Technology key to enhancing ballpark experience

Red Sox CEO Lucchino addresses 'Stadium of the Future' at Bloomberg summit

Technology key to enhancing ballpark experience

NEW YORK -- If you want to talk about the future of sports stadiums, one good person to start with is Larry Lucchino. From Baltimore to San Diego to Boston, he has been at the head of unique initiatives to develop or modernize important ballparks, and during Thursday's ongoing Bloomberg Sports Business Summit the Red Sox president and CEO was asked what tomorrow's stadium looks like.

"I don't know, because it's going to change every few years. It's hard to see 10 years down the line," he said. "Certainly it's going to have something to do with the embedding of data in the experience at the ballpark. At the very least there's a technology section of the ballpark in the next few years, where you can go get an enhanced interactive experience.

"The information revolution has changed so many businesses and so much of American culture. Ballparks and stadiums will be affected by that."

That movement is afoot in Major League Baseball. The At the Ballpark app is customizable to the fan at each venue, leveraging the latest technologies developed and deployed by MLB Advanced Media and incorporated into the app. It features in-game seat upgrades, mobile food and official merchandise ordering, better mobile device connectivity and iBeacon technology for automatic check-in with offers and rewards. The second phase of iBeacon-based functionality debuted at Target Field for All-Star Week, and fans have points-of-interest at the great landmark-type features at each ballpark, with others coming soon. Also, video boards continue to grow in magnitude and capability.

Since 1990, there have been more than 325 sports/recreation facilities built or modernized at a total cost of $3 trillion. Since the turn of the decade, 81 stadiums or arenas have been modernized or built. There are $12 billion worth of luxury/club seat sales committed, according to the Luxury Suite Directors Association. And there are 49 leases of the big four sports -- Major League Baseball, National Football League, National Basketball Association and National Hockey League -- that come up for expiration and negotiation in the next seven-to-nine years.

Yankees President Randy Levine, who oversaw the construction of a new ballpark that opened in 2009, shares Lucchino's sentiments. Levine spoke later on a panel about growth strategies in mega markets, along with Philadelphia 76ers/New Jersey Devils CEO Scott O'Neill, and said technology is "very important" to the future stadium.

"As the whole world moves toward different types of technologies, young people, even people my age, want to appreciate the game in different ways," Levine said. "We have to utilize the technology to connect with people -- especially younger fans. So I think it's really important."

Lucchino was joined on "The Stadium of the Future" panel by moderator Rick Horrow of Horrow Sports Ventures, Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross and Indianapolis Mayor Gregory Ballard. Their discussion included the subject of "de-couching" -- getting fans to come out to the games in person at a time of huge TV contracts, live streaming and ever-increasing ways to stay attuned from afar.

"There's a historical perspective that's appropriate here," Lucchino said. "I remember reading about a debate in Major League Baseball that took place in Cincinnati. There was a question about whether people would come out to the ballgames if they could listen for free on the radio. This was in 1937. They said, 'Now we can't allow every game to go out on the radio. They'll stay at home and they won't come to the ballpark.' Well, obviously that didn't work out as was anticipated.

"Then there was a similar debate in the '70s and '80s when cable television proliferated. Then the question was: 'Will people stay home and watch it on TV?' I remember having a debate with the then-owner of the Orioles, Edward Bennett Williams, who believed we should only show away games on our regional sports network. I counseled him that we should show every game. There was kind of a dailyness to it, an exposure that was important. As long as people could go to the ballpark and have a different experience, the ballpark would still thrive and survive.

"The same is true now," Lucchino added. "We've just got to ensure that with this current challenge, we do more innovative things at the ballpark to enhance that experience. One way, of course, is customer service, and the ambience at the ballpark has got to be special, the family experience has got to be special. Another is database; you've got to be sure that we are providing people the same information and data that they can access when they are at home. That's a challenge going forward. But I do believe that the challenge will be met in the right kind of ballparks and the right kinds of neighborhoods will still thrive."

Ballard cited the importance of "congregating" in an era of social media, and Lucchino nodded.

"We are mammals who interact," Lucchino said. "We are mammals who like to see each other and be next to people and talk to each other. That experience and that instinct will stay with us. So this notion that everyone's going to stay at home and watch it on the television, I do think is a bit overblown."

Lucchino, a 35-year veteran of MLB, led the creation in 1992 of trend-setting Camden Yards as the Orioles' president and CEO, then the development of Petco Park in that same role from 1995-2001. He has been in his present role since 2002, overseeing the challenge of preserving the oldest MLB park's charm and history while equipping it for the modern fan.

Lucchino said those three ballparks are "like three different flavors of ice cream -- they're all pretty good but quite different from one another."

"When we did Camden Yards in the late '80s/early '90s, it was the era of public financing and we took a rather simple approach to it," he said. "The state was the landlord, we were the tenant, and we would pay a fair lease payment for the use of that facility. But we did get the right to participate actively in its design. I think that changed things for baseball, at least.

"When we went to San Diego, it was a slightly different period, a fairly different town. You can't take lessons from one town and apply them simply to the next town. You have to be careful. In San Diego, we did a mix of public and private partnership, in a way that all the elected officials were active participants in that process. We are extremely proud of the end result; the ballpark is great. The new area of downtown San Diego that was created has been a success beyond expectations, a public and private success.

"Fenway is very different. Fenway is an iconic ballpark. And because we had built two new ones, when John Henry, Tom Warner and I arrived, I think the expectation was that the Red Sox would build a new ballpark. That was wrong, because out of the six groups bidding to acquire the Red Sox, we were the only group wanting to maintain Fenway -- to serve, protect, enhance and expand Fenway Park. And $285 million and 10 years later, a 10-year rebuilding project, we did it in a way that we were very pleased with, and I think our fans were. So as I say, three different flavors."

Mark Newman is enterprise editor of Read and join other baseball fans on his community blog. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.