Tech me out to the ballgame: High-tech secrets of AT&T Park
Major League Baseball sometimes resembles a vaudeville act from a bygone era. Organists still play “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” Some players still wear knickers, stirrups, and pinstripes. And even though Jim Leyland just retired, you can still find a few coaches with big, bushy mustaches lifted straight from the 1890s.
But those are just old-timey touches. It’s all part of baseball’s grand spectacle—carefully orchestrated theater intended to recall a kinder, simpler time. Major League Baseball has become a high-tech endeavor just like any other professional sport, and once you begin poking around in what’s really happening inside the ballpark, you begin to see just how profoundly technology has transformed our basic at-the-game experience.
So while you’re at your next ball game, munching on your third hot dog, keep in mind that an infantry is working behind the scenes to make sure you’re getting a seamless, modern spectacle on a par with the best of professional sports. And it all requires serious tech—more than you’d ever guess.
We spent weeks with our hometown team, the 2012 world champion San Francisco Giants, to learn more about how technology influences the operations of a pro ballpark. We found that behind every facet of the experience—from concessions to lawn care to instant replays on the scoreboard—high-tech gear is chugging away, making everything happen.
Pro baseball is definitely not the quaint pastime of yesteryear.
Throughout the season, the field operations team tenderly cares for the heart of the ballpark: the field. On home game days they start early—at about 8:00 a.m. for day games and 11:00 a.m. for night games. Old-school tools such as hand mowers, brooms, tractors, and nail boards are complemented by high-tech GPS systems and underground sensors.
And there’s more to the field than just dirt and grass. Under the surface is a complex field-maintenance system called SubAir.
If the field has too much moisture—after a heavy, unexpected rain, for example—SubAir’s vacuum can suck all of the excess water from the field to prevent puddling. Or, if the field is flattened out—say, during a special event that occurs in between home stands—the SubAir uses pressure to get oxygen flowing to the grass’s roots, fluffing up the turf to make the field playable again. SubAir can also eliminate the need to water the grass—perennial ryegrass interseeded into a Bermuda-grass base, to be exact—for the day, as the system can move moisture to spots that need it.
SubAir uses a vast network of subsurface pipes, and moves air and water using a 100-horsepower electric motor. The system also includes several in-ground sensors that track the soil’s nutrient and moisture levels, and SubAir’s software provides daily, monthly, and yearly statistics about said levels. Greg Elliott, the Giants’ director of field operations and agronomy, checks on the field’s status daily during baseball season to figure out what the surface needs before each game.
“SubAir takes the info from the field sensors, looks at real-time weather info, puts it all through an equation, then tells me how much to water,” says Elliott.
AT&T Park installed the SubAir system in 2011, following the Giants’ 2010 World Series win. This kind of tech does not come cheap—it was a $450,000 upgrade—and usually fields are designed around SubAir, instead of receiving a retrofit.
“Its ultimate goal is to eliminate variables and use less water,” says Elliott. Variables include puddles, dry spots, and grass diseases. Elliott likes the grass to maintain roughly a 17 percent moisture level, and SubAir tracks that for him.
When it comes to managing the dirt parts of the field, he uses a more traditional and low-tech approach. “So much of it is by feel,” he says. “I can tell what the dirt needs just by feeling it with my hands, testing it under my shoes.” Elliott keeps the dirt’s composition very consistent: 60 percent sand, 21 percent clay, and 19 percent silt.
That’s the (high-tech) ticket
For you, the fan, the high-tech baseball experience starts way before you get to the ballpark. The Giants currently boast 246 consecutive sold-out games, which means the team has been selling some 3.4 million tickets per season since 2011. It’s able to do so thanks to a dynamic ticket-pricing system. Yes, the process is much more complex than just picking the seats you want at a fixed price.
Russ Stanley, managing vice president of ticket sales and services for the Giants, explains that ticket prices for the Giants change daily based on certain conditions, hence the term “dynamic.” The ticket system uses a program called Qcue to manage ticket-sales data, and it spits out suggested ticket prices for every game based on 120 criteria. Stanley looks at the number of seats already sold, the recent performance of the team, the star power of the opposing team, weather conditions, and whether a special event or giveaway is planned for fans.
“All of the data is presented to us in a way that’s easy to interpret,” says Stanley. An algorithm in Qcue sets a price, but Stanley and his team have the final say. That’s why you’ll see cheap $10 ticket deals for midweek games, he says, and much pricier options for games in which the opponent is a hot team.
Season-ticket holders can use MLB’s “My Tickets” online portal to manage their seats and transfer tickets that they can’t use themselves. On the site, they can sell tickets directly through StubHub, transfer tickets to a friend, or release them to a charity. Stanley estimates that season-ticket holders own about 75 percent of the seats at AT&T Park, so he has worked hard with MLB to ensure that there’s a simple process for transferring tickets.
“We wouldn’t be able to keep these fans if it wasn’t for the tech tools that make it so easy,” Stanley says.
Fans have the choice of a traditional paper ticket, a printable ticket, or an e-ticket on their mobile phone. iPhone-carrying fans can opt for a Passbook ticket. The turnstile ticket scanners, which have been in operation since 2012, recognize all of these ticket types.
Striking out foul fans
To most fans, the ballpark is a happy place, complete with cheering, high-fives, and a license to eat junk food without guilt. But to Jorge Costa, it’s more of a battlefield. Costa is the Giants’ senior vice president of ballpark operations, and it’s his job to keep everyone safe at the park. This job requires structure, planning, anticipation, and the constant gathering of information on city, state, and national security conditions.
“Tech allows us to keep up with the latest security trends,” says Costa. “There’s still a human being behind the tech, but using these resources makes me better at my job.”
Costa has his finger on the pulse of the latest security tech, and he constantly reevaluates his strategy over the course of a season. But his main strategy involves surveillance and an understated security profile that is always aware and available to help.
Before each game, the security team meets to discuss strategy for the day. The group goes over security wanding for metal detection at the gate, and LG Optimus V smartphones are distributed to security personnel, deployed in two-person teams. The devices run an overhauled version of Android 2.2 that the staffers use to text or message the park’s security hub. Eight of the teams receive iPads instead of Androids, but they use the tablets for the same purposes.
When an incident occurs in or around the ballpark—for example, when a fan slips on the stairs or a drunken brawl breaks out in the bleachers—security logs the incident through these mobile devices, and the note transmits to central command. The devices run a software program that features various touchscreen buttons for different types of incidents, so a security member simply taps icons to signal the control room and file a report. The entire system is called ISS.
Depending on the nature of the incident, the flare-up is assigned a category (for example, “injury” or “outside alcohol”) and security personnel in the control center decide who is best equipped to handle the problem, be it medical specialists, SFPD, or the Giants’ security team. Large display boards in the security control center show all logged incidents, coded red for incoming, yellow for in progress, and green for resolved. The control center then dispatches backup right away to address the issue.
In large letters near the Jumbotron, you’ll also see a number that fans can text at any time throughout the game. Type “fair” if you have a question, or “foul” if you’d like to report unruly behavior that’s disrupting the game for you. Costa says there’s an average of 100 fair/foul texts per game. It’s a great system for fans to take an active role in improving their ballpark experience.
Wi-Fi grand slam
Back at the turnstiles, fans are allowed into the park about an hour and a half before the first pitch. Tickets are scanned, and fans are directed to their seats via signage around the stadium. But what if you want to locate a restroom, a concession stand, or a merchandise shop before you reach your seat?
You guessed it: There’s an app for that—MLB’s At the Ballpark app. You also use the app to buy game tickets, or to upgrade to better seats when you’re at the stadium. Select parks are testing turn-by-turn directions for locating your seat through iOS devices, and although AT&T Park didn’t have that option during the 2013 season, we’ll likely see it in 2014.
MLB.com At Bat is the second official MLB app, and fans use it at the park to watch extra footage and instant replays of the game from different angles. If another game is happening simultaneously, you can check scores and view highlights of that game too.
For these apps to work well, the ballpark needs Wi-Fi—and a bad Wi-Fi connection would certainly reflect poorly on AT&T, a telecommunications company. Giants senior vice president and chief information officer Bill Schlough says he’s determined to make Internet connection and speed a priority around the park.
“Fans shouldn’t care how they’re connected, just that they’re connected,” Schlough says.
AT&T Park offers free Wi-Fi service, for which it has installed 931 wireless access points around the stadium. The devices are hidden around the ballpark, painted in inconspicuous colors to make them blend in with their surroundings. You’ll find them in the bleachers, under chairs, and overhead, hidden on ceiling beams and supports. Each section of seats has at least one dedicated hotspot.
You’ll find good LTE coverage in the park too: AT&T Park has 196 dedicated 3G/LTE hotspots for cellular coverage, dedicated to amplifying the service for baseball fans. These are “neutral-host” antennas, so you’ll get solid coverage no matter what carrier you’re with. (One of my visits was during a sold-out game. I had no trouble connecting to AT&T Park’s Wi-Fi network, and I was able to stream videos with no lag.)
The number of fans who connect to Wi-Fi while at the park is an astonishing 10,731 per game, not including cellular-data connections. (AT&T Park has 41,000 seats.) According to Schlough, fans transfer 308GB of data per game, with 183GB in downloads (streaming and gathering content) and 125GB in uploads (sharing and posting to social media).
The ballpark’s Wi-Fi infrastructure was put to the test during a day game on Sunday, September 8, which happened to overlap with the first regular-season NFL game. Voracious football fans streamed live NFL footage while watching the Giants game at AT&T Park. Downloads hit 262GB that day.
Behind the scoreboard sits the @Cafe, a new addition to AT&T Park for the 2013 season. The @Cafe is the Giants’ social media hub, where a dedicated team of social media gurus tracks trending tags and themes across Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. Fans can stop by, grab a latte, and check out a live feed of all Giants-related posts, with popular and trending posts projected onto the café’s walls.
If you notice your phone is running low on juice while you’re en route to your seat, you can stop at one of ten phone-charging stations. Each station has 16 chargers for various devices, so you can plug in and juice up for a few minutes. If you’re in need of a serious charge, swing by the AT&T Digital Lounge to drop your phone off to charge: The station is manned, so your device should be in good hands while you enjoy the game. Luxury suites and boxes are equipped with four chargers each. Between all of these charging stations, there are enough ports to charge 424 devices at once.
Peanuts and Cracker Jack
Before the first pitch, make a mad dash for the beer line. As you check the menu board, you’ll notice that it isn’t your run-of-the-mill marquee. It’s an electronic sign plastered onto a 42-inch HD display. All signs are controlled through centralized software, where menus and ads are designed for specific events and then pushed out via Wi-Fi to the menu boards at the concession stands. You’ll see signs change with animations, update prices to reflect deals, and remind you that maybe you do want nachos with that beer, after all.
“The electronic boards give us the flexibility to do dynamic pricing on our food if we want to,” says Ken Logan, senior IT director for the Giants. For example, if it’s a low-attendance game, the boards can push food deals to help drive sales. On average, AT&T Park sells 10,000 hot dogs per game.
Logan also ensures that the credit card system at the park is lightning-fast to keep sales flowing smoothly and quickly. The system used to be pretty laggy, but a stronger and more efficient connection (including tap-to-pay card readers) has vastly improved service. Logan says he looks forward to the day when AT&T Park becomes a cash-free ballpark: Mobile point-of-sale readers for the wandering vendors and a system for fans to order and pay for food items from their own devices are on the horizon.
“When we first opened, the longest line was for the ATM,” says Logan. “Now, it’s for the garlic fries.”
Capturing the perfect game
Once the game is in full swing, fans spend almost as much time gazing at the 101-by-33-foot HD Jumbotron as they do watching the live action on the field below. The Giants’ in-house production staff sees the scoreboard as a giant TV, and its job is to write a special show with its own script for each game.
“We preplan content based on every game to make the event that night feel special for the fans,” says Paul Hodges, director and executive producer of SF Giants Productions. Game scripts contain detailed plans for each inning break and a rough timeline of when content will air.
Up on the Club Level of AT&T Park, right behind home plate, sits the scoreboard control room, where the production crew pieces together the Jumbotron show during live games. A large display in the room shows live feeds from all of the cameras around the ballpark—15 in total between the in-house Sony cameras and the TV-network cameras that film games for TV broadcast. Some cameras are stationary, and some are carried around to capture crowd shots or the field from different angles. Crowd shots are all spontaneous, and it’s up to the camera operators to find the perfect fans for moments such as the Kiss Cam and the seventh-inning stretch.
“Fans often don’t remember the overly produced things we work on, but they remember those fun, spontaneous moments,” says Hodges.
Control room director Kevin Skillings watches the live feed from each camera and makes real-time calls on which shot to display on the scoreboard. Skillings also mans the Sony MVS-7000 production switcher (“the same board they use on The Tonight Show,” he boasts) to control the flow of content to the big board. Every member of the production team has a specific role to play, be it operating the stationary cameras, updating the game score, prepping graphics for the next inning break, or queuing up the next canned clip. Each game’s scoreboard show is a mix of game-action replays, live crowd footage, ads, and custom-produced content made ahead of time and canned.
Custom-produced content usually includes footage of the players, such as a funny interview or an answer to a trivia question that they’ll play against a fan. If there’s a special event, such as Elvis Night or Star Wars Night, SFG Productions will create something unique just for that game. SFG Productions works on 40 preproduced pieces per season, meaning that most clips will air twice during the 86-home-game season.
As for audio, the Giants have a dedicated DJ who controls all of the music played throughout the game. The DJ constantly adds current songs to the rotation, and many of his choices are designed to stir up the crowd. For example, he’ll start a Giants chant to rally the fans during a critical at-bat, and an upbeat song to mark a spectacular play. For pregame, he keeps it light, using an iTunes playlist; but during the game itself, the DJ uses uses Game Ops Commander, a specialized software package for sporting events. The DJ uses the software in tandem with the script to schedule songs during inning breaks, and to queue up each player’s individual at-bat music.
The scoreboard itself is a Mitsubishi Electric Diamond Vision AVL-OD10, and it contains just over 3 million individual LEDs. The board was installed in 2007, replacing AT&T Park’s original, non-HD scoreboard. The entire control room system also got an HD overhaul when the new board was installed. However, the main control room equipment hasn’t been updated since then, so the PCs are still rocking Windows XP.
Though some of the day-to-day equipment is a bit on the old side, Hodges and his team are constantly experimenting with new tech. This year they set up live webcasts of the pregame show for 30 games. And during the Giants' final home game of the season, they shot live aerial views of the stadium and the crowd using a Sony camera mounted on a small remote-controlled hexacopter. The Teradek HD aerial video transmitter mounted on the copter allowed them to broadcast the footage live to the scoreboard during the game.
“Because we’re in San Francisco, our fans and our team expect us to keep up with the latest technology,” says Hodges. “We push ourselves to get creative with tech in order to orchestrate these great live moments.”
A professional ballgame will always be rooted in tradition. Old chants and cheers live on, die-hard Giants fans still track strikeouts by hand, and despite all of the field equipment available, nail boards are still used on the dirt track. But with each season, new tech becomes part of the normal ballpark ecosystem, evolving the park with the latest and greatest while keeping the spirit of the game intact. Though the baseball players are the stars, technology drives the entire ballpark experience and is the secret MVP.
[Illustration by Josh McKible. Multimedia editor Kerry Davis contributed to this story.]