Technology Hits a Home Run at PacBell Park

SAN MATEO (05/15/2000) - When the San Francisco Giants opened their new stadium, Pacific Bell Park, in April, much of the emphasis was on a return to traditional ballpark design -- brick facades, a downtown location, an asymmetrical outfield, and a right-field fence complete with "portholes" for ticketless fans. But behind the scenes, the intimate ball yard is "wired to the hilt," according to Bill Schlough, vice president and CIO of the Giants.

"We're not in the heart of Silicon Valley, but we're just north of it," Schlough explains. "We really want to use technology as much as we can in the ballpark in innovative, creative ways, but we don't want to just do it to be hokey or for technology's sake. We really wanted to use it to enhance the fan experience, yet at the same time preserve the old-time feel of the ballpark."

With a networking technology "brain" made up of Nortel Networks Corp. servers and Pacific Bell Corp. connections, the Giants have implemented systems ranging from automatic turnstiles and a massive customer relationship system to luxury suites with DSL options and a unique video-coaching system.

The level of technology present in Pacific Bell Park may seem high, especially to the average fan who wants shorter lines at the hot dog and beer stands more than a DSL connection, but to Schlough -- who honed his skills in myriad positions including technology oversight during the 1994 World Cup soccer games and as a consultant to the baseball technology manager at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta -- Pacific Bell Park's technological prowess is, to a certain extent, a result of the ball yard's location.

"People around here are more wired than most people are and understand technology better. So I'd say there's more of a demand for [high-tech] here than at some other parks," Schlough says. "We actually have had suite-holders ask, 'We do have modem access out of our suites, right?' "One high-tech system that all visitors will interact with exists at each of the park's entrances. The implementation of 46 automated turnstiles, which require only a quick scan of a ticket's bar code to admit a fan, not only speeds entry but gives the Giants a wealth of information about their ticket-holders, Schlough says.

"Back in our server room, while the game is going on, we're able to watch how many entries there have been into the whole ballpark, how many entries at each turnstile and each gate, where certain types of ticket-holders enter, what time people are getting in, and [we can] track the efficiency of the greeters," he says.

The turnstiles continuously poll the day-of-game ticket sale database for updates, ensuring only valid tickets make it inside the park. Because all ticket information is downloaded from Giants ticketing partner Tickets.com's databases to the park's server bank before the game, lost or stolen tickets can be deactivated and new tickets issued.

Even before ticket-holders enter the park, technology is helping them pick up their tickets without waiting in long lines. All-in-one ATM/Will Call ticket machines -- six inside the park and five outside -- not only let customers buy tickets right from the ATM but also dispense prepurchased tickets after a swipe of the credit card used to buy them.

"You see [ATM ticket] machines in movie theaters and places ... but it's quite a challenge to implement something like that for a stadium, which isn't a general-admission situation, where you have all these different requests that have to access the database of available tickets," Schlough explains, noting that the machines use the same process as the turnstiles to stay updated on the latest ticket sales. "I tried this the other day, and it was so quick. People [can] wait in a will-call line for so long, and all you have to do here is one swipe."

Once inside the park, those lucky enough to garner seats in Pacific Bell Park luxury suites will find each one wired with a voice and modem line, plus 10 additional jacks for other services that a suite-holder might request, such as a DSL line.

"We talked earlier this year with some sponsors who were thinking about providing all of our suites with computers -- laptops or something small -- to give people the ability to access stats and whatever else they might want to do while they're here," Schlough says, adding that although the deal did not come to fruition this year, the Giants may consider such a plan for the future.

For the Giants' coaches and players, the video-coaching system from Panasonic, which provides the video components, and Dixon Sports, which handles the database, is a step above the two-VCR system previously used at 3Com/Candlestick Park to review specific at-bats or pitching mechanics.

Schlough says the IS staff also likes the new system because "a lot of the work you do [for a baseball team] is not as glamorous as people would think and not as directly related to play on the field. This is a project where my staff gets to interact with the coaches and players, so they really enjoy it."

Video of Giants pitchers and batters -- not the other team, unless a player is being scouted, Schlough notes -- is collected from four cameras set around the field at different angles and stored in a 5TB database output to a 750-DVD jukebox. After a game, players and coaches can call up views of various at-bats against a certain pitcher -- batting with two outs or during a steal situation, for example -- and quickly fast-forward or rewind to analyze the pitches they got and their own reactions.

Players can call up video segments and burn their own DVDs to view with a Panasonic PalmTheater while on road trips, and the system could serve as an advance scouting service by leveraging video feeds from other teams' games, Schlough says.

"Nobody has ever done this DVD technology before; no other sports team, because it's so new. We'll have the opportunity to really transform the way video coaching and scouting are done," Schlough says. "It's kind of old-school to have to send people around to watch the game when you have all these feeds of it already. Our coaching staff isn't ready to make that change yet, but once they become comfortable with the system, they could."

This year the Giants' 10-person MIS team -- the biggest MIS staff in Major League Baseball, Schlough says -- must also take on the challenge of creating a massive customer relationship system that will hold all fan information. The new system from Pandesic, a joint venture between Intel and SAP, combines existing season ticket-and charter seat-holder databases with the Giants Rewards Club, single-game ticket buyer, legacy attendance, and online chat-participant information, plus data from the new turnstiles.

"There has been and continues to be a kind of painful process in converting from all these different, multiple databases to a single one, but it's going to be so worth it to have all that information up to date and accessible to everybody," Schlough says. "The ultimate goal is 40,800 seats full -- and we want to keep people in the seats. We don't want a sold-out ballpark with bunches of empty seats."

Schlough says the database will help pair up season ticket-holders who won't be attending every game with ticketless fans, a win-win situation for both groups as well as for the Giants.

Calling futuristic visions of individual seat-mounted televisions and robotic vendors in the aisles "far too much, according to fans we've talked to," Schlough foresees most of the technological innovation at ballparks and stadiums centering around ticketing processes as organizations move toward "a paperless ticketing system" that admits fans based on the swipe of a single, reusable card.

For the future of ballpark technology, the challenge remains combining nostalgia and traditions of yesteryear with the faster and more efficient systems of today without superseding the human element of going to a baseball game.

In the end Schlough knows that the majority of Pacific Bell Park's technology will remain unobtrusively behind the scenes while it keeps the ballpark and the team up and running -- just as fans prefer it.

"People come to the ballpark to get away from everything," he says. "That's part of the fun of coming to the game. I really enjoy the experience of being associated behind the scenes with putting on an event. Coming to work at the ballpark is really cool, and you're doing something you really believe in."

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