The Boston Red Sox are so proud of their 110-year-old stadium that the team has trademarked the phrase “America’s most beloved ballpark” to describe it. But although watching a game from one of Fenway Park’s 37,673 seats may provoke a twinge of nostalgia, getting into and around the place can be a bit of a nightmare.
Hemmed in on all sides by narrow city streets and bound by its aging brick and steel construction, Fenway is best known for quirks such as the towering 37-foot left-field wall dubbed the “Green Monster” that was built to compensate for its unusually close proximity to home plate and a right-field foul pole that can turn long foul balls into home runs.
But some of the other oddities aren’t as endearing, such as the confusion created years ago by an architect’s decision to position gate A between gates D and E or the convoluted configuration of ramps and stairways that requires some visitors to climb to the back of the stands to reach their seats in the front. Limited concession space can force fans to miss an inning or more waiting in line for a hot dog.
Transformation in the cloud
Those are among the reasons the Red Sox have undertaken a multiyear initiative to transform the fan experience through a combination of data analytics, smart devices and cloud platforms.
“Fenway isn’t the most intuitive ballpark,” said Brian Shield, who has been the team’s chief technology officer for the past nine years. “The fans who come once every year or two find that traversing Fenway can be problematic. It’s a reason people may not go as frequently.”
That’s a problem for nearly every professional sports franchise these days. The Red Sox are drawing just over 32,700 fans per game this year, which is third in the American League but well below the average 37,500 it drew in 2012. The team is hardly alone: Twenty-three of the 30 major league teams have seen attendance fall this year compared to 2019. Total attendance across all major league teams has fallen from 79.48 million in 2007 to 68.5 million the year before the pandemic hit. In the meantime, player payrolls have mushroomed 60%.
The Red Sox aim to draw more fans to the ballpark by initially targeting their biggest pain points and expanding over time to make Fenway Park more of an entertainment destination. The initiative is being coordinated in partnership with eight other major league teams as well as Nascar and the Philadelphia 76ers.
The goal of the automated fan data model “is to know as much as we can about fan behavior to create a compelling experience,” Shield said. That includes automating such frustrating details as helping visitors find parking space, minimizing concession wait times with automated food ordering, and even using a mobile app to guide people on the shortest path to destinations within the ballpark.
The initiative is still in the early stages, but the team has a clear picture of where it wants to go. The experience will center on Major League Baseball’s Ballpark mobile app. It was pressed rapidly into service in 2020 when the team hastily switched from paper to contactless electronic ticketing. The initiative was so successful that 99% of fans now enter the ballpark via a scan of their mobile devices, Shield said.
“It’s an onramp to our digital services,” he said. “People are now familiar with the app, so we can add more services and amenities into it.”
Getting to this initial stage involved a lot of grunt work. Over the years, the team had assembled multiple fan databases there were so disconnected from each other that some people’s records were held in more than 20 different places. The Red Sox worked with MLB and Tickets.com to streamline and simplify its records around a single name and email address. “We shrunk most cases to just one identity,” Shield said. “If you don’t have good data quality, it’s terrifying.”
Now the fun begins
With digital ticketing now in place, the information technology group can turn its attention to more creative ideas. Mobile food ordering was tested in a few sections of the park this year and has seen a “huge uptick” in orders, Shield said. “The people who have access to it love it.”
Consolidating databases has also enabled the team to target email promotions more precisely, with promising early results. The team is experimenting with facial recognition to streamline entry for frequent visitors such as season-ticket holders and looking at ways to deliver custom messages while fans are in the ballpark, such as an invitation to take a tour or to buy merchandise for delivery to their home.
Shield sees the Ballpark app as “a comprehensive portal for fans. It makes Fenway Park more of an entertainment arena.”
Five years hence, the scenario he envisions looks something like this: “Your Alexa tells you you’re going to the game this afternoon and you signed up for parking on Boylston St. It adds that destination to Waze,” he said. “Pre-game content might be an interview or information on pitching matchups. Maybe you pre-order your food and have it delivered in a particular inning. Do you want wayfinding to your seat? Maybe you can upgrade your seat after the third inning. When the game’s over we can make you aware that the last train leaves at 11:15 and we can use wayfinding to help direct you to the station.”
Better crowd management
The Red Sox also looking at ways to integrate intelligence gathered from smart endpoints such as surveillance cameras to improve efficiency and fan experience. Image recognition can be used to identify patterns that enable the team to deploy people better to manage crowds or set up temporary concessions to relieve long lines.
There’s even the possibility of using augmented reality to give fans additional information about what they’re seeing on the field or to point their phones to the left-field wall and watch a replay of Carlton Fisk’s game-winning home run in Game 6 of the 1975 World Series. “We have a fair amount of archival tape that hasn’t yet been digitized,” Shield said.
Cloud computing is making such possibilities practical. The Red Sox use a variety of major public cloud services with Google Cloud Platform as its primary environment. To get the maximum flexibility at the lowest cost, the company settled on Wasabi Technologies Inc. as its primary cloud storage provider.
Wasabi sells Amazon Web Services Inc. S3-compatible storage at a significant discount from the big cloud platforms and doesn’t charge egress fees. The cost savings it permits have enabled the Red Sox to begin digitizing years’ worth of archival video footage and work with third-party service providers outside a single cloud ecosystem.
“Our video assets are growing at an exponential rate. with cameras that generate 1,000 frames per second,” Shield said, “and now there’s a lot of ‘internet of things’ data coming online from cell phone content and sensors. It would have been difficult to create some of the applications we’re building without the cost savings from the Wasabi model. It lets us store and run analytics against information that would be cost-prohibitive otherwise.”
All of that may not rescue the Red Sox from a likely last-place finish this year. But as the team’s four World Series championships since 2004 have proven, there’s always next year.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons
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