Red Sox chief operating officer Sam Kennedy remembers the first time he brought new technology to the ballpark. It was 1998, and Kennedy was working for the San Diego Padres, whose stadium was the site of that year’s Super Bowl. For the big game, the team installed folding trays with embedded TVs on 500 premium seats so fans can watch replays and highlights.
It didn’t go well.
“People hated it,” Kennedy recalled. “They were pouring beer on it, squirting mustard. The reaction was, ‘I come to a sporting venue to get away from that stuff.’ Fast-forward 16 years, and not only do people want it, I think they demand it.”
Beginning with Friday’s home opener at Fenway Park, the Red Sox and Major League Baseball will unveil a new version of their At the Ballpark mobile app, giving fans the in-seat video they have learned to love — and plenty more.
The latest feature uses Apple’s iBeacon technology, which locates fans with iPhones inside the stadium so the Sox can send them special offers — seat upgrades, for example, or discounts on team merchandise.
It is all part of a broad effort by professional sports clubs to satisfy — and sell to — fans who once viewed athletic arenas as a refuge from electronic media but who now see stadiums as one more place to be constantly connected. The Patriots, for one, have been at the forefront of using technology, installing a high-capacity Wi-Fi network at Gillette Stadium two years ago so that all 68,000 fans can run the Patriots Gameday app at the same time.
“If you’re sitting in the stadium, you have an expectation,” said Bill Kanarick, chief marketing officer of Boston digital marketing firm Sapient, which advises the Sox on digital strategy. “If that expectation isn’t met, you’ll say, ‘Well, it wasn’t the experience I thought it was going to be.’ So you have to meet that expectation and have an opportunity to exceed it, because you’re enriching the experience with access to content that you wouldn’t otherwise have.”
At the Ballpark is designed to be a catchall tool for baseball fans, though not all features will be available immediately. Patrons can use it to plan a full day at Fenway, from viewing the Sox’s schedule to purchasing electronics tickets that scan at the entry gates — even to plot the best route to the park.
Once inside, iPhone users with Bluetooth enabled can “check in” and be detected by iBeacon sensors to receive special offers from the team. If David Ortiz blasts a home run, for instance, the Sox could instantly disseminate coupons for Big Papi T-shirts.
Users of any mobile phone running the app can order food from their seats, purchase Red Sox swag, and watch replays from camera angles not shown on TV broadcasts. They also can use interactive concourse maps to find the nearest restroom or beer stand.
The app is a centralized project of Major League Baseball, but teams have some freedom to customize it for their own ballparks and fan bases. The iBeacon sensors have been installed at 20 ballparks, so far.
For the Red Sox, the app is one way to add value to a ticket and ensure that fans have a compelling reason to keep coming to the ballpark to watch games, instead of watching at home on their sofas.
“Our huge competitor is the advent of incredible HD technology, so we have to make sure the experience at Fenway is better than the experience at home,” Kennedy said. “Obviously, we’re biased — we don’t think there’s any substitute for coming to Fenway Park — but that is what we’re competing with. You have the time commitment and the cost, so we need to make sure that when you’re coming you’re getting a great, fully integrated experience.”