How the San Francisco Giants please the most wired fans in the nation

Credit: Randy Chiu via Flickr

We often hear that IT needs to serve the business. As a sports team, the San Francisco Giants IT department has to do that in a very direct way. That means to a large extent serving the customers who pay a large chunk of the bills through ticket sales.

Giants' CIO Bill Schlough spoke last week as part of the E2 Conference in Boston, and besides showing off two rather impressive World Series rings -- a perk not many IT pros get to experience -- he also talked in pure business terms how his department of only 11 IT pros has to deliver top notch services to fans.

One of the ways he has been able to deliver great service with a small department is by using cloud services whenever possible. As Schlough told the crowd, "The more data that's in the cloud, the happier I am."  He added that he doesn't want to "be concerned with leaving the lights on" and that means he doesn't want to worry about running his own data center.

Schlough's department helps run the business side, using services such as Workday to manage its staff of part-time game-day employees, and advanced analytical tools like cameras mounted into the light stanchions to monitor pitching and player performance on video. But his primary job is really to improve the fan experience.

One of the programs he's set up is an online service to help season ticket holders sell extra tickets. He said they have had 8 straight years of sell outs, the longest current streak in Major League Baseball, and they have more than 28,000 season ticket holders, some who hold tickets for all 81 games. Baltimore started a Scalp Free Zone in 1995 and The Giants used that as a model to let the season ticket holders sell their tickets at the ballpark. But eventually the team started an online version called My SF Tix, which they bill as as a secure online marketplace. Schlough said, ticket holders can even make a profit if they wish, doing away with the scalp-free part. It's whatever the market will bear.

The program combined with StubHub in 2011 and introduced electronic ticketing where you could show a ticket on your smartphone.

Schlough said it's about providing a valued service and keeping fans coming back.

Another benefit for fans is free Wi-Fi in the park, which the Giants have provided since 2004 -- waby back when you had to have a Wi-Fi card inside your laptop to access it and the dominant mobile devices were from HP and Palm. At the time, Shlough said, about 100 people used the service. The 121 antennas they used gave those 100 fans an amazing experience!

By 2007, when the iPhone came out, however, Wi-Fi usage really took off. Fortunately, they had created it with the future in mind. "We had a plan. We expected mobile devices would come along," he said.

Today, about 32 percent of fans use Wi-Fi, and the rest would prefer to use their cell network. 

One of the most recent innovations is @Cafe, which opened this month. It's a gathering spot at the ballpark to watch social media interactions going on around the game. The cafe provides a 12 foot by 4 foot video wall displaying trending tweets, Instagram photos, results from Facebook polls and check-ins -- all related to Giants baseball and the current game. If that's not enough, two 50-inch LCD screens carry batting practice and the game and fans can socialize in person and online, and buy coffee and tea.

Schlough reiterated that everything he does is related to thinking of the fans as customers -- like any other business, the Giants want to improve the customer experience. Baseball may seem like a glamorous IT job, but when it comes down to it, the IT team faces many of the same challenges as you do to align your department directly with the business and deliver quality service in an age of consumerization.

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