Cowboys Stadium: Big is better in football and technology

In Texas, everything is supposed to be big – and nobody understands that better than Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones. So it was only natural that his Cowboys would build the world's largest domed stadium and hang an 11,520 square-foot video screen right above the field.

Getting Cowboys Stadium ready for its 2009 opening was a massive job for many people, including IT professionals such as Bill Haggard, who is director of enterprise infrastructure for the Dallas Cowboys and other Jones family holdings. As a savvy IT executive, Haggard realized his main objective is to make technology fit the needs of the business. When you manage the infrastructure of the Dallas Cowboys, that's not as simple as it sounds.

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"From an infrastructure perspective we've got a pretty large task on event days, not just counting day to day operations," Haggard says in a recent interview. "We're not really borrowing [strategy] from any other pro sports franchise. There are not other teams that have started doing what we're doing. A lot of the stuff we've done has been very leading edge for sports and entertainment arenas."

The 160-by-72 foot video screen is just one of 3,000 TVs in the stadium. The TVs are the key part of Haggard's digital signage infrastructure, which generates lots of revenue for the franchise, particularly with advertisers. Instead of ripping and replacing physical signs, the Cowboys can just change the display on a screen with the push of a few buttons.

"We had a college bowl game [the Cotton Bowl Classic] here one afternoon and a pro game the next day," Haggard says. "The stadium had to look one way for the college game and advertise their corporate sponsors, and then we had to transform the venue back to the Cowboys brand for the Philadelphia game on Jan. 3. IPTV and digital signage gives us the ability to transform the venue very quickly."

In the past, when the Cowboys lacked digital signage "it used to be a tedious manual process," he says. Now, "Out of the 3,000 TVs we have on the network, we can use any of them for digital signage, target advertising to certain areas, show sports tickers and do live video." The $1.1 billion stadium is outfitted with Cisco Connected Sports technologies, including Cisco StadiumVision and IP phones and infrastructure.

Haggard, who is delivering a keynote speech at Forrester's Infrastructure and Operations Forum in Dallas Thursday, also discussed hosting the 2010 NBA All-Star Game and weekend activities at Cowboys Stadium.

The Cowboys have 700 IP phones throughout the building, but delivering enough to people working at the NBA All-Star weekend was still a challenge.

"The NBA needed a certain number of phones for corporate people, non-corporate people and the media," Haggard says. "500 press people showed up from around the world. We get a lot of local press [for Cowboys games], and some international but nothing like what the NBA brought in."

Cowboys Stadium has 70 IDF closets, 200 concession stands with the ability to take credit cards (as opposed to 30 in the old stadium), 700 point-of-sale terminals tied to the network, 261 miles of fiber-optic cable, and 6 million feet of Cat-6 and Cat-5 cable.

There are 150 employees or so at the stadium on a daily basis, and more on game days.

Haggard has heavily invested in virtualization to make his data center run more efficiently. With about 300 virtual machines installed on HP blade servers running VMware, Haggard says he can virtualize just about anything except Microsoft Exchange, SQL clusters, and some legacy apps.

Virtualization has made a big impact with concession stands, each of which needs its own back-end server. "We need 200 servers to do all the reporting and menus for concession stands," Haggard says. "Without virtualization technology we would have had to have 200 physical servers for those concession stands." Instead, the concession stand operations run on a 16-blade HP system.

Haggard was chosen to speak at Forrester's event because his technology team is so adept at enabling business functions.

"We always talk about ‘how do you align IT with the business," says Forrester analyst Robert Whiteley. "Bill's story is one of the best I've heard about sitting down and listening to what the business needs and building an infrastructure that scales. … If you focus on customer experience or revenue, it's actually easier to reverse engineer what your technology should do."

Haggard joined the Cowboys in November 2008 to make sure the stadium was designed effectively from a business perspective, and kept on board to manage it in the long term. Haggard says the franchise is planning out its next technology projects, possibly including RFID and extensive use of text messaging.

"If you're in the building and pass a concession stand and have a smartphone, we can shoot it a 20% coupon," he says. "Or if you're in a suite and Tony Romo throws a touchdown, we could give suite owners the ability to purchase a Romo jersey at a discount from their smartphones."

Overall, the team's goal for the next year is "to see how we can take technology in the stadium to the next level."

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This story, "Cowboys Stadium: Big is better in football and technology" was originally published by Network World.

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