By GEOFF NAIRN

(Published in the Financial Times on February 28, 2007. Read the original here.)

Real Madrid, perhaps the world’s most best-known football club, is also one of the richest. Much of that money goes on star players as Real Madrid strives — with mixed results so far this season — to live up to its exalted reputation.

But not all the money is frittered away on transfer fees and sports cars for the galácticos — Real Madrid’s stars. The club is also spending heavily on technology to equip its famous Bernabéu stadium with the latest communications, entertainment and security systems.

Bernabéu is a footballing Mecca and its 80,000 seats regularly sell out. However, the real money is in the millions of spectators who watch the club on TV.

Santiago Bernabéu Stadium

It recently signed a landmark deal to sell the TV rights to its games until 2013 for an unprecedented $1.3bn. Then there are the mouth-watering sponsorship deals for the individual players, the team and the ground.

With stakes that high, Real Madrid believes the experience of visiting its famous Bernabéu stadium should inspire a certain awe, not just for its die-hard fans with season tickets but also for well-heeled guests in the corporate boxes, which provide another lucrative source of revenue for the club.

But the Bernabéu stadium is 60 years old and, like a lot of Europe’s city centre football grounds, its infrastructure and communications systems were showing their age.

“Before, if we wanted to add a phone extension on the other side of the stadium, we had to stretch 300m of cable around the ground,” says Enrique Uriel, Real Madrid’s IT manager.

The days of “hard-wiring” separate voice, video and data circuits are over as Real Madrid has just finished deploying a converged IT infrastructure based on internet protocol.

The IP network, based on Cisco hardware, connects every phone, PC and security camera in the stadium. There 1,100 access points dotted around the stadium and any device can be plugged into any socket, making it easy to accommodate changing needs.

Real Madrid’s IP-based infrastructure is much more than a glorified telephone network. The characteristic that sets it apart from similar IP-based corporate networks is that it has been optimised for real-time video.

“We decided in 2001 to build a network that could handle not just data and telephony but also real-time video, says Mr Uriel.

The system can pipe separate video feeds to different locations if desired. For example, the coach can talk players through a video of a training session streamed from the club’s training ground on the outskirts of Madrid.

The players can watch the video and hear the coach’s comments from any monitor screen in the Bernabéu unlike the situation before, where players would have to be come to a screening room.

Meanwhile, guests in a corporate box can watch archive footage of Real Madrid’s past triumphs using a video-on-demand system. The club has 4 terabytes worth of past games complete with the all-important match statistics.

Mr Uriel says the club is looking at other ways to commercially exploit the video archive in the future — offering a VoD service on its public website, for example.

The Bernabéu’s IP-based network also carries the video from 350 security cameras that are dotted around the stadium. Their purpose is to prevent potential dangerous crowding when fans come in or out of the stadium — the police have their own conventional closed-circuit TV system for crowd monitoring.

Sitting high up in the roof in a control box that offers the best view in the ground, Mr Uriel explains how a team of eight people can control every camera, exit and public address loudspeaker and so ensure that bottlenecks do not form.

If a particular exit is looking dangerously crowded, the technicians can broadcast an announcement to selected loudspeakers to route some fans via an alternate route. The PA system automatically adjusts the volume to compensate for the wide variations in background noise.

Using the IP network, the technicians can centrally control almost every system in the ground including the scoreboard, electronic advertising signs, lighting and heating. Despite the popular perception that Spain’s capital city is permanently bathed in sun, it can get pretty cold in the Bernabéu on a winter’s day as this correspondent can testify.

One of the undoubted advantages of supporting a rich club like Real Madrid is that the seats now have overhead heating. Those sitting in the executive section are further pampered with leather-clad seats and overhead LCD screens. There is a separate heating system under the pitch to keep frost at bay.

The IP network also monitors more mundane systems as the water supply to the toilets and the restrooms and the 32 escalators, which change direction depending on whether fans are leaving or entering.

Cisco calculates that the use of a converged IP network to link Real Madrid’s locations and systems saves around 50% on installation and maintenance costs. Mr Uriel puts the cost of the IP network and associated systems at around €2m says its relatively insignificant compared to the €100m that Real Madrid has spent on modernising the Bernabéu in recent years.

He stresses that using IP is not just about cost savings and one of the key reasons for investing in the IP network was to improve security. With 60,000 people packed into the Bernabeu, a small problem can so easily turn into a potential tragedy.

That claim was dramatically put to the test on December 12 2004 when a bomb threat obliged Real Madrid to evacuate the stadium in the closing minutes of a league game against Real Sociedad, a team from Spain’s Basque Country.

Once the evacuation order was given, the technicians in the control booth reprogrammed all 256 turnstiles to open automatically in just 11 seconds. Almost 70,000 fans streamed out in an orderly fashion. No-one got hurt and seven minutes later the ground was empty. The bomb threat proved to be a false alarm.