SAN FRANCISCO--Could changing phone systems pay a big-league baseball player's salary? To hear Bill Schlough, the CIO of the San Francisco Giants tell it, the answer is a definite yes.
Last winter, the team migrated to a new $1 million-plus VoIP telecommunications system from ShoreTel for its ballpark, AT&T Park, abandoning its legacy system, which--ironically--was provided by AT&T. According to Schlough, the old system cost $490,000 annually, while the new setup for the 457 phones at the ballpark run the team just $135,000 a year.
Given that the minimum salary for Major League Baseball players this year is $400,000, the resulting annual savings of $355,000 is almost enough to pay for a backup second baseman or a rookie relief pitcher.
In all seriousness, though, the Giants implemented the new system at the behest of the team's former owner, Peter Magowan, who, in late 2007, sent a memo around wondering why the club was paying more for its telecommunications infrastructure than any other team in baseball. Now, it is in the final stages of implementing what it hopes will prove to be a cutting-edge system that will allow it to improve customer service, as well as customer tracking, and make it simpler to make changes within its internal network on the fly.
One visceral example of how the new ShoreTel setup is a generational step up from the Giants' old AT&T network is deep in the ballpark's bowels, in what is known as the MPO, or minimum point of entry, its telecommunications infrastructure hub. There, the old system's sets of switches and wiring take up an entire wall. But now, its VoIP setup is doing its job from a single rack in the back of the room.
And beyond the cost savings the new system provides, Schlough told a group of reporters gathered Monday night for a discussion of the ballpark's technology, its integrated software for the first time allows the team to do a much better job of proactively identifying callers to its season ticket customer support line and allowing service representatives to see, even before picking up such a call, a set of information about the customer, including whether they've used their tickets to recent games or whether they've sold them on StubHub.com. Previously, Schlough said, the reps would have no idea who a caller was until the conversation had commenced.
The system also provides benefits throughout the Giants' baseball organization, said team employee Lena Boswell. She explained that coaches in the Giants minor leagues are required to file a detailed report to the parent club after every game, and said that the ShoreTel system allows those coaches can now record a single message and distribute it automatically to everyone that needs to get it.
At more than $1 million, the Giants' new phone system is certainly pricey, but Schlough said that given the annual savings, he expects it to pay for itself in just three years.
But the phone setup isn't the teams only major recent technology investment. The Giants have also coughed up big money for things like a state-of-the-art high-definition video scoreboard, as well as hundreds of HDTVs that were installed around the ballpark.
All together, Schlough told CNET News, when large capital expenditures are included, the Giants spend between 2.5 percent and 3 percent of the team's total annual budget on technology. He did not say what the dollar amount of that annual budget is, but its safe to say it is in the high eight figures or low nine figures, since its payroll alone is $82.6 million and it has an annual debt service of at least $20 million on the privately financed AT&T Park, which opened in 2000.
Wi-Fi and the
For years, meanwhile, the ballpark has offered its customers free Wi-Fi. In fact, it was among the very first to do so in all of professional sports. And for years, using it meant toting a laptop to the park, something which usually did not sit well with hard-core fans.
But Schlough said that the iPhone and iPod Touch era has changed things irrevocably for the ballpark's Wi-Fi system and has inspired the team to offer customers a set of services unlike that available in any other park.
He said that the iPhone debuted the same weekend as the Giants hosted the 2007 Major League Baseball All-Star Game and that since then, usage of the park's Wi-Fi network has gone up 537 percent.
At a game on April 21, in fact, he said, 1,289 fans connected to the network. And one thing that has changed dramatically since the advent of the iPhone and iPod Touch is when fans are using Wi-Fi. In the early days, Schlough said, usage was almost exclusively during weekday day games, a function of the many businesspeople who came to games with clients.
Now, however, he explained, the usage pattern has shifted dramatically, and the lion's share of the usage is during night games.
During the 2008 season, Schlough said, there were usually an average of no more than 600 people using the ballpark's Wi-Fi network on any given date. "This year, there were more than 1,000 right out of the box," he said.
"This year," he added, "everybody has a phone in their hand everywhere they go," including the bathrooms.
Customers who do log on to the Wi-Fi network at the park are now able to use an innovative and exclusive system called the Giants Digital Dugout. This offers fans two big benefits.
The first is a "food finder," which can direct fans to the closest concession location for the exact kind of food or beverage they want, and the second is a collection of video replay highlights that includes, within three minutes after it happens, any controversial call by an umpire.
In Major League Baseball, unlike other sports, ballparks are not allowed to show replays of controversial calls on the scoreboard. So Schlough worried that too much attention to the video replay feature of the Digital Dugout might force the league to shut the Giants' system down. Short of that, though, it is an attractive feature, and well worth bringing an iPhone to the park.
It's features like that, however, that are inspiring fans by the hundreds, if not thousands, to get online at the ballpark. But in the early days of the Wi-Fi network at AT&T Park, it was mostly reporters and photographers logging on.
In fact, said Schlough, newspapers that were able to run photos in their morning editions the day after former Giants superstar slugger Barry Bonds hit his 660th career home run late in a night game on April 13, 2004, tying his godfather, Willie Mays, for third place on the all-time list, owed a debt of gratitude to the park's Wi-Fi.
"Without it," Schlough said, "they wouldn't have hit (their) deadlines."
On June 22, Geek Gestalt will kick off Road Trip 2009. After driving more than 12,000 miles in the Pacific Northwest, the Southwest and the Southeast over the last three years, I'll be looking for the best in technology, science, military, nature, aviation and more in Colorado, Utah, Idaho, Wyoming, Montana and South and North Dakota. If you have a suggestion for someplace to visit, drop me a line. And in the meantime, join the Road Trip 2009 Facebook page and follow my Twitter feed.