CINCINNATI — Sept. 25, 2012 — A day at the ballpark generally involves hot dogs, beer, the crack of the bat and the roar of the crowd. Probably the last thing on anyone’s mind is software and IT systems.
That is, anyone except Brian Keys. Keys is vice president of technology systems for the oldest team in Major League Baseball (MLB), the Cincinnati Reds. He says fans by and large don’t realize the role technology plays all around them when they attend a game, and that’s probably the way it should be.
“I tell my friends that I do IT for the Reds, and they always ask why a baseball team would need technology,” Keys says. “I tell them it’s everywhere. You can’t even get into the ballpark without it.”
Founded in 1869, the Reds have long been known as one of baseball’s most conservative franchises, but when it comes to technology that moves their business forward and enhances the fan experience, the Reds of 2012 are thoroughly progressive.
The organization has long used an in-house database to facilitate scouting and player development, and since a new ownership group took control of the team in 2006, Keys and his staff have been continually upgrading the technology underpinnings of the team’s home facility, Great American Ball Park, with cutting-edge hardware and visual displays, and a software stack based almost entirely on Microsoft technologies.
Through these efforts, today Great American Ball Park may be one of the most technologically advanced in the country. Says Keys: “Ticketing and sales, marketing, creative, operations, accounting, scouting, the whole organization depends on the software we support. And we are definitely a Microsoft shop.”
Keys says the business model of a professional sports franchise is a lot different from a grocery store or an automotive dealership, where physical commodities are bought and sold. In sports, the product is all about people — collecting the best talent to put on the field, and creating the best experience for fans visiting the ballpark.
At Great American Ball Park, the actual trading functions of selling items for cash — tickets, jerseys, hats, beer and even Coney-style hot dogs from Cincinnati’s famous Skyline Chili — are maintained by third-party providers such as Ticketmaster and concessionaire Delaware North Sportservice.
By outsourcing those functions, the Reds’ IT staff can focus on higher-level, strategic systems that enhance the organization’s ability to operate smarter and more efficiently. Today the Reds’ IT systems help them find the best players, put on a great show for fans who come out to the games — and encourage people to come back more often.
Just entering the ballpark involves some pretty sophisticated technology. At the gate, tickets are scanned instantly using Windows Embedded-based handheld devices connected to Ticketmaster’s access control system. In an instant, ticket information is sent to Ticketmaster’s database inside the park and returned as valid, generating that familiar little “beep” and allowing entrance through the turnstiles. But the information doesn’t stop there.
“Once that’s validated, the information is synced over to our SQL database,” Keys says. “We’re tracking attendance against our ticket sales.”
While ticketing services such as Ticketmaster must adhere to strict privacy regulations that limit the information shared between the organizations, the Reds also maintain a separate Microsoft SQL Server database of season ticketholders, high-volume and repeat buyers, and even regular walk-up customers. The database is accessed by sales staff via Microsoft Dynamics CRM.
“We also look at things like how many times you came to the game,” says Keys. “So if you came to the park eight times this year, maybe we’ll offer you a 10-pack next season.”
Using a combination of information provided by Microsoft Dynamics CRM and Ticketmaster, the Reds’ sales and marketing staff can spot trends and identify opportunities. Which local ZIP codes are showing the most activity? Among the tickets sold to particular buyers or groups of buyers, how many games were actually attended? What other team events, subscriptions or memberships do ticketholders participate in?
“We use a lot of statistical analysis to target different groups of fans and give them what they want,” Keys says. “Our ticket call center handles both sales and customer service, and Microsoft Dynamics CRM is our guidebook for all of that. It is up and running all the time.”
A Dazzling Display
Built in 2003 on the banks of the Ohio River, Great American Ball Park is a modern pro sports facility that has been dramatically upgraded throughout its brief lifetime.
For fans, one of the most obvious upgrades is the crystal clarity of the gigantic display towering over the left-field bleachers. That centerpiece is complemented by ribbon displays encircling the upper deck, large vertical displays on the flagpoles in right center, and dozens of smaller screens throughout the ballpark, ensuring that fans can catch the action wherever they happen to be.
While the hardware itself is something to behold, the technology that controls all of the ballpark’s video and audio is equally impressive. Nestled high above the field alongside the television and radio broadcast booths is a complete production studio that controls all of the on-screen and audio action throughout the game.
From there, the Reds’ production staff constantly cuts, edits and updates everything that happens on-screen throughout the park — everything from player stats and replays, to promotions, graphics and ads. Audio is mixed between captured clips, sound bites and the stadium announcer’s microphone.
“This is the brains behind the entire production,” Keys says. “We’re constantly pushing content from here, before, during and after every game.”
According to Keys, almost the entire production is run in a Windows environment. Professional equipment from Sony and displays from Samsung and others are connected to Windows-based PCs from HP and Dell. More than 40 terabytes of storage is on hand to manage all that video.
Knowing What’s on Tap
Display technology at the ballpark goes well beyond what’s on the field, extending across the stadium concourses into vendors’ booths throughout the facility.
Gone are the days of plastic, hand-lettered menus: In one of the ballpark’s most recent upgrades, the old menus have also been replaced with crystal-clear LCD displays. One big benefit of this change, according to Keys, is that all of the vendors’ menus and other concourse displays can be controlled centrally using an application developed by his staff and an outside developer using the Microsoft .NET Framework.
“We provide a log-in, and they can access the signs either on-site or remotely, using whatever tool they want — laptop, tablet, PC or phone,” he says.
The application can be used to adjust pricing, add or delete items, reboot signs that have gone haywire, or make any other necessary changes in a few clicks — as opposed to having staff throughout the park manually alter dozens of signs in the case of a price change, for example.
Putting the Best Product on the Field
One of the most striking evolutions to the historic game of baseball in recent years has been the growing importance of statistical analysis in evaluating players and making talent decisions. Like every team in baseball, the Reds have their own unique methods for grading players that are not disclosed for competitive reasons.
However, one tool unique to the Reds is a homegrown database application built with Microsoft Access. Back in 2000, under the regime of then-general manager Jim Bowden, a member of the Reds staff began building the biographical and statistical system the team affectionately calls “BOSS.” And according to Keys, the team has never looked back.
“In the Windows 2000 era, Microsoft Access was probably the best thing going on the database side, and it’s been solid to this day,” Keys says. “In my tenure we’ve had five GMs, and each GM has come in, seen our system, made some tweaks to it and otherwise kept what we have.”
Today the tool is used across the Reds’ scouting organization. With more than 30 amateur scouts combing the college and high school ranks, a dozen pro scouts watching MLB games across the country, and dozens more minor-league coaches developing players in the Reds’ organization, the BOSS system aggregates all statistics from these sources and synchronizes them into a SQL Server database for reporting and analysis by the front office.
“Our scouts and all of our minor league affiliates submit information through the Access database on hitting, fielding, pitching, whatever the players do,” Keys says. “We parse the data and send it to the GM in the format he’s asked to receive it. He can access those reports either through a SharePoint Web portal, or here on site through the application itself.”
Since 2007, Keys has hired four developers. His staff continues to build functionality into the system using the .NET Framework, making it easier for the front office to access and use the data.
“Each GM looks at stats differently and wants to see them differently,” Keys says. “The scores and grades change based on that. It’s constantly growing and changing.”
It’s been said that the only constant in the world of IT is change, and the same is true in professional sports. Given that, Keys expects to be busy for the foreseeable future, further developing the BOSS scouting system, and updating the ballpark with expanded wireless connectivity and other initiatives. Next up: a migration of the Reds’ accounting systems to Microsoft Dynamics GP, in an effort to enhance integration between financials and operations.
“We think we can create some efficiency with Microsoft Dynamics GP in terms of better connecting our processes,” he says. “We’ll also look at moving the scouts away from laptops and into a more tablet-based environment.”
But first, the postseason. Since the Reds are posting one of the best records in baseball this year, Keys and his group have to plan space and connectivity for hundreds of media members to attend the playoffs at Great American Ball Park.
Will they be ready? Well, if it’s true what Yankees great Yogi Berra once said in his inimitable fashion, that “90 percent of this game is half mental,” then the Reds certainly must have one of the highest technology IQs in the league.