The Providence Journal
Friday, April 8, 2011
By Chip Benson
How much longer can the Red Sox draw 37,000-plus fans to Fenway Park to sit and watch baseball games without offering an interactive digital component as part of the experience?
The next generation of baseball fans, 15 to 24, are highly active two-way participants in their online entertainment and communications. The notion of just sitting and watching something for three hours is beyond antiquated; it’s what only their parents would do!
Mobile computing and digital technologies have wired a new generation, one every bit as sharp-elbowed and opinionated as previous generations of Red Sox fans.
The Red Sox spent a king’s ransom on new players this year to get back to their winning ways, but they will have to cater to young people if they are to continue the longest sellout streak in Major League Baseball history (seven years). Sellout streaks are important in baseball because gate receipts constitute the majority of revenue that each team generates.
Unlike the more egalitarian National Football League, which has a salary cap and whose teams pool their television revenue, Major League Baseball leaves its owners largely on their own to run their businesses as they see fit. Significantly, 65 percent of the Red Sox business ($176 million) is in ticket sales.
Expensive architectural renovations to 99-year-old Fenway Park have been completed, and are nice for the old folks, but for the next Red Sox century, the organization needs an upgrade to the digital experience on the field.
The innovative owners of the Red Sox could start by handing out wireless digital controllers, or mobile devices, to interested season-ticket holders. With the appropriate controllers, or eventually the right software that could be installed in any mobile phone, fans at the game could vote in real time on a whole host of in-game tactics and decisions.
For instance, fans could try to guess what pitch is coming before the pitcher delivers. These votes could be tabulated and displayed in real time on the new $10 million video boards before and after every pitch. Same thing for the batter: Will he swing and miss, take a pitch, bunt or get a hit?
Managing the Red Sox has never been easy; Terry Francona reportedly chews over 70 pieces of gum every game. But imagine if fans could vote their opinions on what they think the manager should do during the game: What pitches he should call for? Should the batter swing, take a pitch or bunt? Should Francona insert a pinch hitter for J.D. Drew?
Perhaps the television audience could be on-line participants also, with their real-time votes pitted against the attending fans’ or simply added to the overall votes. Imagine the bleacher votes versus the loge, first-base grandstand versus third-base grandstand, creating an online digital stadium “wave” for the next generation of baseball fans.
Go ahead and shake your head, but this is the way the culture is going, and it will likely wag the future of professional sports. The secret to the success of “American Idol” and similar shows is live online voting and other interactive features that are everyday tools of the young computerati.
Professional sports and their live events are late to the game. NASCAR provides those in attendance with headphones to listen in on the communications between a driver and pit crew. The NFL has helped develop a Fanvision handheld device that gives the viewer instant replay from multiple angles as well as something called cheerleader cam, which could be useful if the league ever plays again. Meanwhile, your average 13-year-old is doing things with Madden 2011 that make watching an actual game seem like watching grass grow.
The dynamics of the live sporting experience should change dramatically. It’s possible that Red Sox fans could be both more engaged during the game and yet quieter, furiously typing away on their mobile devices with a Fenway App. Baseball has always been a statistics-fueled sport. Real-time interactive computing would advance the sport and keep America’s pastime in step with the new generation of digital Americans.
“Popcorn! Soda! Peanuts! Who needs a Fenway App?”
Chip Benson is an occasional contributor.