A Technology Perspective on Managing Large Events

3rd August 2015

Author Gautam Mangar

Technology is not an aspect that would often be thought about with a sports tournament, but it plays an ever increasing role with sponsors, broadcasters and media who are dependent on critical infrastructure and systems to deliver news photos and updates for clients.

New Zealand recently co-hosted the 2015 Cricket World Cup (CWC2015), the second largest major event attracted to the country after the 2011 Rugby World Cup (RWC2011). The success of these events has contributed to significant long-term business and investment opportunities, the growth of major event expertise and a legacy of world-class venues for New Zealand.

Managing a technology programme for these large events brings a unique mix of challenges quite unlike other traditional projects. The temporary nature of the event, increased focus on security, cultural and language barriers, a complex network of stakeholders and users within the country and offshore, tight budgets, and match day orchestration all add complexities that not often found in a typical IT project. 

There are many highly influential stakeholders interested in the services delivered by the technology programme. The international tournament owners and local organising committee are obvious groups, added to by large media agencies, sponsors and a large amount of international media and photographers. And of course the four million New Zealanders avidly following the performance of the local team.

Real life challenges – RWC2011 & CWC2015

In terms of scope, visibility and complexity, the programmes required to support both the CWC2015 and RWC2011 were unprecedented in New Zealand. They required faultless management of geographically spread venues including several stadiums, hotels, and other social, administration,  and media sites as well as fanzones. In addition to this was the co-ordination of over 20,000 temporary employees including over 5,000 volunteers.

The technology build for RWC2011 included a geographical spread with 12 stadiums across New Zealand, seven accreditation centres, a main operations centre, two host broadcaster data centres and the International Broadcast Centre. A large number of same-day back-to-back matches played at different stadiums added further complexity. Stadiums were not officially handed over to the local organising committee for exclusive use until 15 days before the first game. This left very little time to install the purpose-built technology infrastructure and test the end-to-end solution.

Real-time high speed data and voice connectivity played an essential part of broadcasting both RWC2011 and CWC2015 to a cumulative audience of billions in hundreds of territories. Whereas in the past a match report could be posted in the following day’s newspaper, media reporting is now international with a 24/7 cycle the norm. Data connectivity is used for everything from sponsor advertising timeslots, providing radio, TV and website commentary, posting photos and stories to controlling the official match clock. Collaboration with overseas parties results in time zone challenges, language barriers and expectations which need to be carefully managed.

With no comparable New Zealand event to use as a test case, the RWC2011 technology team faced many unknown factors from the outset. Unforeseen challenges including rescheduling seven Christchurch matches following the February 2011 earthquake required a revision of plans to suit the new schedule. The extended delays in completing construction of the Otago Regional Stadium presented yet more challenges that were compounded by bad weather and a fire in the stadium three weeks before the opening match of the tournament that necessitated all equipment and cabling to be replaced before the first game. Match day variables and the unscripted nature of live events, such as key technology equipment being unplugged mistakenly by 3rd parties, also provided challenges.

In simple terms there were no second chances as everything had to “work first time every time” and each match was treated as an individual go-live.

Delivering within these challenges

It all starts with bringing together a team which is like minded, with the right experience and who have the drive and passion to go the extra mile; there is no place for egos. Added to this is strong governance, project leadership and control which are vital for managing a stakeholder group which certainly knows that the pen is mightier than the sword. Sound Business Continuity Planning is key to ensuring no disruption to the programme.

For RWC2011 and CWC2015, a stringent approach to deadlines and performance was instilled across the entire technology team with the goal of a successful project being shared and enjoyed. Every member of the team – staff, suppliers and volunteers - was committed to going the extra mile to ensure New Zealand made the most of its moment in the spotlight. This even extended to testing, where a “bump-in/bump-out‟ approach with the “core‟ services being installed as early as possible was made possible by the co-operation of venue operators/owners.

It was identified early on in both events that a standard look and feel to technology support services was required. This in itself was a challenge due to the large geography and over 500 technology support staff needing training from the key vendor and third parties. The programme trained professionals on the ground in each area with the local knowledge and connections required to meet the logistical challenges. Senior members of the programme team were also located at all match venues on game days to ensure fast decision-making when required.

With media and broadcasters from approximately 50 different countries, volunteers provided an invaluable resource in managing IT needs, cultural differences and language barriers during matches – the highest pressure points in the project for both the programme team and users. The small “core” programme team supported the vast network of volunteers located at venues and media centres before, during and after all matches to manage any enquiries and help with technical issues.

Working with media, photographers and broadcasters at test events or scenario based desktop exercises played a vital part in assessing operational readiness. Many broadcasters purchased Rate Card services which allow them to get standardised technology services beyond those provided by the organising committee (e.g. ISDN for TV and radio commentary). Testing that the equipment worked to the correct standards between countries was imperative to avoid last minute panic. Regular communication and strict escalation measures were agreed upon and communicated early to ensure that expectations and project outcomes were aligned.

Both RWC 2011 and CWC 2015 were successful events for the country, with technology playing a critical supporting role but at the end of the day, the most important thing to acknowledge is that it is about the game and the players that take the field – not the technology.

What’s next?

With the proliferation of television and media rights, the viewing options available to avid sports fans have significantly increased. Physical attendance is now often considered a luxury and sports venues and franchises are facing challenges filling large stadiums, with declining attendance numbers apart for iconic and one-off events. As they look to resolve this situation, focus is now shifting towards using technology within stadia for a more immersive and interactive experience for fans and sponsors. The legacy infrastructure (such as cabling) left behind after major events provides a foundation upon which these initiatives will build upon.

 

Gautam Mangar leads the programme/project management capability at Davanti Consulting. He was the vendor Technology Project Director for both Rugby World Cup 2011 and Cricket World Cup 2015.