the entire length of the third floor, journalists sit in long, parallel rows, intently typing on iPhones, tablets and laptops — and captivating fans with timeless descriptions of the clashes on the field.

“Many of these writers are blogging or writing live to websites that are updated by the minute,” Allison says. “If any of their wireless or hardline connections go down, the game effectively stops for those readers, so keeping their connections alive is vital.”

Adjacent to the press box, a team of statisticians watches the game through binoculars, calling out plays and player numbers and making calculations with the same frenzied enthusiasm.

Thirty-three-year stat crew veteran John Dixon explains it’s imperative the team sends yard coverage and other stats to officials, reporters and broadcasters instantly via the stadium statistics broadcasting software.

“We’re working continuously to get the data into the system, he says. “Every 15 minutes new stat sheets are issued to all the reporters in the rows up here — and simultaneously they’re posted to each of the large displays in the room and television crews upstairs. It’s kind of amazing how it all happens so smoothly."

2 p.m. - The Blitz

Mansfield reappears and pulls Allison and Daniels into a hushed discussion just outside the press box door. Mansfield gestures downstairs and Allison nods, looking at his watch.

Allison explains that the crowd-pleasing visual and sound effects during Penn State’s games are coordinated in a small booth on the second level of the press box. Mansfield waves to Allison, then heads toward the elevator to make the rounds.

In this realm, two consultant engineers are the wizards behind the curtain for the games. The electronic ribbon, a narrow digital banner that wraps around the entire stadium, is on yet another dedicated Athletics network.

“There are six lines that run out to a server rack from here, linking to the banners that are on two fiber lines,” explains P.J. Mullen, the engineer who manages the stadium’s audio. “They need to be fast; we need to have immediate response times for everything.”

While the electronic ribbon is instantly responsive, the sound effects used during games often require more planning. “A lot of the animation we show on the scoreboards is scripted,” he adds. “We have to time it just right so that it responds to the game. This is especially true when they need to be synchronized with events on the field below.”

One particular effect requires the engineers to play lyrics on top of music played live by the Penn State Blue Band. So, if their timing isn’t perfect, the sound will be messy. “It can be intense, but it’s really exciting work,” Mullen says. “If we’re not supporting the crowd or supporting the team, then our production is counterproductive.”

Another feature is the sound technology that works with Penn State’s two Jumbotrons to deliver thunderous musical mixes and rhythmic cheers.

“All of the sound effects are essential,” Mullen says, “but the most electrifying sound we can deliver to the fans from up here is the Nittany Lion’s roar.”

He pulls a silver lever, sending the iconic growl reverberating through the stands.

4:30 p.m. - The Hail Mary Pass

As the afternoon sun starts to cast shadows in the stands, Allison and Mansfield are back in the press box, checking hardwire connections.

The mood in the stadium is exuberant at the end of the fourth quarter. Penn State has just squeezed in a touchdown, and it looks like the game will go into a nail-biting overtime.

Moments later, Sam Ficken splits the uprights from 48 yards away.

But, aside from the soft sound of typing, the room is strangely silent as the crowd roars in the distance.

Allison smiles. “Cheering really never happens in the press box,” he says, “as professional courtesy to the reporters. It’s always been this way.”

He and Mansfield are excited as they begin to retrace their steps toward the tech office, discussing how well a new Distributed Antenna System cellular call network has been working for fans this fall — and their plans for tweaking the new Gameday app — already helping users find the nearest bathroom, post stats and watch exclusive video recaps from inside the stadium.

“Technology is an awe-inspiring, ever-expanding field in sports,” Allison says, “and everywhere today. Just like the game on the field, we get those deeply felt, truly magical moments, with the dedication, drive and passion we put into it.”

6 p.m. - The End Zone

Back on the third level, the field looks well-lit, trampled and full of life outside the tech office window, as the last rays of the sun dip below the horizon. Penn State has won the battle in overtime, and students and alumni spill onto the field.

Mansfield turns off the computers, the blinking map of connections and each of the lights in the office one by one. Tech crewmembers gather, warmly shaking hands with one another and with officials and coaches, as they emerge from the assortment of offices next door.

The team’s collaborative magic has worked well today.

Allison checks his watch and chuckles.

“Now it’s time to pack up and get ready for the volleyball game tonight.”
 

For more information technology stories at Penn State, visit http://current.it.psu.edu.

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Last Updated December 06, 2013