San Francisco Giants' Bill Schlough: InformationWeek IT Chief Of The Year - InformationWeek
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San Francisco Giants' Bill Schlough: InformationWeek IT Chief Of The Year

The Giants' CIO and his team are innovating in areas such as analytics-based scouting and in-stadium wireless, keeping the World Series champions ahead of the game.

» One giant Wi-Fi hotspot: The Giants have also become the bellwether for enabling a digital fan experience at the ballpark, and a lightning rod for criticism. Baseball purists don't cotton to dancing mascots, eardrum-bursting music and other family-friendly entertainment, and they can't fathom why fans need to use laptops and tablets at a baseball game. But Giants fans live and breathe the fumes of Silicon Valley. Business pros pound out emails between innings; other fans update their social networks and check scores and video highlights from around the league.

When the Giants opened AT&T (formerly Pacific Bell) Park in 2000, mobile was in its relative infancy and modern social networking didn't exist. As early as 2004, Schlough sculpted a wireless experience for fans, even if only a handful of them were on the network. But on opening day of 2008, several months after the advent of the iPhone, the ballpark's network was saturated.

Luckily, the Giants had a partner with both the resources and the motivation to help: AT&T. Terry Stenzel, an AT&T VP, won't forget his first phone call from Schlough. "I knew I was in trouble," he says, "but I didn't feel like it." That is, Schlough made Stenzel feel like a partner in solving the problem.

To be clear, this wasn't just about fans being able to access Facebook. Schlough was concerned about employees being able to reach one another, a matter of fan safety. It took almost the entire 2008 season for Schlough and AT&T to build up the wireless infrastructure, and even then, Stenzel says, the problems didn't go away as demand continued to soar. "Every year, it's almost a rip and replace," Giants IT director Logan says.

The wireless network extends from the seats to the concession stands and even outside the stadium. After all, Stenzel notes, the "fan experience starts in the parking lot." From Game 1 of the 2010 World Series through the 2012 season, the Giants and AT&T boosted network capacity to handle an almost eightfold increase in traffic, from 55 GB to 433 GB.

Quill, the Giants' app dev director, remembers when fans started streaming the games in the ballpark, putting even more stress on the network. The Giants worked with MLB's Advanced Media group to arrive at the ability to cache some of that video locally to relieve some of the traffic pressure.

Maps is one of the most used applications at the park, because fans like to connect with friends and family after a game, Stenzel says. Surprisingly, fans also stream a lot of music at games. While 40% of all Web activity at games is just browsing, he says that for the first time ever at a sporting event, uploads have surpassed downloads.

Fans want to associate themselves with being at a World Series or other big game, and there's plenty to associate themselves with, like celebrity national anthems and fly-by military exercises. It's enough to make a purist want to stay home. But then again, this is precisely what Schlough's team fights. As he puts it: "Our biggest competition is the couch."

» The "big rig": There are several ways to look at what The Los Angeles Times called "baseball's big rig," a reference to the clever method Schlough and his team employed to help deliver a few Giants players to last season's All-Star game.

Online fan voting is theoretically limited to 25 times per person, and the biggest baseball markets have always had the advantage. In 2012, MLB allowed mobile balloting for the first time. "What other park in the world has the infrastructure to be able to tell our fans to pull out their mobile devices and vote right now," Schlough says. And that's what the Giants did, starting with a big series with the Los Angeles Dodgers a week before the voting period closed.

The Giants built a voting command center, via kiosks located around the park, and they encouraged mobile voting during games over the high-definition scoreboard. Vote often, the Giants told fans. (Major League Baseball has a rich tradition of cities stuffing the All-Star ballot box. The Cincinnati Enquirer famously started a campaign in 1957 in which it sent prefilled ballots to bars throughout Cincinnati. After the Reds monopolized the All-Star roster, MLB commissioner Ford Frick ended fan balloting -- it returned 20 years later.)

Schlough is unapologetic. Indeed, he's gleeful that players such as outfielder Melky Cabrera (No. 4 in the voting a week earlier -- this was a month before he was suspended for 50 games after testing positive for steroids) and third baseman Sandoval (whose stats at the time paled in comparison to those of the Mets' David Wright) were voted All-Star game starters. Such selections build player and team morale, he rationalizes. So what if a little technology greased the skids?

Evans, the Giants' VP of baseball operations and a 20-year team veteran, is a little more cautious. He doesn't want anyone, especially the All-Star players, to think they didn't earn their votes. "The players who got in deserved it," he says, noting that Cabrera was leading the league in batting average at the time (and was named the All-Star game's MVP); Sandoval eventually was the World Series MVP; and the third Giant voted an All-Star starter, Posey, ended up earning the league's MVP.

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