From its famed Green Monster to the quirky red Ted Williams seat in the right field bleachers, Fenway Park is a living museum in the heart of Boston. But going to a Red Sox game at Fenway isn't just about baseball. It's about experiencing America's pastime at Major League Baseball's (MLB) oldest ballpark. The Red Sox organization can't live in the past, however, and it has to incorporate the technologies today's fans expect at Fenway.
Rolling out ballpark-wide Wi-Fi was a necessary first step for the Red Sox. The team previously had limited Wi-Fi for fans in some areas but it wasn't widely available or heavily publicized. This time, they wanted to provide more fans with connectivity, collect additional fan data and deliver a more targeted and technology-driven customer experience. Today, the organization encourages fans to share experiences on social media and to use MLB's mobile apps, At Bat and Ballpark, while at Fenway, but it needed faster Wi-Fi to enable better download and upload performance throughout the park.
"Our real goal here is to leverage some of the information from fans so we can start to create a much greater experience," says Brian Shield, vice president of IT for the Boston Red Sox.
During the last few years, many professional sports organizations have pushed to provide enhanced connectivity options for fans at venues, as foundations for mobile apps and to compete with the at-home viewing experience.
Boston's analog ballpark goes digitalWhen strategizing about how to install the new Wi-Fi system, the Red Sox's IT staff had to get creative. Not only did the team battle a brutal winter that dropped a record amount of snow in Boston, but it also had to avoid damaging or significantly altering the 103-year-old ballpark, which is protected by various historical societies.
"In order to get the deployment approved, we had to work with the Boston Landmarks Commission, the Massachusetts Historical Commission and the National Park Service, take photo simulations of each and every antenna installation we proposed to install, show where it was positioned and how it would be mounted," says Randy George, director of IT operations for the Red Sox.
[Related: Can technology speed up baseball games?]
Per the requirements, the IT group had to be careful about how, and where, they installed access points (APs) and wiring, so they didn't disturb the original structures from 1912 or make the technology look tacky. The tech team installed APs on the support columns in each section of the "lower bowl" and painted them Fenway green so they blend in and placed APs on the sponsor signs above the Green Monster. Red Sox IT also ran wiring underneath the field and hid 45 APs in the walls surrounding the field. Now when fans see Sox third baseman, Pablo Sandoval (a.k.a., The Panda) jump over an infield wall to catch a foul ball, it's likely he'll sail over a hidden Wi-Fi AP.
After an eight-month process, three of which were dedicated to installation, the Red Sox officially rolled out Fenway's new Wi-Fi in July, for a Billy Joel concert. Today Fenway has 481 APs, and the network covers the entire park, so fans can access the Wi-Fi from any seat or area, according to George. Currently, 50 percent of fans at sold-out games can log on and use the network simultaneously, but on average only 3,000 fans currently connect at a given event. The new 802.11ac Wi-Fi network offers varying speeds, depending on device type and how many people connect at one time, but George says top download speeds will max out around 40 Mbps. (CIO.com performed its own tests just outside the Fenway entrance on Yawkey Way, during a Red Sox-Yankees game yesterday, and saw wireless speeds around 15Mbps, both up and down.)
George says when fans come to any public venue today they assume Wi-Fi will be available, much like restrooms. "There's been a big push this year by the league and the four major [mobile] carriers to provide expanded Internet connectivity in the ballparks," he says. "It really is a basic fan amenity that our customers expect."
Building data warehouse for Red Sox fan infoThe game of baseball has an impressive history of analytics (think "Moneyball"), but on the business side, MLB teams have a ways to go if they hope to analyze fan data and deliver the best possible experiences. The Fenway Wi-Fi project is just one part of a greater Red Sox IT initiative to collect and analyze more fan data. Last spring, the IT team created the first version of its "fan data warehouse," and it recently developed a second iteration.
"What's wonderful about this customer data warehouse environment, as well as Wi-Fi, is that baseball for many years probably lagged a lot of its business counterparts," Shield says. "That's all changing now, and that window … between baseball and business is closing rapidly."
Shield hired the organization's first-ever data architect to work on these new IT initiatives, several analysts to monitor and analyze fan data, and a dedicated person to manage the CRM environment. With each Wi-Fi registration, the Red Sox see fan email addresses or social media credentials, as well as the types of devices they use. MLB and the Red Sox hope to use that data, along with other data streams, as building blocks for mobile offerings, including in-app features that provide bathroom and concession wait times, and to solve business problems, such as how to entice fans to come to games during months with less-than-ideal weather.
Red Sox IT team homers at Fenway ParkDiehard Red Sox fans might be surprised, or disappointed, to know that when it comes to the business of technology, the Red Sox play nice with the rival New York Yankees. In fact, it's common practice for the Red Sox and other MLB teams to share IT knowledge. For example, the Red Sox recently hosted a meeting of MLB IT leaders to talk about the technologies and techniques that have the most potential at ballparks, as well as the applications that might resonate with fans.
"What tends to work for one club, tends to work for another, so I think what fans are going to see is a real leap forward in terms of the kind of fan services and amenities they expect from organizations like MLB," Shield says.
In the future, the organization hopes the lessons it learned from the Wi-Fi and data warehouse projects, combined with ongoing knowledge sharing between teams, result in the mobile device becoming the main point of contact between teams and fans. For everything from seat upgrades and digital ticketing to social media and rewards programs, mobile devices will be "sort of your one-stop shopping for all things when you're here at a wonderful place like Fenway," Shield says.
Join the CIO Australia group on LinkedIn. The group is open to CIOs, IT Directors, COOs, CTOs and senior IT managers.