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August 15, 2013

MLB And The Connected Fan

Here's how mobile technology can enhance the stadium experience for baseball fans.

Stephen Cannella is an editor for Sports Illustrated

The first major league game I saw live was in 1984: Phillies vs. Astros at old Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia. I was 10, and arrived prepared for the occasion. My left hand carried my mitt, though a foul ball was as likely to reach my seat in the upper deck as it was to bounce off an orbiting space shuttle. In my right I clutched a fistful of baseball cards culled from my home collection, a dozen or so players who would be on the field that day. I brought them in case autograph opportunities arose (none did), but in those pre-internet days they also became a sort of DIY baseball encyclopedia. During the game I flipped through the cards, checking players’ stats and bio details, using that information to fill in the gaps between pitches with a monologue approximating what I would have heard if I’d been watching the game on television. 

Geeky? Maybe. But that stack of bubble-gum scented cardboard said something about the in-stadium baseball experience: Sometimes a trip to the ballpark needs more than the sound of ball meeting bat and the smell of freshly-trimmed grass—or in the case of the Vet, newly-buffed Astroturf. Thanks to the sport’s leisurely pace the mind has time to wander, and baseball watchers crave information, connection and conversation. Live and in person, sports like football are felt. But a baseball game is something to be studied and shared. 

A Dirty Little Fan Secret

The humorist Robert Benchley got it right when he wrote, “One of the chief duties of the fan is to engage in arguments with the man behind him.” Of course, that was in 1922. And while the sight of, say, Mike Trout tracking a fly ball across the outfield doesn’t differ much from what Benchley might have seen in his day, today’s smartphone- and tablet-toting fans can do better than bicker with the guy tossing peanut shells in their hair. It starts with instant access to email, social media and mobile-friendly versions of essential stat and analysis sites like Baseball-Reference and Fangraphs. Go ahead, man behind me—try to convince me that Stephen Strasburg is a better young pitcher than Matt Harvey. In my hand I’ve got a mountain of data—and a few hundred of my closest friends and followers—that say otherwise.

Having mobile technology at the stadium solves another problem. The purist in me is cringing, but there’s a dirty little secret about live baseball: for a student of the game, watching a game on TV is better, and not just because at home the bathroom lines are shorter. At the ballpark, the sight lines aren’t great. Unless you’re sitting directly behind home plate, it’s hard to tell whether the pitcher just threw a curve or a splitter. Unless you’re sitting in the first base coach’s box, it’s impossible to see how badly the ump blew the call on that groundout. Replays are scarce, and stats and other game data are limited to whatever happens to flash up on the Jumbotron. 

A smartphone bridges the two worlds, bringing the TV experience to the ballpark. For instance, a user who subscribes to MLB.tv, Major League Baseball’s live game streaming service, can watch the broadcast from his seat. Anyone can log on to MLB.com for near-instant video highlights after key moments. 

There’s also an ever-widening array of tools to help the modern fan surpass the TV experience at the ballpark. It starts with At the Ballpark, the iOS and Android app from MLB.com that’s a must-have for any frequent fan. It offers instant access to stats and video highlights, and fans who use the app to check in when they enter the ballpark get offers for ticket upgrades and food and merchandise discounts. The app puts stadium maps in the fan’s hands—no more wandering the concourse looking for a restroom or the garlic fries stand. This season fans at Philadelphia’s Citizens Bank Park, Houston’s Minute Maid Park, Arizona’s Chase Field and Miami’s Marlins Park can use the app to order food and have it delivered to their seats, a feature that MLB will gradually add to more parks. 

Over time At the Ballpark also becomes a diary of fandom: It keeps a log of ballpark visits and has a photo-sharing function. It keeps users informed on topics beyond pure baseball. Having trouble placing that funky tune Giants ace Tim Lincecum warms up to? Wondering which metal anthem blares at Yankee Stadium whenever closer Mariano Rivera enters the game? The app will tell you—and if you’re using it on an iPhone, let you purchase songs through iTunes. (For the record, it’s MGMT’s “Electric Feel” and Metallica’s “Enter Sandman.”)

Screenshots courtesy of Major League Baseball.

A Mobile Era, A New (and Improved?) Experience

Mobile technology has only begun to influence the fan experience. This season four teams—the Arizona Diamondbacks, Atlanta Braves, Minnesota Twins and Oakland A’s—are testing a mobile ticket upgrade program: Once fans are in the ballpark, they can receive offers on their phones to move to better seats for a fee. And this year a cricket team in India’s Premier League introduced augmented reality tickets. Fans who download the augmented reality browser Point can scan their tickets to receive a wealth of in-game information, discounts and, for those who enjoy a few too many Kingfishers, access to a cab ride home.

Of course, there are some ballpark experiences that no phone or tablet can enhance. There’s no digital match for the emotion and camaraderie that comes with cheering—or booing—your team along with 50,000 of your new closest friends. For those moments, put your phone away. As for the many other moments during the game when a device is indispensable, here’s a cautionary tale: That rubber-banded pack of trading cards I brought to the Vet 29 years ago? It fell out of my pocket on the way out of the stadium, never to be seen again. A mobile device is great at the ballpark—just be sure to take it home with you. 

Disclaimer: Qualcomm announced a partnership with MLB to study the viability of wiring every stadium with 4G LTE.

This article is commissioned by Qualcomm Incorporated. The views expressed are the author’s own.

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