The appeal of a sports bar is the ability to watch games with friends in a fun, immersive environment. This involves TVs at every angle, with sporting events of every variety distributed throughout the space. Media distribution systems are an essential component in these spaces, providing quality entertainment from a wide range of sources to a large number of displays without needing a separate set-top box for every TV in the place. However, as the Corporate Tech Decisions article Explaining Video Distribution Systems to End Users illustrates, the range of technology options to provide this solution can sometimes be just as wide. Selecting the right option requires understanding the benefits of each.

Analog Video

Coaxial cables with tv splitter

Not long ago, video distribution systems in sports bars were based on coaxial cabling, hard-wired mixers and a lot of signal boosters. These systems essentially took video signal from maybe one or two games and split it repeatedly, sending the same signal to multiple TVs in the bar. Depending on the scope of the installation, analog systems often required separate (and expensive) cable runs for video, audio, control, data and power. While the overall quality was poor compared to other options, these systems were good for distributing a game or two out to a set of displays without the need for a cable box with every TV. Integrators and customers appreciated the fact that analog video could be easily split (meaning you could take a single cable, divide it into two cables and then send the video most anywhere you wanted). However, every time you did that, you lost video quality. Signal boosters helped prevent loss of quality, but not completely, so parts of the bar inevitably would have grainy, poor-quality video that did little to encourage people to stay and watch the game.

Matrixed Digital Video Over Category Cabling

HDMI Set Top BoxWith digital HD video, modern customers have come to expect extremely high levels of quality. However, with that advancement in quality has come some loss of installation flexibility. The latest HDMI cabling standards can distribute 4K video with great image quality, but cable lengths are short and you can’t as easily split the signal as you could in the old days. In these modern environments, customers add what are termed “digital matrix switchers.” These modern matrix switchers allow you to connect a variety of inputs into the switcher, and then distribute that video to anywhere in the room.

These switchers also provide the ability to send video over standard category cabling (that is, a Cat6 cable like you would use to connect your PC to a network jack). The ability to use category cables instead of HDMI cables allows customers to send video much longer distances than the standard 50 feet that an HDMI cable might be able to stretch. The matrix switcher can be stored in a closet in the back of the bar somewhere, and video can be sent basically anywhere in the bar. However, although these switchers can send more video over longer distances, using the same low-cost cabling you use for your network, these are still dedicated cables for video. You can’t use your existing network for this technology.

Because these systems use dedicated cabling, it’s important to remember that matrix switchers still require pulling cable to where you want a TV. If you want to add a new TV in the restrooms, for example, that requires a new cable run all the way from the switcher to that location. As well, switchers come in standard sizes. While there is definitely flexibility to add more inputs or outputs down the line, if you haven’t properly accounted for this potential growth from the beginning, adding more displays can get expensive.

Networked AV

Network RouterOf course, the real vision for video systems is the ability to display any game to any TV in the bar at any time. That’s why integrators and bar owners are moving toward networked AV, which allows video to be deployed on a standard Ethernet network. These IP-based AV distribution systems can take advantage of all benefits you would expect from a modern IT network, including the flexibility of leveraging the existing network infrastructure in the bar.

This solution provides the ultimate flexibility, allowing bar owners to pull from a large number of sources, including game broadcasts, archived media files and more, and deploy them across monitors, displays, projectors or other devices as needed. The source devices are connected to devices called encoders, which stream the video over IT network. Devices called decoders are then placed behind each TV. These decoders can play the video stream from any encoder, no matter where it is located in the IT network. This makes it easy to send video anywhere you want it within the bar, allowing you to add and remove displays and even scale up or down for specific events.

Do you have experience with sports bar AV systems? What video distribution method do you prefer and why? Let us know in the comments!

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