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Technology & the Fan Experience

· Sports,Sports Technology,Sports Business

Technology & the Fan Experience

I vividly remember my first game experience.

Clenching my hand tightly, my grandfather led me through the concourse and into our seats. I sat in my seat, eager for the game to start. But my grandfather didn’t sit down. He pulled a rolled-up baseball scorecard out of his back pocket. Next came a pencil, followed by reading glasses. The whole game, he sat in his seat, laser focused, keeping score of the game on his own. His pen touched the scorecard after every single pitch.

It’s worth noting that this first game experience certainly isn’t unique to me. Previous generations grew up keeping score by hand at the ballpark. Sixty years ago, keeping score was the only way to recall the past elements of a game: Where did this batter hit the ball time he was up to bat? How many pitches has this pitcher thrown? Was this the guy that got caught stealing?

Today, however, it’s nearly impossible to find a young fan keeping score. The questions that used to be answered only by scorecards are now answered in seconds on a smartphone.

Take your pick, ESPN, MLB, Yahoo, CBS, Bleacher Report, and Fox all have applications that store everything that has happened in the game in front of you.

But it’s not even the simple questions that your phone can answer; literally thousands of aspects of the game are at your fingertips. You get in an argument with your buddy about which home run was hit further and in a few clicks you can find out the projected distance of each homer. In doing so, you see the exit velocity and launch-angles of the home runs. You see the speed of the pitch, the type of pitch, the spin-rate of the ball, and a whole number of statistics that no fan could’ve ever dreamed to see in 1960.

Just five years ago, when an umpire called a ball on a pitch that looked to be a strike, a stadium would erupt in boos. But booing was all that fans could do.

While fans don’t stop booing today, they have a second step. They pull out their phones, open an app, and see the exact pitch location; fans in 2020 don’t have to wonder anymore, they get to know whether the ump was right or wrong.

And of course, the technology doesn’t stop with the game in front of you, it extends to tens of thousands of past games. Say your team just can’t stop hitting doubles. In a seat in the left field bleachers, you have the power to know how many more doubles the team needs until they set the single-game record. Or if it seems like Aaron Judge is having his best game of all time, you can see if that’s actually true.

The fan experience, however, is not only amplified because of a sudden increase in knowledge, it’s also elevated because the actual product on the field is better. In other words, baseball itself is getting better and better every year.

For more than a century, almost every hitting coach preached the exact same things: stay on top of the ball, hit line drives, be short to the ball, etc. Major League ballclubs searched for the players with the highest batting averages.

Teams, however, are finding that these baseball truisms aren’t necessarily right. The hitters that contribute the most wins to their team have the highest OPS (on base percentage + slugging percentage), not necessarily batting average. And the hitters with the highest OPS don’t “get on top of the ball” to hit line drives and many don’t even have short swings. The math and statistics available to the front offices produces better baseball players.

The Houston Astros, with Jeff Lunhow at the helm, have led the second technological revolution of baseball (the first being the Billy Bean & statistics-led Oakland A’s of Moneyball). They, admittedly, used technology as a means to both increase and decrease the fan experience. Their 2017 World Series Championship came alongside a cheating scandal.

The Astros used the video feed coming from a center-field camera (and a much less technologically-savvy trashcan bang) to alert the hitters what pitch was coming. But the 2017 Astros had one of the most dominant teams of recent memory, and much of that can be described by the legal technology that the team utilized.

The Astros assembled a “Nerd-cave” in Minute Maid Park that consisted of Ivy-League math gurus, computer scientists, and even a NASA rocket scientist. The “nerds” worked tirelessly. Researching, running the numbers, doing whatever they could behind a computer they produced the best product on the field. What they found helped them take one of the worst teams in baseball history (back-to-back-to-back hundred loss seasons) to become the 2017 champs.

Perhaps the most exciting fact of all is that we, as fans, have access to much of the same information as the nerd-caves that now exist in every single Major League front office. Yes, MLB teams have data that they keep to themselves. But in today’s technology led world, you can search through fangraphs.com and find complex data on just about every player in the League.

You can go through blogs containing tables, graphs, and models predicting hundreds of players’ and team’s future stats. And more and more, it’s these very internet blogsters, fans like you and me (and, of course, with strong mathematical backgrounds) who are landing jobs in nerd-caves around the league.

The days of scoring by hand are long gone, but the era of scoring by computer is just beginning.

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Written by Ethan Samuels, Edited by Michael Ding & Alexander Fleiss

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