Last week I attended the San Francisco Giants baseball team media day at Oracle Park, where the team unveiled its new brand campaign – “There’s Nothing Like It” — as a way of describing the unique experience baseball can bring.
It’s particularly germane at a ballpark that has attributes such as a secret bowling alley, a slide in a Coke bottle and McCovey Cove. Over the years I’ve visited many parks, gardens, stadium and arenas and the ocean view behind right field might be the best view in all of sports, rivaled only by Husky Stadium, where Lake Washington looms large over the playing surface. Certainly, there’s nothing close in pro sports.
This is a big year for baseball as it has made a number of rule changes to speed up a game that seemingly has become much slower in the past decade. During his presentation, Giant’s President and Chief Executive Larry Baer talked about the three changes designed to have the biggest impact on pace of play. These are bigger bases, shift limits and the long-awaited pitch clock. According to Baer, spring training has shown a reduction in game time of 20 to 30 minutes, which is significant considering that games start at 6:45 p.m.
These changes were done to attract newer, younger fans. But that’s not all. The team has given the park a fresh new look with a number of wayfinding signs and 13-foot-by-seven-foot LED boards across the concourse. Coming out of the pandemic, Major League Baseball had already gone largely digital with mobile tickets and mobile food ordering, which also has appeal to newer fans.
It’s important to note that in no way are the Giants looking to disrupt their traditional fan base. The idea is to broaden appeal to millennials and Gen Z. During his presentation, Mario Alioto, executive vice president of business operations, talked about enabling fans to be social, co-create with the team and share the experience at Oracle Park.
Personally, I’m a big fan of the digitization of baseball. Digital tickets, social media integration and a constantly improving MLB app have created a better fan experience. The new rule changes hasten the pace of play and create further engagement. In discussions with other baseball executives, I’ve been told they’ve seen higher mobile phone usage because of the faster pace of play as tension builds faster and that creates excitement and more engaged fans.
But the key to a great fan experience is the underlying Wi-Fi network. I’ve been to many games across all sports where the Wi-Fi network is unusable. I can’t follow other games, look up replays or rub it in the face of my social following that I’m sitting in a premium seat. To ensure the best possible experience, Bill Schlough (pictured), senior vice president and chief information officer of the Giants, announced the organization will be the first sports team to have Wi-Fi 6E across the park. Last year, the Chase Center, home of the Warriors, announced it was the first to deploy 6E but that was limited to inside the arena. “We are proud to deliver the first 100% Wi-Fi 6E enabled venue in all of professional sports – from the gates of the Willie Mays Plaza to the shores of McCovey Cove,” Schlough said.
Powering the new network are 900 Wi-Fi 6E access points from Extreme Networks Inc., deployed in partnership with Comcast Business. If you’re at the ballpark, you can see a mix of under-the-seat APs along with the overhead ones. Schlough showed a chart with the upload and download speeds at more than 200 megabits per second. I did my own testing while at the park on my iPhone 14 Pro and easily broke the 200Mbps mark. However, the iPhone 14 Pro is a Wi-Fi 6 device. I’ve done testing with the Extreme APs using one of the few 6E endpoints available today and got more than 1Gbps of throughput, so that’s what is in store for fans in the future.
Schlough did mention how in 2004, then SBC Ballpark was the first sports venue to have free Wi-Fi as part of the fan experience. The then-state-of-the-art ballpark offered 2 megabits per second to 5Mbps from the almost 200 802.11b APs. On opening day, the team saw roughly 200 people connect to the wireless network, primarily on laptops but also on a handful of other devices such as Palm Pilots and iPaqs. Fast-forward nearly 20 years, and this is the first wholesale network upgrade done in the park since then. There have been incremental upgrades along the way to parts of the network, but nothing of this scale.
Post-event, I had a chance to sit down and talk to Schlough about the new network. One of the underappreciated aspects of the Extreme solution is the analytics tool now used league-wide. In a high-tempo sport, such as football, the mobile device is an integrated part of the experience as fans are constantly checking stats for fantasy purposes.
With baseball, Schlough said, the Wi-Fi network is in place to augment the experience. People come to games to sit in the stands, enjoy the day with their family and often will use the phone to do things like check out-of-town scores. He told me that, by network traffic, the two busiest times for the network at the park are Masters weekend and Warriors playoffs, and the Giants are happy to indulge their multitasking fans.
The analytics can reveal some interesting insights that can help the team refine fan interaction. For example, the big network traffic event days could enable some great partnership opportunities. Maybe the team could partner with the PGA to offer Masters packages to the fans. Also, ExtremeAnalytics shows granular information on which social channels are being used most often. The Giants could redirect spend to the social networks most commonly used.
The faster network with more capacity has many fan advantages in terms of speed. Coming into the park, fans need to pull tickets up on their phone quickly and there will be less delay with the 6E network. Also, post-game, when fans are in a small area trying to call an Uber, the upgraded network should be beneficial. Faster ticketing, Ubering, food ordering, stat checking and social posting all lead to a better, more engaged fan who will leave the park truly thinking, “There’s Nothing Like It.”