Digital Technology in Sports Critical During COVID-19
The Kansas City Royals are delivering wins off the field in 2020—with digital tech.
A decade of tech planning is helping ensure 2020 is a successful year.
The 2020 season for Major League Baseball is shaping up to be like no other in the league’s 151-year history. The coronavirus pandemic shut down pro baseball in the middle of spring training in March, throwing many aspects of the game—and the business—up in the air.
Since the official, shortened season began in late July, teams have been playing in empty stadiums, with new rules and health precautions. No matter who makes it the farthest in the playoffs, it promises to be the strangest World Series ever.
While the teams are working hard towards a winning season on the field, the business of baseball is facing new challenges, and meeting new demands with solutions put in place by technology teams behind the scenes at every MLB franchise. Teams that have sophisticated digital platforms in place—to deliver an engaging digital fan experience and omnichannel customer service, and to streamline communication and collaboration for hundreds of employees no longer working in stadiums or offices—are in the best position to make the most of a limited season with historic challenges.
By that measure, the Kansas City Royals should be considered a top contender. For nearly a decade under senior director of technology Brian Himstedt, the Royals have embraced digital tech and are arguably farther along with “digital transformation” than many technology companies.
It’s been a long and deliberate process, and for good reason, says Himstedt: Digital disruption might still be the mantra of Silicon Valley, but for the Royals, it can’t distract from the primary organizational objective, which is putting a competitive and entertaining product on the field and winning world championships.
“Whenever we start thinking about transformation, it's about doing it seamlessly and without disruption,” Himstedt says. “It must come with simplicity and a smooth path to adoption.”
From stadium to cloud
Two events set the Royals down this new digital path. First was the $250 million renovation of 47-year old Kauffman Stadium, completed in 2009, which included a high-definition scoreboard, an outfield concourse fan experience, a first of its kind IPTV platform and more throughout the highly connected venue. Himstedt, an Accenture veteran who had recently led digital strategy for an ad agency, joined later that year. A lifelong soccer player, passionate baseball fan and overall sports enthusiast, Himstedt was eager to take on a similar challenge in pro sports. “I wasn’t a part of the renovation process, but I had the good fortune to help the organization embrace the use and benefits of all of the fun new toys after renovation ended,” he says.
There was also an internal challenge presented by the renovation The Royals IT processes and technologies and the staff mindset that went along with them were still old-school. Like most MLB teams at the time, the Royals ran on the status quo—on-premise hardware, software, and storage. “We put phones and computers on desks and connected people,” Himstedt says. “IT wasn’t yet a strategic role in the organization.”
Changing that mindset became his core mission. The first step was viewing technology investments not as an arms race but as a means of making people’s jobs easier, from sales teams to scouts in the field. “Transformation is about allowing people to do what they do, better,” says Himstedt, “which enables the opportunity to collaborate on ways to do things they're not even envisioning yet.”
Migrating IT services from on-premise to the cloud became the first order of business, starting with a jump to cloud-based email in 2012. Then came additional layers, such as integrating Microsoft Office 365 across the organization.
One immediate benefit was a simplified IT infrastructure that allowed Himstedt’s team to spend less time on operational upkeep and more on adding new capabilities. “Our on-premise storage footprint dropped dramatically,” says Himstedt. “Then we started layering on other business tools and technologies with cloud focus as opposed to on-premise focus.” Over the last six years, he adds, the Royals slashed the number of on-site business systems and storage pools from over 20 to one of each. The lone storage standout is a defensible one: highly-available and highly-performant game and player video. The lone remaining on-premise business system is currently up for evaluation for its own migration to the cloud.
Two of the newer pieces in the Royals’ digital foundation—a cloud-based contact center and a communications platform, both from 8x8—have delivered big payoffs for employees and fans during the rocky first few months of the COVID-19 crisis.
With sales teams and everyone else working remotely, integrated video, voice, and chat features are helping sales and service managers to guide and coach their teams. The Royals’ 30-person contact center staff, meanwhile, has been busy supporting customer needs in work-from-anywhere mode, using the new tools.
For example, new speech analytics features pull out valuable insights from reams of unstructured data from customer conversations. “The platform helps us better understand our customers and provide more value in each of our interactions with them,” says Himstedt. That includes “key topics of discussion, how they are feeling about things, and issues that we need to respond to going forward. It’s a huge value to us.”
When the pandemic forced on-site operations to shut down, it was the ultimate test to see how staffers would manage the use of new tools working on their own, says Himstedt. ”After a few days supporting staff in establishing their own unique home offices things went eerily quiet. We were nervous. Are people bunkering down? Have they pulled back? Are they just waiting?”
Actually, it was the opposite: Everything and everybody was working fine and the team was getting stuff done. Royals staffers were “taking ownership and accountability and doing their job,” he says. For Himstedt and his 5-person IT crew, their ability to self-manage was liberating. “There’s nothing better than freeing up hours of your day from support activities because you can go do things that provide incremental value to the organization.”
Himstedt is excited to work within the broader vision of delivering value to the organization and its partners and fans through digital tech in the coming years. On the baseball side, talent evaluation and scouting systems, leading analytics and coaching video platforms, and sports performance/sports science are all areas of focus to deliver insights and competitive advantage.
“We have incredibly talented teams of people working in those areas that we respect greatly and enjoy collaborating with,” he says. “Understanding their needs and helping enable their use of emerging tools and technologies is one of the most valuable things we can do.”
On the fan side, continued investment in tools that personalize and improve customer experience will be important to pulling in new fans—especially younger ones—and keeping the current ones happy. “By most measures and in terms of today’s attention spans, games are long. Baseball's core audience is also aging,” he says. “The industry changes slowly, doesn't want to be disruptive, and appreciates and respects the history of the game. But we know we have to do things to attract younger fans and be more engaging on a minute-by-minute basis while you're at the ballpark and anywhere else you chose to engage our brand.”
For the time being, however, no fans are at the ballpark, unless you count the cardboard cutouts many teams are selling as a feature for ticket holders. But Himstedt’s tech team—and the rest of the Royals business organization—are as busy as ever, making contributions to a successful season that won’t be reflected in the box scores or standings, but will show up through many other measures.
One payoff for 10 years of transformative effort is finally here, though maybe not in the way anyone would have expected. Fully-productive location-independent work has been an objective of Himstedt and his team for years. “And when the office re-opens, we're not ‘returning’ to work,” he says. “We never stopped.”