MSR Special Report: Bringing Technology to the ‘Friendly Confines’ of Wrigley Field

Wrigley Field on Opening Day, 2012. Photo courtesy of Chicago Cubs.  All rights reserved.

Wrigley Field on Opening Day, 2012. Photo courtesy of Chicago Cubs. All rights reserved.

Editor’s note: This is part of a series of interviews with speakers and thought leaders from the upcoming SEAT 2013 conference in Kansas City, Aug. 4-7.

There are baseball stadiums, and then there is Wrigley Field. As a dyed in the blue-pinstriped-wool Cubs fan, I can’t write objectively about the place. It is Mecca, the Friendly Confines, the hallowed outfield walls of ivy. It’s precisely because of people like me that Andrew McIntyre’s job of bringing better technology to the storied ballyard is so much more complex than that of his stadium-technology peers. Wrigley may have one of the greenest fields anywhere, but from an information-technology deployment standpoint Wrigley is about as far away from a “greenfield” project as you can get.

McIntyre, Senior Director of Information Technology for the Chicago Cubs, spoke with MSR recently on the phone to describe the delicate line his organization must tread as it brings necessary technology improvements to one of the world’s great historic sporting venues. In other stadiums, things like a brand-new huge video board would be welcomed, even celebrated. At Wrigley? Renovation plans that include an outfield video board will need to pass muster with national landmark regulations, and survice reactions from a widespread fan base that resists even the slightest changes to the stadium, and work with the unique neighborhood apartment buildings whose rooftops offer views into the stadium.

So when McIntyre said the Cubs need to get “everyone on board” before things like video screens can be introduced, he’s talking about a lot more than people who pull a Cubs paycheck. That extra planning, McIntyre admits, will likely keep the Cubs a bit behind their sports-stadium brethren in certain technology areas, like digital signage. But on many other fronts McIntyre and his technology team are helping the Cubs and Wrigley keep pace with advanced stadium services, like better mobile device connectivity.

Wi-Fi and DAS, with AT&T

Now in his second year with the Cubs, McIntyre and the IT team there has spent a good amount of time putting infrastructure in place that will support future efforts, beginning with things like optical fiber deployments that bring an almost 10-fold speed improvement in bandwidth backhaul.

Andrew McIntyre, Senior Director of Information Technology, Chicago Cubs. Photo courtesy of Chicago Cubs.  All rights reserved.

Andrew McIntyre, Senior Director of Information Technology, Chicago Cubs. Photo courtesy of Chicago Cubs. All rights reserved.

“Some severe infrastructure upgrades were needed here to enable initiatives moving forward,” McIntyre said. “There was historically a lack of investment from the IT side of the house. We’ve been working on a lot of non-fan-facing improvements that are very critical to us.”

One improvement that fans have been able to enjoy for the past season and a half is improved mobile connectivity inside the park, thanks to a neutral-host Distributed Antenna System (DAS) deployment and a stadium Wi-Fi network, built with carrier partner AT&T. “Next time you’re here, keep your eyes peeled for the antennas,” McIntyre said.

Having improved cellular and Wi-Fi connectivity puts the Cubs in the top third of MLB franchises, as by our count only 12 of the 30 major league parks currently offer free fan Wi-Fi services. When it comes to advanced apps and services that such in-park networks might power, like same-day seat upgrades or video replays, McIntyre said the Cubs are paying close attention to pilot programs underway at other parks, and will be “fast followers” when MLB-approved solutions are ready for prime time. (All in-stadium apps in baseball parks can only be run through the league’s At Bat or At the Ballpark mobile app.)

“I don’t think anyone’s knocking it out of the park yet” with in-stadium services, McIntyre said. But McIntyre also said he and the Cubs have met with franchises who are trying leading-edge deployments, including the San Francisco Giants and some European stadiums.

“We’re doing a lot of watching, listening, and learning,” McIntyre said.

Digital Signage as a Communication Vehicle

While most of the heated debate around the Cubs’ renovation plans centers on the size and placement of the proposed outfield video board, McIntyre and his team are looking deeper into a synchronized digital signage strategy, where boards all around the stadium — even, say, a concession stand pricing menu — could become a communications vehicle for the team to send messages out to the fans.

Wrigley Field marquee entrance. Photo courtesy of Chicago Cubs.  All rights reserved.

Wrigley Field marquee entrance. Photo courtesy of Chicago Cubs. All rights reserved.

“One major thing we are investigating is how the signage can change, to become a communications channel,” McIntyre said. Currently, when games go to a rain delay, there’s not a lot of ways for the team to give fans information about when the game might restart, or to communicate weather forecasts and safety instructions. That could change with a digital signage system that can instantly act as a synchronized stadium-wide messaging system.

“The digital signage strategy doesn’t necessarily get highlighted [in public discussions] but it can all become a vehicle to communicate,” McIntyre said.

Andrew McIntyre will be speaking at the upcoming SEAT Conference in Kansas City, Aug. 4-7.

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