Techiest Super Bowl ever: Silicon Valley's stadium girds for the big game

Levi's Stadium is one of the most high-powered venues in sports. On Super Bowl Sunday, we'll see if its network can handle the data-storm caused by throngs of smartphone-wielding fanatics.

Terry Collins Staff Reporter, CNET News
Terry writes about social networking giants and legal issues in Silicon Valley for CNET News. He joined CNET News from the Associated Press, where he spent the six years covering major breaking news in the San Francisco Bay Area. Before the AP, Terry worked at the Star Tribune in Minneapolis and the Kansas City Star. Terry's a native of Chicago.
Terry Collins
4 min read
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Levi's Stadium has been in beta since it opened a year and a half ago.

After all, the National Football League's newest venue has so far hosted only a couple of subpar seasons of San Francisco 49ers football.

But the Santa Clara, California, stadium is gearing up for prime time. Next Sunday it hosts Super Bowl 50.

At its disposal are 400 miles of fiber and copper cable and 1,200 Wi-Fi access points capable of handling a torrent of data, all so fans at the game can use the Super Bowl app to seamlessly order food by phone.

A series of colorful wires inside the massive data control center at Levi's Stadium, the site of Super Bowl 50.

A series of colorful wires inside the massive data control center at Levi's Stadium, the site of Super Bowl 50.

James Martin/CNET

Levi's Stadium is one of the most technologically advanced sporting sites ever built, and it's a testament to the shift in how we view sports. The action on the field isn't enough to keep our attention; we're also using phones to post photos of the latest play on Snapchat or brag to our Facebook friends that we're at the big game. Given that the venue is in the heart of Silicon Valley, it's only appropriate that it deliver the techiest Super Bowl ever.

"We've been looking forward to the Super Bowl, because we know it comes with a lot more demands," said Lloyd Carney, CEO of Brocade Communications Systems, one of nearly a dozen technology outfits that have partnered with the venue. "This stadium has all the latest features to really enhance the user experience."

With a lot more demands, though, there's the threat of an overload. For instance, CNET parent CBS is using 5K ultra-high-definition video cameras to shoot the game, including EyeVision 360, which will show replays reminiscent of the trippy effects in "The Matrix." What if the cameras went blank?

San Francisco 49ers COO Al Guido

San Francisco 49ers COO Al Guido says tech is a fundamental part of the stadium's design.

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Before you dismiss the idea, think back to Super Bowl 47. After the Superdome in New Orleans went dark for more than half an hour, the championship contest went from big game to "Blackout Bowl." Then there was last week's AFC title game at Mile High Stadium in Denver, when Microsoft's sideline Surface tablets failed. (Microsoft blamed the venue's wireless network. Questions remain as to just who was responsible for on-field connectivity.)

That's partly why I was invited to go behind the scenes at Levi's Stadium as the organizers showed off their preparations for the golden anniversary of the NFL's signature game.

In a suite overlooking the 50-yard line Al Guido, the 49ers' chief operating officer, told me that tech has been an integral part of the stadium's design since the get-go. "We built this stadium based on three pillars," he said, "technology, sustainability and the fan experience."

In fact, Levi's Stadium boasts 10 times the bandwidth the NFL mandates at other stadiums. That's even more than the monstrous AT&T Stadium near Dallas.

Watch this: It's a super-techie Super Bowl

The new system at Levi's was tested last March when the stadium played host to WrestleMania 31. The extravaganza saw more than 76,000 fans tweeting, texting, sending selfies, uploading photos and video to social networks, and other such digital age pursuits. That tapped the stadium's wireless network to the tune of 4.3 terabytes of data, a stadium record, said 49ers spokesman Roger Hacker. That's the equivalent of more than 68,000 hours of music, and it makes stadium officials think that this year's NFL title game could top the Super Bowl record of 6.2 terabytes, set last year in Arizona.

Down in the bowels of the stadium sits a massive data control center with rows of routers and switches to handle every single byte of data the stadium produces. It's really noisy -- think of a parking lot full of revving Harleys. That's because the center can handle up to 500 terabytes of data in about a five-hour span on game days, 49ers IT director Jim Bartholomew shouted to me above the racket.

Inside the Super Bowl tech at Levi's Stadium (pictures)

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"We have a stadium policy that we don't have a single point of failure," Bartholomew said. "Everything is redundant."

It's not all about tech, though, or the latest cutting-edge procedures. Sometimes a more traditional touch is called for.

Back above ground, crews work to ensure that the field's 75,000 square feet of new turf is in tip-top shape, not just for the game but for the massive halftime show featuring Coldplay and Beyoncé.

The man in charge of the turf is NFL Field Director Ed Mangan, who's working his 27th Super Bowl. And I spied legendary groundskeeper George Toma, aka the "God of Sod," hosing down one of the end zones. Toma, who turns 87 Tuesday, has worked the turf, whether real or artificial, at all 50 Super Bowls. Yep, all 50.

With Mangan and Toma on the one hand, and that howling data center on the other, Levi's Stadium may have covered the spectrum.

NFL Events Director Eric Finkelstein thinks so. He said the stadium has the right plan to "make everything function and flow properly for the Super Bowl."

We'll see next Sunday.