It’s spring. Baseball season is here. And so this week, we’re sitting down with Chip Allen from the Durham Bulls baseball team. In 2014, the Bulls’ senior leadership recognized a big opportunity to get ahead of the curve from a technology perspective. As fan viewership changed and a new generation of baseball aficionados began taking to the stands, a robust Wi-Fi network throughout the stadium became more important than ever to the fan experience.
Today, we’ll hear about how the system, installed by Frontier to serve a capacity of 8,000 simultaneous users, changed the Bulls’ stadium into a modern facility with capacity not only to serve fans’ expectations, but to offer them opportunities to engage with the brand – in ways they may not have expected.
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Man: Welcome to Gain Your Edge, the podcast created for IT professionals, business owners, and leaders looking to sharpen their edge over the competition. Our ever perceptive host, Skip Lineberg, introduces you to industry thought leaders. Listen and learn from their insights as Skip gets inside the minds of our guest gurus, revealing new ideas, opportunities, and insightful updates for you. It’s all sponsored by Frontier Business Edge, your edge in success. Now, here’s our host, Skip Lineberg.
Skip: Welcome to episode 32 of Gain Your Edge, a twice-monthly podcast on all things IT. I’m your host, Skip Lineberg, senior marketing manager with Frontier Communications. Our goal with Gain Your Edge podcast is to help you gain a competitive edge for your business. One way today’s leading enterprises are gaining an edge is by way of high-performance fast, secure Wi-Fi networks. Here in episode 32, we’re taking you out to the ballpark and we have a great show in store for you today. It’s spring. Baseball season is here. And so this week, we’re sitting down with Chip Allen from the Durham Bulls Baseball team. Everyone has seen the movie Bull Durham, right? Do you remember the ballpark? Well, it’s changed a lot since that movie was filmed. In 2014, the Bulls leadership recognized a big opportunity to get ahead of the curve from a technology perspective. And pardon the baseball puns and cliches throughout this episode. Now, back to the Bulls. As fan viewership changed and a new generation of baseball aficionados took to the stands, a robust Wi-Fi network throughout the stadium became more important than ever to the fan experience. Today, you’ll learn all about that and you hear how the Wi-Fi system, installed by Frontier, to serve a capacity of 8,000 simultaneous users, changed the Bull stadium. Now, it’s a modern facility with capacity, not just to serve fan’s expectations but to offer them opportunities to engage with the brand in ways they would never have expected. Good afternoon, Chip. Thanks for joining us on the show today.
Chip: I appreciate you having me.
Skip: Chip, before every show, we like to warm up the mics with a little softball starter question if you will. Now, if we took a poll of grown men and young boys alike, I’m guessing, working for a great baseball team would rank pretty high on their professional wish list. Can you tell us a little bit about your favorite part of your job or maybe something that surprised you when you started working for the Durham Bulls?
Chip: You know, actually, I didn’t start out in baseball. I didn’t even start out in sports. And so to end up with a baseball team… I was in marketing and advertising for years and years and burned out on that and needed a new career. So going into baseball was not necessarily a logical fit, but I got lucky. I knew the right people networking. So, really, the thing that I love about baseball or I love about sports more than anything are the streams of revenue and how do you make money in the business models. It’s the partnerships and the relationships that you have with the client and vendors. And you know, honestly, the negotiation and that constant flow of work, and this is a business that doesn’t rest, it keeps going. You have different challenges every day. And every day is so different. It keeps your attention. It grabs you and keeps it.
Skip: Absolutely. Well, Chip, let’s talk a little bit about this Wi-Fi system that we’ve put in with you down in Durham Bulls Stadium. Before we get too much into the details of that though, I want to set the scene for our listeners. If I’m a Bulls fan in Durham, I’m coming out to the ballpark, what’s the experience when I come to a game there? How big is it? Where is it located in the city and so forth?
Chip: Sure. We are located in Downtown Durham and we were actually the catalyst for the rebirth of Durham. The stadium was put there, I think, 23 years ago. And at that time, the downtown area had boarded up. The restaurants had gone away, the businesses had gone away. And so it was kind of a leap of faith to put the ballpark there and see what would happen. The good news about it was we were right on a highway so the accessibility to the stadium is great. And so that got people to come in. And for the longest time, for that first decade-plus, people came and then left. And so as the Bulls grew the attention and people said, “All right. Well, this is a really good thing for our town.” Businesses start to pop up. And so people started coming in droves. And now we’re at the place where this is a destination and it’s not a big box retailer, but it’s a very unique spot where we have American Tobacco Campus, which used to be an old…it was actually American Tobacco and they did everything from drying the tobacco to rolling it and shipping it. So, really unique area.
Skip: Oh, yeah. So like the old brick industrial buildings.
Skip: You guys have regentrified the area?
Chip: And so now, you’re looking at one of the best renovation projects in America. And that’s right across the street from the Durham Bulls Athletic Park. So it’s become a really neat area. And from there, it’s continued to grow up the street to Main Street and beyond. And so now, we have, when I first started working here five years ago, I think we had one hotel in town. I think we now have five. The restaurants, when I first started working here, you had to get in your car and go somewhere to eat. And now we never have to leave. It’s changed so much and people love the uniqueness of the area because you can’t get it anywhere else. It’s “Dirty Durham” is kind of what they call it. And it’s a great place to be a part of. It’s very vibrant. Nightlife is now here. We have the DPAC, which is the Durham Performing Arts Center, which is fantastic and you’ve got the Bulls. So, you’ve got a lot of entertainment happening and then you have Nightlife. You have bars and restaurants. It’s a great place to be right now.
So you have that setting. We hold out about…we sell out at 10,000. We have 8,406 fixed seats. And then we have a lot of party decks. And so when people come in, we average about 8,600 a game. Monday through Wednesday is a little bit lighter than Thursday through Sunday. The sellouts are always on Fridays and Saturdays and sometimes on Thursdays and Sundays. And so the crowds, you know, each one is different. As you work in it long enough, you realize that some crowds are very laid back and just kind of enjoying the experience and some crowds are really into it. And you can feel the energy in the ballpark from the first pitch. And then if you have some scoring, forget it. The roof blows off so to speak. So, that’s what you can expect.
Skip: Yeah. Awesome. So, I’ve been there recently, as I mentioned to you. And one of the things I noticed was the big, huge LCD display wall that is in…all the way from center field to right field.
Chip: Yeah. We did renovations three years ago. And one of the biggest things that we did was we replaced all of our signage on the outfield wall and our video board. Our signage used to be a trivision, very static, very uninteresting set of advertising to 3.8 million LED light bulbs that we installed. And so now it is an experience and you’ll hear me talk a lot about the fan experience because that’s what minor league baseball is about. But the experience now is so enhanced because the video board is four times the size that it used to be. And so you can put all sorts of things from stats up there to contests to things happening in between innings, replays. And then the LED ribbon board, which actually goes from left center all the way to the right-field corner, we have a space for our advertisers and our partners. And we also have, when, you know, a home run is hit, we can put all sorts of things up on that board to kind of celebrate the fact that we’ve just hit a home run.
Skip: Very cool. Very cool. And of course, in painting this picture of what folks would see, there’s the iconic bowl figure that sits high top left field, right?
Chip: Absolutely. So kind of a neat tidbit about that. The bull was not part of the Durham Bulls until the movie was made. The folks over at…
Skip: I love it. Hollywood is driving their own reality, ha?
Chip: They did and they decided that would be a really cool thing to have and it stuck. And so that’s been an iconic piece for us ever since and we still do the hit bull win steak, hit grass win salad. And we continue to carry on that tradition.
Skip: I love it. Hey, let’s just talk a bit about the fans for a minute, and we’re gonna get into the fan experience next, but if you would characterize how your fan base, the people that come and fill the seats, have changed over the last, say, 20 years, how has that changed and evolved?
Chip: You know, in some ways, it’s not changed at all from the standpoint…our bread and butter, our families. So, you can have moms and dads and actually, the female population that comes in here is about 45%, 46% depending on the year. So it’s a very significant group. It’s, you know, we’re pretty close to 50/50, which surprises most folks. But it’s family. That’s our core. We understand that. We’re kind of unique in the minor league baseball since we will never do a Thirsty Thursday where you do $1 beer night because that drives away our core audience, which are those families. It’s so important to keep them happy because they’re coming out. They’re spending the money. They’re having a good time. And they come out for a thousand different reasons anywhere from it’s their first baseball game and they’re really excited to be there or it’s a social event, they have birthday parties. It’s really fun to watch. But most people, when they come out to a minor league baseball game, and I say most, aren’t there because they’re curious about whether the Bulls are in first place or not. They’re there because they’ve heard that it’s a really good family atmosphere or it’s a really good experience. And we try to add a lot of different things to make sure that experience happens. So, we’re almost, I kinda always call it recession proof from the standpoint… It really… If we win or lose, winning is a lot more fun for sure, but if we lose and we lost the last two seasons, we did not have a winning record, we had our two best attendance years ever.
Skip: Wow, Chip, that’s impressive. That’s good business, good marketing right there.
Chip: Because it’s about the experience, it’s about the fan experience. People care when they’re here…whether the Bulls win or lose. They’re very supportive. They’re energetic. But they don’t wake up in the morning, honestly, and say, “Oh, where are they in the standings?” And that’s our reality. Our reality is how do we get everybody to come to one more game? How do we get them to just, you know, bring another group out? What can we do? And it all comes down to, what was their interactions like? What was that fan experience like? The fan experience is so paramount for us where it’s everything from parking to concession. As a matter of fact, concessions is one of the largest things that is a fan experience and we took that in-house three years ago. We needed to make sure that we were more efficient and that the quality of food was better, the lines were shorter. All that needed to happen because you’re…that’s really easy for a fan to look at and say, “You know, I’m not coming back because I just spent 20 minutes in a line. I missed an innings worth of baseball. It’s just not worth it.” So, we constantly look at how can we improve every year to make sure we have better experiences. And those two things are huge. On-field entertainment, I believe, we do a fantastic job at that. And then it does… I think I personally like it more when we’re winning. I think the fans do but it’s not the most important factor to all of this.
Skip: Awesome. So we talked about parking, the hospitality, the food and beverage, the entertainment on the field, the signage experience that goes with the park. Let’s talk a little bit now about this robust Wi-Fi solution that Frontier partnered with the Durham Bulls to put in the ballpark in 2014. How does that impact, Chip, on the fan experience?
Chip: So, we put in a monster system with Frontier. It rocks. So, we actually… I think it’s up to 8,000 people, which…there’s no way we’re gonna have 8,000 people on Wi-Fi at the same time when we max out of 10. It’s not gonna have a… We made sure that it was so robust so when we do these fan experience things that involve the Wi-Fi, which we’re very much getting into, everybody can access it. It’s not a barrier. Because once again, if somebody tries to access and it’s denied or it’s frustrating, that’s a bad fan experience.
Chip: And as we go towards making sure that we do a lot of things online, that we’re interactive because people are always on their phone, whether they’re at a social event or a ball game, it doesn’t matter. They’re still on their phone. And how do we capture that? And how do we involve them? And it also goes back to concessions where if… How do we decrease lines? Well, maybe we do some ordering from your seat. How do you get a beer by just, you know, punching in a few…a little bit of information. That’s all on the Wi-Fi. All our concession stands are on Wi-Fi to make sure that the credit cards run and everything’s smooth. But then you have everything happening in-game where we do jersey auctions and that’s… We used to do those all in stadium. And now it’s all online. As a matter of fact, we’re gonna have one, I believe, this Saturday, Star Wars night and that is…we auction off all of the game-worn jerseys for autism.
Skip: Oh, cool. Wonderful.
Chip: Yeah. It’s great. Great cause. But we now do it all online because we have those kind of capabilities. And so for the fan, we have some stations set up where they can go and use a computer if they don’t have their phone and they can see the jerseys, you know, we’ll put some up around. But it’s so much easier online and they can do it right from their seat. And so they’re not missing the game. They’re active and involved in other ways besides just watching baseball.
Skip: Very cool. So, let’s step back a minute. What I’d like to do is sort of paint a before and after picture with regard to the Wi-Fi network that’s in Durham Bulls Stadium. And so what was it like, prior to 2014, what was the service like? What was the capacity like? What were some of the frustrations that people were communicating to you that prompted you and your leadership team to invest in this new Wi-Fi solution?
Chip: I think the frustration was that there was none. And if you look at the evolution of sports in order to be competitive in that experience, you needed to have a way to communicate with your fans from a very simple app to all sorts of things that are happening in-game. And so without Wi-Fi, how do you do that? Then everybody’s going out and they’re on their phones and using their own data and people are frustrated and it’s hard to get on and…
Skip: Overloading a cell tower.
Chip: You overload the cell tower. And so for us, we… It always goes back to that fan experience. When we start the day, we say, “How can we make this better? How can we make the fan’s experience better out here? Everything’s on the table. And so for us that was a really easy logical answer was, “Let’s involve people on the Wi-Fi so we can do more…those sort of elements where we can get them involved and it’s not just a baseball game but it’s involving them in many different ways.” And what’s nice about putting in such a robust system, we’re really kind of just open to do whatever we want. So, we started doing replays on there. So, you can go to your phone and you can look up on your phone, you know, the play that just happened. And that’s a really powerful, very cool option.
Skip: Yeah. That is so high-tech and so awesome.
Chip: So those are the kind of things that we continue [inaudible 00:14:58] to get. Our biggest issue will always be making sure the people…educating people on where they need to go for those things. Because a lot of minor league ball teams do it differently. Our season ticket is, I would say, probably about 18% where a lot of clubs are 40%. And so what’s it’s interesting about that is…
Skip: So, you got a lot of newcomers, a lot of newcomers coming into the park.
Chip: We’re a very transient area. We always have the opportunity to bring new people in. The interesting thing is our landscape here is we have the major league hockey team. We have a lot of colleges. We have Duke, we have NC State, UNC. Those are really big competitors. And so what sets us apart? What makes us a little bit different from that? And that’s what we always look to, how can we make sure we’re competitive with that. And this is the way we do it through these digital assets and these online assets and the Wi-Fi and being able to constantly innovate and make it better for that fan experience.
Skip: Yeah. So, as you were saying, you got to give a little bit of education to the first timer, how to hop on that Wi-Fi network and what to do once they activate it, how to interact with you. That makes sense.
Chip: And a lot of times, it’s repetition because not everybody sees it the first time or takes a little bit of time to get people into that mold. We get three or four…people on average come out two or three games a year. And we have more unique visitors than any other group or sports entertainment in the area. So, that’s what makes it really nice for advertisers. You get a broad reach. But you’ve got to figure out how to get in their mind, how to get on to the apps and how to partake. And so we’ve been working on that and we’ve gotten better every year on how to do that.
Skip: Well, Chip, perfect segue to my next question. I want to talk a little bit. I want to just go, not too deep, but just lightly into the technological capabilities of the Wi-Fi platform, the solution that we put in with you. Let me ask you this, you know, a great Wi-Fi network is more about what’s possible than just satisfying the customer’s basic current needs. So, with your powerful new Wi-Fi solution from Frontier, what can the Bulls experiment with from a technological perspective that they might not have done before? And so, Chip, that’s my question. I know you’re a marketing guy. Your background is in marketing. And so are you pulling down some insightful analytics and statistics from the Wi-Fi system?
Chip: Yeah. We’re starting to learn how to tie them together and that’s really what’s important. What we want to be able to do is know people’s patterns, you know, if they’re sitting in right field, where are they heading? Are they going to this concession stand or are they go to this retail store. What are the patterns that they’re doing? Where are they spending their money? Where are they spending their time? What’s most important to them? So you can start connecting those dots and that’s how we’re looking forward is how do we put that data together to make sure we understand that we’re using our ballpark in the best way that’s best suited for our fans. And hopefully, we’re getting closer to it but that’s a little bit of time to come.
Skip: Okay. Cool. And so we talked a bit about merchandising in special offers. Can you, through your Wi-Fi system there, can you push an offer to my smartphone while I’m sitting there? Let’s say, it’s toward the end of the game and you’re gonna give me five bucks off to come back two nights from now, is that the sort of thing you can push through?
Chip: Yeah. I’m glad you brought that up because that’s a really great thing. So, if we know that we misread it and we have more wings tonight than we should have made and we know that you’re near the wing stand, it’s pushing that out and saying, “All right. We got a special on wings.” So those things…that cuts down on the waste on the concession side and it increases profitability because now people may not have bought anything else, but now you’ve given them a deal and they say, “All right. Maybe I’m in for that.” So, yeah. That’s a great point.
Skip: Absolutely. Hey, let’s talk about, and while we’re talking about these technological capabilities, take me inside the social media experience, how fans interact with social media across your Wi-Fi network and what sort of things that you’ve seen, and maybe some of the best practices that you guys are doing with social media as made possible through the Wi-Fi that’s there?
Chip: Yeah. So, we do a lot of social media and we get people involved. Probably very similar to a lot of teams where it’s, you know, send us the… Tweet your picture, Instagram your picture and all those things. And your experience is out at the ballpark and we do things where you can get upgrades to the…our PNC Triangle Club where it’s all you can eat buffet. And so we’ll go find some people that had some outfield seats and we’ll put them up there. That that’s all done on social media. You know, people can tweet in to say, “Yep, I want to win those.” And then we can find them and pick them. And so we’re doing all those kind of contests and we’re doing those pictures because people love Instagram. They love taking the pictures. And then we push it all towards our app. And that app kind of aggregates all our social media so you can see the pictures and you can see the comments. And that all happens on the Wi-Fi system throughout the game.
Skip: Very cool. So, it’s just amazing and you think about how far technology has come that you, based on where I’m sitting, you know where to direct me or lead me, what special to offer me, how to entice me to come back for more. Very cool, isn’t it?
Chip: It’s fascinating. The more information we get could be dangerous because you have to know how to read it all. But if you figure out how to read it properly then you can create a better fan experience, you know, just a better game day experience for people. And if you can do that and you get them to come back to one more game, then you’ve got sellouts every season in every game.
Skip: That’s the goal. Hey, we’ll pause here for a short break for a 30-second message from Frontier Business and we’ll be right back.
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Skip: Welcome back to Gain Your Edge. Today, we’re discussing baseball Wi-Fi and the technology that enables an excellent fan experience for the Durham Bulls. So, let’s continue this great discussion with Chip Allen, director of Corporate Partnerships. Hey, Chip, an issue that many sports franchises are facing right up to the pros and regardless of what sport you’re talking about, a lot of folks are staying home to watch games on a giant high-def TV, instead of coming and actually immersing themselves in the authentic experience at the ballpark. So, how does the Wi-Fi solution at Durham Bulls Park help you level the playing field so to speak?
Chip: That’s a really good point because that’s a challenge that faces all sports and entertainment. How do you get them off the couch and into your park? It’s so important but it comes back to fan experience and how you develop that fan experience. You have to give them a reason to come to the ballpark. If it’s just about the game…and this is where minor league baseball differs a little bit from, say, a major league hockey club or major league baseball team, because when they’re winning, they’re marketing geniuses and when they’re losing, not so much. But for us because we’re…our team, when they’re here like I said, it matters if they win. They really want them to. But they don’t stop coming because they’re losing. So, for us, we have to give them more reasons to come more often. And it’s that fan experience.
And the way the Wi-Fi plays into that is a lot of things that we’ve talked about. How is it interactive? What are the things that you can do there that you can’t do at home? How can we talk to each other and make it inside the stadium that Wi-Fi happens and that experience happens? And that’s what we continue to look at. We talked about what we have coming up on Saturday night with the game-worn jerseys. That is something that’s only happened in the ballpark. I mean, you’re part of that experience. So, it’s in including people. And I think the Wi-Fi brings people closer together if used correctly because you’re not just sitting there as individuals, but then you’re now sitting there collectively doing these activities together. So, that’s where Wi-Fi comes in to bring it together. And I truly believe it helps us bring people out to more games because it’s interactive.
Skip: Yeah. Connecting them, make them feel like they’re part of something that’s happened in real-time. That’s gonna be much more engaging.
Skip: I love the strategy there. Circling back to your partnership with Frontier for just a second, Chip, how is service and support of the Wi-Fi system handled and what do you guys do in-house as opposed to what you have Frontier do for you in managing the system?
Chip: It’s actually pretty seamless. So, we developed the system, I think, back in 2014 with Frontier. We saw that need and Frontier stepped up and helped design it, not just for the ballpark, but for American Tobacco Campus. And so our IT team is out here a lot making sure that it’s tweaked and it’s running great and smooth and the fans are able to move throughout the stadium, without having any let down in the service. And when we do have that occasion where something comes up, it’s really…our IT goes back to Frontier and says, “All right. Here’s what we’re looking at. Here’s our problem.” And then Frontier is able to help work through those issues. And so from that partnership, it works really well because we can handle a lot of it on our own but when we get to those things that we need a little help with, Frontier is always there to help us through it.
Skip: Oh, perfect. So it sounds like it’s really reliable. Once you got it set up and tuned, everything has been running very reliably since then.
Chip: 100%. What we do is we make small tweaks versus large things. The system is there. The [inaudible 00:24:43] is there. Everything runs really…very smoothly. It’s just a matter of tweaking it and make sure that things haven’t changed or how our folks…fans are using it. And when that changes where they’re located in the ballpark is just redirecting, you know, some of the signals. That’s what we’re looking at, really over the past three, four years, nothing major has come of it. And like I said, Frontier has our back and is able to work through any problems that we do have.
Skip: Chip, from the big picture, what would you say that the relationship with Frontier did for the Durham Bulls and how is the partnership today compared to 2014 when it originated?
Chip: The partnerships is great because Frontier came in and needed to have a platform to talk about who they were in Durham. And the Bulls…we need good partners to make sure that this show goes on. And Frontier stepped up to do that. And I think they also were able to showcase what they do here at the stadium and with the Bulls. And so I think together with Bulls, it was such a win situation for both parties and it continues to be so. And they’ve been a great supporter of the Bulls and we love working with them.
Skip: Awesome. I’m so glad to hear that. I’m proud to be part of your success and what you guys are doing down there. Chip, last question for you as I ask each and every one of my guests on all 31 prior episodes, this question, what is your favorite way to unplug, unwind, and relax when you are away from the ballpark and away from your normal duties associated with the Durham Bulls?
Chip: I don’t think we’re ever really away from the ballpark. I have a 15 year old daughter and an 11 year old son and a wife that I love spending time with them. My daughter runs track, cross country, plays lacrosse. I love watching her and my son play football. Enjoy that. So, for me, I love playing golf and traveling.
Skip: Okay. Awesome. Hey, Chip, thank you so much for joining us today to talk about the technological world of baseball, how it’s changed and where the Bulls are today and how Frontier has fit into that world.
Chip: I really appreciate you having me on, Skip.
Skip: Well, you knocked it out of the park. It’s a home run. Chip, the bottom line is you did a great job and I really enjoyed our conversation. For our listeners, thank you so much for joining us. That’s all the time we have today, the end of the ninth inning as you might say. You can download this podcast at frontier.com/gainyouredge. If you’ve enjoyed this episode, you might want to share it with some of your friends who are baseball fans. You can access this content, again, at frontier.com/gainyouredge. You can find our episodes, our complete library of 32 shows on iTunes or the podcast app or whatever aggregator you utilize to get your podcast content. Please, join me, Skip Lineberg, next time on Gain Your Edge. And until then, I hope you knock it out of the park. Have a great week.