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Volume 22 No. 28
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5G: Bigger. Faster. Stronger.

5G’s potential of remarkable speed and connectivity is racing toward reality. What’s the impact for teams, the venues in which they play and the fans who watch them?
Photo: getty images

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n a mobile business already beset with buzzwords and hype, 5G has quickly become the latest industry catchphrase. The newest generation of mobile connectivity promises unprecedented speed, and in nearly every way imaginable, sports will be a pioneer and a leader in this transformation.


But in this still very early phase of the 5G cellular rollout, separating fact from mere marketing has been difficult. What follows is a 10-part explainer on what exactly 5G is and how it will affect sports.

The first generation of mobile connectivity provided sound, the second text, the third a mobile web and the fourth boosted speed for everything by about 10 times and made streaming mobile video a true reality. Most mobile devices today show “4G LTE” for their network, short for “long-term evolution” that also represents a marked improvement on 3G. But in reality, those LTE networks aren’t enough to qualify for true global 4G technical standards set by the International Telecommunication Union, part of the United Nations.

5G leaps far past all of that by again boosting mobile speed by about a factor of 10, and the enhanced capabilities will allow for a full-length, high-definition movie to be downloaded in mere seconds. But even more critically, 5G networks also reduce to near zero the network latency, which is the lag between sending and receiving data. So 5G allows for essentially the real-time transmission of massive amounts of data, opening up all sorts of possibilities for many facets of the sports industry, including live game statistics and video, broadcast operations, legalized gaming and esports.

2. What’s all the fuss about?

The huge improvements in mobile network speed and latency in 5G essentially mean that after years of technical limitations and often struggling to deliver even basic connectivity in high-density environments such as at a stadium or arena, the constraints in the future will be more of the imagination than of infrastructure. And it’s not just smartphones that will get much faster with 5G. Anything connected to the internet — such as a self-driving car, robot, remote broadcast camera or other smart device — will see the benefits of 5G, meaning the impacts of the enhanced networks will go far beyond the phone.

Because sports are typically at the high end of any type of content consumption measurement and lead the way in live TV and live streaming, sports will also be at the leading edge of 5G. And executives in the space believe that literally every facet of fan experience and sports industry operations will be affected by 5G in some fashion. 

“We are unlikely to have any real aspect of fandom that won’t be touched by 5G somehow,” said Geoff Reiss, general manager for Yahoo Sports, part of Verizon Media. “It’s going to touch everything. That makes it exciting and difficult at the same time, and it’s really an intersection of art and science, using that infrastructure to fundamentally change and enhance the fan experience.”

5G could help augmented and virtual reality become more accssible.
Photo: getty images

3. What does it mean for the expectations of sports fans?

All the key things expected now by fans from mobile networks such as using social media, sending and receiving video and surfing the web will get much easier and faster with 5G. But those elements, while important, are still essentially considered table stakes and a mere forerunner to what 5G will fully support. What’s also being considered are numerous higher-order features such as advanced augmented and virtual reality and artificial intelligence deployments. High-end panoramic video replays, often known inside the industry as volumetric video, that are currently cumbersome to produce and distribute will get much more commonplace with far quicker turnaround. 

The Dallas Cowboys are among the early adopters of 5G, working with key corporate partner AT&T to install the advanced network at AT&T Stadium in time for the 2019 NFL season. Charlotte Jones Anderson, the Cowboys’ chief brand officer and a key figure in the team’s 5G rollout, describes a future scenario where fans will be able to see in real time a video view of the field on either their phones or the stadium’s huge video board from the exact perspective of Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott, with any number of content, fantasy and gaming integrations spinning off from that. 

“We’re looking for the ‘wow’ factor, the thing that really alters the experience,” Anderson said. “The extra throughput is going to be great. We’re pushing a ton of data now, and that’s certainly going to increase by a lot. But where we’re really spending our time on this are the things that will change how fans engage with the game, and make them feel like they’re really inside of it, part of it and close to it.”

Installation of 5G technology was underway at AT&T Stadium in late 2018.
Photo: AT&T

4. How soon will 5G be here?

Early testing by each of the major carriers including Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile is happening now, with targeted market-specific rollouts having started over the past several months. And the marketing toward each of the carriers’ claimed 5G superiority has also begun in full force, long before consumers have the ability to take full advantage of 5G’s capabilities. Ultimately, 5G will be a phased rollout with widespread availability not expected in the U.S. until at least late 2020 or early 2021. 

In the meantime, expect lots of dealmaking and experimentation within the sports industry. The NFL, for example, recently expanded its longtime alignment with Verizon to create a two-year “innovation partnership” to create new experiences around 5G. And many teams are already working with carriers to test the enhanced networks in their buildings, similar to what the Cowboys are doing. 

“You’re seeing the early tests in a lot of the big cities, and a key focus is certainly going to be on those major metro areas,” said Bill Schlough, San Francisco Giants senior vice president and chief information officer. “But the sports facilities and the density they have are also going to be a key element of testing demand, throughput, how antennas need to be spaced, and so forth.”

5. This all sounds expensive. How much will 5G cost and who’s going to pay for it? 

An exact figure has not been detailed, particularly given that it involves multiple carriers. But a study by Accenture Strategy last year pegged the 5G infrastructure buildout cost by carriers at as much as $275 billion over the next seven years. Much like prior wireless generations, carriers will bear the vast majority of those network expenses, and they will be the ones primarily benefiting from the user revenue.  

But Anderson also described future partnership scenarios where teams, leagues and other rights holders will contribute intellectual property and other copyrighted material, such as use of official video and team and league marks, to carriers to help build out 5G-powered fan experiences.

“It’s going to be a shared situation in many instances where we’re each bringing assets to the table,” she said.

6. How has it performed so far?

As one might expect in these early days, it’s had mixed success. In several of the early city-based trials, testers have found peak speeds to be far above 4G LTE, as expected, but in many instances still well short of the projected capabilities of 5G, with user complaints of spotty or unstable coverage.  

The bigger issue, though, remains the rather limited nature of those early tests. The new antennas required for 5G networks must be placed much closer together than ones for the prior generation to work properly, with industry estimates pegged at roughly 300,000 new antennas required. Building out the 5G network, particularly in the early phases, will also require a high degree of interconnection between 4G LTE and 5G network, meaning the transition to the full buildout of the next generation will likely be a bit bumpy. 

As 5G networks come online across the country, phone upgrades will be needed to keep pace.
Photo: getty images

7. Will everyone need to buy a new phone?

Ultimately, yes. Several 5G-capable smartphones have already been released, soon will be, or were demonstrated at recent industry events such as the Consumer Electronics Show. In sports, some of the facility-based fan experience enhancements will not require a fan to get a new device. But 5G does rely on a different device technology as well as a different antenna structure, and as 5G rolls out broadly, expect a mass level of smartphone replacement across the industry.

“For the complete 5G experience, this is going to require users to have a new device,” said Gordon Mansfield, vice president of converged access and device technology for AT&T.

8. What does 5G mean for the active sports sponsorship category?

More of the same, but likely at a highly amplified level. Already, the carriers have been actively marketing simulated, but not real, 5G network capability and accusing their competitors of foul play. Perhaps most notably, AT&T in select markets has been marketing “5GE” connectivity that is in fact not true 5G but rather its latest iteration of 4G LTE. The moniker prompted John Saw, chief technology officer for rival carrier Sprint, to claim AT&T is “blatantly misleading consumers,” with Sprint following that up with a lawsuit for false advertising.

AT&T has staunchly defended the move, and said the branding has been well-received by its customers and simply rattled its rivals. “If I have now occupied beachfront real estate in my competitors’ heads, that makes me smile,” said AT&T Communications CEO John Donovan.  

Each of the major carriers spend tens of millions on marketing in and around pro and college sports each year in a push for customer recruitment and retention, highlighted by alignments such as Verizon and the NFL, T-Mobile and MLB, and AT&T and the Cowboys. So expect the sports industry to be ground zero for future battles in 5G marketing wars.

Verizon Media’s RYOT 5G Studio in Los Angeles will partner with other content creators to experiment on the future of production.
Photo: Verizon Media

9. What are the expected impacts of 5G on sports broadcasting?

Massive. Enhanced replays are going to be far easier to produce and show in near real time. But even more critically to back-end operations, the ability to cover events spanning wide expanses of land such as the Olympics and golf tournaments becomes far easier and more efficient without the need for more extensive wired or satellite-based transmission infrastructure. For far-flung events in particular, directors and core staff will likely be able to stay at primary production center, while remote cameras, some of which undoubtedly will be autonomous, will wirelessly transmit back high-definition video. 

“The Tokyo Olympics next year in particular are going to be a big showcase for 5G,” said Yogen Patel, head of Amdocs product and solutions marketing. The software and service provider earlier this year partnered with research firm Ovum to release a research study projecting that consumers’ first 5G experience will likely occur at a sports event.  

“Not only is that a part of the world where cell networks are already more advanced, it’s a big event where many people involved are going to be eager to show off the 5G capabilities,” Patel said.

10. How will 5G alter the development of legalized sports wagering?

The impact here also be massive. Nearly everybody in and around the space believes that in-play betting is the great untapped space for betting and how the emergence of broad legalization will most significantly change fan experience. 5G networks will allow for all sorts of new things to be seen, understood and measured in real time.

And once that real-time measurement and data transmission happens, that allows odds to be set. One can expect an accelerated version of the active in-match betting that currently happens in Europe, but further fueled by 5G connectivity. And in the early adopting U.S. states for legalized betting, it’s been mobile-based play that has been a sizable driver of their gaming revenue.

“You obviously don’t know of a single league that isn’t fervently committed to building its fan base,” Reiss said. “This is a situation where technology can really help engage the fan in a fundamentally deeper way.”