Digital Transformation

Field of digital dreams: Why MLB is betting its future on big data, Wi-Fi, apps, and AR

It's a whole new ball game for Major League Baseball in tech upgrades. TechRepublic goes inside the digital transformations of two of the league's most storied franchises.

Major League Baseball has been playing games for much the same way since 1869, but today the digital revolution is driving an overhaul of the game and the fan experience at ballparks across North America.

The game has suffered losses in popularity in recent years, compared to the NFL and the NBA. Regardless, it still has an old-fashioned appeal to those fans who like nothing better than a sunny afternoon at a ballpark with a hot dog and a beer. But that's not enough for newer fans, and even for some longtime fans—they want more excitement from a game that can move very slowly compared to other sports.

Tech is being used to rev up the game experience so that teams can keep people coming to stadiums, as well as buying merchandise, food, and drinks. Since 2012, attendance has been slowly declining at MLB games, with fewer fans opting to navigate the traffic around stadiums and paying high ticket prices to see their favorite teams.

In 2007, the highest-attended year in the history of the league, 79.5 million fans attended regular-season games. In 2012, this had dropped to 74.9 million and by 2017, it had dropped further to 72.7 million, according to Forbes.

Major League Baseball's digital arm, MLB Advanced Media (MLBAM), is aiming for a home run as it oversees upgrades that do everything from improving Wi-Fi and cellular connectivity within stadiums to making it possible for fans to order beer, polish sausage, and T-shirts from their seats.

SEE: Digital Transformation: A CXO's Guide (A ZDNet and TechRepublic special report)

(Note that MLBAM is separate from BAMTech, the digital media company spun off from MLBAM that sold a $1 billion stake last year, and then an additional $1.58 billion majority stake earlier this year to The Walt Disney Company, according to The New York Times.)

In 2012, MLBAM formed a consortium and asked each team to assess their Wi-Fi and cellular connectivity and make improvements if needed. In 2014, only 12 MLB stadiums offered Wi-Fi or a Distributed Antenna System (DAS) to boost mobile signals. Now, all 30 stadiums have connectivity to some degree, and two-thirds of those have expanded services for fans, according to Matthew Gould, MLBAM spokesperson.

"Like anything else this is a living, breathing technology project so it's never like you install it and you walk away. It's something that always has to be monitored and revamped and amplified as hardware gets better and networks shift," Gould said.

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Fenway Park in Boston has a dramatic digital transformation in progress.

Image: Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox

Wi-Fi table stakes

Most MLB stadiums now sport high-density Wi-Fi platforms that support connectivity for every fan in the stadium and allow for massive amounts of data to be transmitted during a single game or event. And some teams are going deep into personalization with apps and features for their fans.

"Connectivity is what we're seeing as table stakes now because it puts the fan at the center of the action, which is where they want to be," said Mike Caponigro, solutions marketing lead for Cisco's Sports and Entertainment Group, which has worked with 23 MLB teams to improve the fan experience. Cisco has installed high-density Wi-Fi in more than 200 venues—sporting and non-sporting—around the globe.

"MLB was at the forefront in recognizing the need for this," Caponigro said.

In Atlanta, where the Braves opened a new stadium, SunTrust Park, in spring 2017, "We view connectivity as the foundation for everything," said Greg Mize, director of digital marketing for the Atlanta Braves. "Without connectivity, our fans cannot take out their phones and consume the game the way they want with unfettered internet access. That's really core."

Eric McLoughlin, director of product marketing for Comcast, said, "Professional sports teams ... sign these multi-million dollar agreements with television companies. Customers have 60-inch televisions in their homes and are getting very comfortable watching the game on [TV] and having access to the Wi-Fi in their home and access to the experience that they want. So the professional sports teams are challenged to find a way to replicate that at-home experience but give you all the benefits you get by going to the ballpark."

The San Diego Padres have recently completed a refresh of the 13-year-old Petco Park. Ray Chan, vice president of IT for the Padres, said "Millennials might have been the driving force to get venues to add more connectivity in the ballpark. It's expected now that fans can come here and have some sort of connectivity."

The Chicago Cubs are in the midst of a major update at Wrigley Field that is scheduled for completion by opening day 2018. The $750 million project began in 2014 and includes a wired LAN network that was installed throughout the 103-year-old ballpark and back office areas, including the 30,000-square-foot underground clubhouse.

In 2008, when Cisco first installed Wi-Fi in AT&T Park for the San Francisco Giants, only 800 people used it during the entire season. Today, at all of the league's stadiums, at least 50% of fans use Wi-Fi during each game, said Ken Martin, general manager for Cisco's Sports and Entertainment Group.

At the Boston Red Sox's historic Fenway Park, it's a careful balance to upgrade the technology while preserving the heritage and look of the stadium.

"Like all major league clubs, we believe that people have now come to expect connectivity in large venues like ballparks and stadiums," said Brian Shields, vice president of technology for the Red Sox. "We see that as a critical foundational element. It's what you put on top of that where it differentiates your ultimate success."

However, Wi-Fi deployments themselves are still work in process. It's early in the game for figuring out where to put the Wi-Fi access points (APs) and antennas.

"We once said under seat mount for access points and antennas might be the best. Then we tried a different way: Overhead mounts. By having so many different deployments, we have been able to test what works best," Martin said. It's still a work in progress to determine the best setup for APs.

"As a comparison, when the Giants played the Kansas City Royals in the World Series in 2014, both of them had our Wi-Fi and both of them had a unique deployment of Wi-Fi. Kansas City used overhead and handrail mounts, and at AT&T [Park in San Francisco] we'd done the under seat mounts," Martin said. At the time, there were 1,100 access points at AT&T Park and 750 at the Kansas City Royals' Kauffman Stadium.

"It allowed us to look at two very, very similar ballparks at the peak of the World Series," Martin said. "The performance at AT&T Park was almost identical to Kansas City. It was the same amount of users, the same concurrent users... It allows us to say there is not one specific way to do Wi-Fi. We have to leverage what's best in any particular venue."

Big (money) data

Many savvy sports teams are now using big data analytics for in-game, business, and operational decisions, said Bill Schmarzo, CTO of big data for Dell Global Services.

"Think about all the decisions that have to be made about the operations of the park—merchandising, retail, pricing, promotions, inventory, staffing, security, in-park advertising, etc.," Schmarzo said. "All sports teams are looking to couple their detailed customer transactional and engagement data with external factors—weather, traffic, opponent, seasonal standings, day of the week, time of the game—to optimize each of those types of decisions. And we haven't even started to talk about how sports teams are using data analytics for analyzing and valuing their players, and leveraging those sabermetrics to optimize in-game decisions."

The Red Sox have paired Dell EMC XtremIO all-flash storage with its own proprietary software since 2016 to power its baseball analytics system. Dell EMC also provides IT infrastructure for the Chicago Cubs and the Philadelphia Phillies, as well as MLBAM.

SEE: Big data and digital transformation: How one enables the other (ZDNet)

Baseball has always been a game where tracking statistics has been a core part of the fan experience. It used to involve fans collecting baseball cards and memorizing the career stats of their favorite players or using pencils to manually track the box score of the game. Today, it's having access to a whole new world of statistics with their mobile devices.

"That data is gold in the hands of fans. They love to understand these metrics that differentiate professional players. Someone didn't just hit a homerun, but they hit it 372 feet and it left the bat at 105 mph," Shields said.

And the customer data reaped from the apps themselves is used to help teams make more money, whether it's from selling tickets, food or merchandise.

"At its core, data analytics is about two things: 'make me more money' and winning," said Schmarzo. "Having superior insights into the behaviors and tendencies of your customers, products, services, operations, and markets allows sports teams to make superior business and operational decisions; to improve business and operational processes, to mitigate compliance and security risks, to uncover new revenue streams and to create a more compelling, more profitable customer experience.

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Apps are central to the MLB's digital transformation plans.

Image: Major League Baseball

"In the end, it will allow sports teams to win with the most cost-effective teams—that was the Moneyball lesson that leading sports teams like the Boston Red Sox, Chicago Cubs, and Houston Astros (not to mention the Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs) have learned.

"[But] for professional baseball, mastering sabermetrics is no longer sufficient. Leading sports teams are building upon that sabermetrics mentality by adding advanced analytic capabilities such as deep learning, machine learning, artificial intelligence, and Internet of Things (IoT) to gain new business and operational insights that they can use to create new monetization opportunities and ultimately win both at the box office as well as on the field because those two elements are still highly correlated," Schmarzo said.

The data collected from apps provides a wealth of information about each fan. MLBAM offers two apps for every team in the league: Ballpark and At Bat. Ballpark focuses on the individual stadium with special offers, maps and tickets. At Bat provides news stories, stats, scoring, and postseason details.

"Over the course of that time we built the app so there's a baseline set of foundational options that the teams have," Gould said. "What we do is work with the initial team to customize it to their ballpark. The teams know their fans [and] their ballpark the best. If there is a particular feature that a team wants, we work with them to get that experience into the ballpark section. Ultimately, like any other business you want a return customer. You want fans to come back multiple times.

"Part of what we've been trying to build is an understanding of the lifecycle of a live event ticket. It's a very different dynamic than any kind of other ticket. An airline ticket is not transferrable. That's your ticket, you need a government-issued ID to use that ticket. From a customer service standpoint, what are we able to do to better serve each ticket holder in addition to just the ticket buyer? From a security standpoint, it's [also] important to know who is in your ballpark," Gould said.

So while Wi-Fi is the enabler, the app is the central factor that MLB is relying on to improve the fan experience. Teams want to monetize the app, and part of that is delivering premium customer service so that fans engage more with the game. "Ultimately at some point they'll engage in a way that generates additional revenue," Gould said.

Vendors such as Cisco are focused on helping teams monetize apps so that they can market better to fans.

Martin said, "It's up to the venue to determine what they're going to do next. It's great that I've offered them the ability to connect to their favorite social media site and upload the pictures to say that they were there, and to share with their greater social community. But then what? We are trying to monetize it, to concentrate more of our marketing efforts toward them. We want them to be able to take it back to sponsors to say, 'here's your true audience vs. what you thought it would be.' Or to offer more in ticket sales, more season tickets vs. onesies and twosies. That's what we're trying to help these different vendors with. It's really a discovery of who is in the venue."

The team knows who purchased the season ticket, but that's not always the same person using the ticket, because they could have resold it, or given it away. As an example, Cisco studies have shown that only 6% of season ticket holders at college football games go to all of the home games themselves. And someone who only goes to one or two games might not download the app, but they will often sign onto the stadium's Wi-Fi. As a result, teams need to decide how to convince fans to provide more information.

"What we're doing is we're saying if you want to be connected, that's great, give us your last name, first name, and email address. But if you want to be entered into this contest, give us more information. Because the greater the information we have, the more we know who is in the venue," Martin said.

"There are teams spending millions and millions of dollars on their app development and app strategy and I'm not convinced that we are there yet. We know that they're coming in with a phone and we know that 50% or greater will want to be connected on the Wi-Fi. We know they're not going to use the app, but there is some of the onboarding activity that we can capture," Martin said.

Team apps are some of the most popular apps available, but if people are at a game, they don't feel the need to use them while in the venue, which means that the team won't necessarily know who is at the game unless they opt in for Wi-Fi, explained Ed Olsen, global ROI and content strategist for Cisco's Sports and Entertainment Group.

"First, they're at the game; second, most apps aren't developed to create an in-venue experience. It has statistics, updates, all kinds of great info you can enjoy on the couch or at a sports bar. We always recommend to teams that the moment your app realizes the fan is in the venue to start to create an ability to serve up an experience that is in-venue and a platform for communication, influence, and monetization," Olsen said.

SEE: Baseball pitches augmented reality to catch fans (CNET)

The Cisco Vision for Sports and Entertainment product allows for live video feeds and replays on demand, and at least 15 teams have installed live video feeds that can be delivered to mobile devices. However, research has shown that replays from different camera angles are the preferred option for fans.

"We've seen a shift away from live streaming and a focus on replay on demand," Caponigro said.

In 2018, MLB plans to add augmented reality (AR) to its At Bat app. It will allow baseball fans to point their iPhone at the action on the field and see stats on how hard a ball was hit, how far it was thrown, or how fast a player runs in real time," Gould said.

The AR feature will use information from Statcast, MLB's in-house analytics tool. It's already been tested already at Dodger Stadium, the Oakland Coliseum, and AT&T Park, Gould said.

Chicago's Wrigley Field

One of the biggest tech upgrades is taking place at the one of league's most beloved stadiums, Wrigley Field in Chicago. The first phase includes Wi-Fi throughout the stadium and is set to be completed in 2018. The second phase includes installing Wi-Fi at The Park at Wrigley, a 50,000-square-foot open-air entertainment venue adjacent to the stadium.

The project includes structural upgrades, improved player facilities, new fan amenities, and entertainment attractions. As part of the installation, Extreme Networks will install more than 1,000 access points throughout Wrigley Field and The Park.

SEE: Chicago's Wrigley Field targets 2018 for high-density Wi-Fi as part of $750M in ballpark upgrades (TechRepublic)

The venues will be outfitted with Extreme's flow-based 802.11ac Wave 2 technology, including upgraded speed, additional capacity, and enhanced security. Extreme Networks partnered with consulting firm PCM for the planning and implementation of the Wi-Fi network. The look of the installation matters since Wrigley is a historic venue and it's a retrofit within the existing ballpark.

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Image: iStockphoto/JPaulB

"The biggest challenge is where we mount our wireless access points, and how it fits into the overall aesthetic of the venue. When you're a landmark, it's even more important. There will literally be people reviewing every blueprint and ensuring the integrity of the design and deployment," said Andrew McIntyre, vice president of technology for the Chicago Cubs.

Again, there are three main methods for installing access points in any venue: Overhead, under seat and hidden in handrails. Wrigley doesn't have handrails, so that option isn't available. And there are no under seat options in the bleacher section of Wrigley. So overhead is the only option in some areas, McIntyre said.

There are two main drivers behind the project. The first is supporting business operations and driving efficiency across the entire Cubs campus, and the second is improving the fan experience.

"This is really starting to change on the fan side of the house. Specifically in this area we feel there are a large variety of use cases that we can see where we can continue to advance the experience for our fans, whether in the game or between the action, leading up to the event itself and even post-event," McIntyre said.

The Wi-Fi serves as fundamental infrastructure, and they will test and try out different technologies and different processes and approaches from telling fans about sales and deals around the ballpark to information on the wait times at concession stands and restrooms.

One example is retail sales versus concession. "You might be hosting business partners or friends at an individual event. You might want to have that retail [souvenir] ordered at your suite, but not delivered at your suite—maybe you want to have it delivered to your home after the fact, but it might be more relevant to purchase it at that time to recognize the game you are at, or even if there is an authentic jersey that is maybe symbolic," McIntyre said.

Like other venues, the data analytics on the fans that opt into the Wi-Fi or access the app during the game is critical.

"That information flow, that content, that ability to personalize down to the individual person is a game changer," said McIntyre. "It's a granular level of understanding your customer and turning their visit into a concierge experience."

Boston's Fenway Park

The only Major League Baseball stadium older than Wrigley Field (1914) is Boston's Fenway Park (1912), which is in the middle of its own digital transformation. As with Wrigley Field, there are considerations that must be made in order to keep the experience authentic.

"Fenway Park is the closest thing to a historical museum. When you go to Fenway, a lot of fans would tell you it's historically transformational," said Red Sox tech chief Brian Shields. "As someone who grew up in the Boston area, when I come in the warmer months, I go into the stadium and come out by home plate, and I look out over the field and see the Green Monster. I'll sometimes do my email from there. I tell my friends it's exactly the way I remember it from when I was five years old. It's important for us to preserve those things that make Fenway, Fenway—and yet modernize it behind the scenes so it's as contemporary as any modern stadium in major league sports."

SEE: How the NFL and its stadiums became leaders in Wi-Fi, monetizing apps, and customer experience (TechRepublic free PDF download)

Fenway didn't have Wi-Fi when Shields joined the organization in 2013. It was deployed in 2015 in the wintery off-season. "That year was the snowiest year in the history of Boston. 110 inches of snow later, we had our Wi-Fi done," he said.

There are 600 wireless APs at Fenway Park, which along with Verizon DAS, provides connectivity to fans. The team uses ShoreTel, which is now part of the Mitel organization, for cloud-based telecommunications services at Fenway Park as well as each of the team's five minor league facilities and at a communication facility the team is upgrading.

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Image: Simone Schiess/Boston Red Sox

Mitel works with several teams, including the San Francisco Giants, Milwaukee Brewers, Seattle Mariners, Los Angeles Dodgers, and San Diego Padres, said Mark Roberts, CMO of ShoreTel and Harbor Networks.

The Red Sox digital transformation includes data analytics as part of a partnership with Massachusetts-based EMC, now Dell EMC, that began in 2003.

"I think it's fair to say that people today look at sort of a thoughtful comprehensive Wi-Fi environment as basically the same need as breathing [oxygen]," said Shields. "People expect when they go to certain large-scale facilities that they will have access to Wi-Fi. We want fans to tell their friends and others via social media about their experience at Fenway Park.

"We want to piggyback on top of that to deliver increasingly specific capabilities, whether access to certain statistical information that continues to become more complex and engaging for fans, or more video content. And for us going forward, we want to continue to understand our fans and fan behavior to make sure we're delivering personalized solutions to them. We see this as a foot in the door to build a compelling fan engagement strategy," he said.

With a Wi-Fi backbone in place, the team can offer digital ticketing and mobile engagement capabilities via their app, such as ordering food in advance, upgrading tickets, participating in loyalty programs, and more. "Maybe even games for children, so that we can cultivate a relationship with young children [as well as] adults. All of those things are pivotal to what we think is the whole digital strategy for our organization," Shields said.

But, it's also a tough balance because the Red Sox also still want people to watch the game.

"Success for us isn't a fan with their head down because we built the most compelling app in the world. It's how do we supplement the experience," Shields said. "As we get to know them better, we will have greater flexibility to personalize their experience."

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About Teena Maddox

Teena Maddox is a Senior Writer at TechRepublic, covering hardware devices, IoT, smart cities and wearables. She ties together the style and substance of tech. Teena has spent 20-plus years writing business and features for publications including Peo...

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