How To Improve the User Experience

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a 10-part series commemorating baseball’s new commissioner with advice for his tenure. To read more about this series, click here.

While Dodger Dogs are great, the new commish could help improve stadium food league-wide. (via Sam Howzit)

While Dodger Dogs are great, the new commish could help improve stadium food league-wide. (via Sam Howzit)

This month, Rob Manfred will become the commissioner of baseball. I have a serious job for him: improve the fan experience.

I don’t mean just more t-shirt cannons. What I mean is that he should take a page out of user-centered design and think about user experience from the customer’s perspective. Baseball is a great product, but the marketplace for disposable consumer income has never been more competitive, and every step baseball takes to improve customer experience will make fans happier and grow the sport.

Manfred starts from a position of strength. Of the four major sports, baseball is the easiest to see in person: there are 81 regular-season home games every year, by far the most, and the tickets are by far the cheapest. (In 2014, the average price of a baseball ticket was $27.93; the averages for the NBA, NHL, and NFL were respectively $52.50, $61.62, and $81.54.) That’s important for the game’s future: For baseball to continue to thrive it needs to appeal to young fans, and there’s no better way to get them passionate about baseball than getting them to games in person.

The fan experience is what happens from the moment a fan decides she wants to go to a game to the moment she gets back home from the ballpark. Her experience may differ by city, or depending on whether she goes alone, or with her family, or with friends she’ll meet at the game, but in the end, MLB’s bottom line depends on making sure she has a great time. Teams control their ballparks, but Major League Baseball can be a clearinghouse of best practices, and it can help coordinate capital expenditures and other investment where needed. Improving the fan experience should be a joint priority for MLB and for the teams, so Commissioner Manfred can take the lead in helping all teams to improve.

I’ll look at each phase of the experience:

  1. Getting to the game and going home
  2. Buying a ticket and getting into the park
  3. During innings and between innings

1. Getting to the Game and Going Home

Anything that happens on the way to the ballpark is liable to affect a fan’s decision to come back, so teams must think hard about what happens outside the gate.

EXAMPLE: Let’s say you’re a parent in Atlanta bringing your spouse and two young children to the ballpark. You’ll probably want to drive: MARTA, Atlanta’s subway and bus system, can be a mess, and a $15 parking fee is probably less expensive than the cost of two-way MARTA fares for all four of you. So, you need to think carefully about the parking options at the ballpark. Unfortunately, as at a lot of other ballparks, much of the parking around Turner Field is private, expensive, and a bit unreliable. If you come back after the game and see a scratch or a bump on your car, it’s hard to know exactly who to complain to.

PROPOSAL: This should be unacceptable for the team. Whenever possible, teams should take upon themselves the expense of providing security to fans on their way into and out of the ballpark, and they should also take control over parking pricing. Ultimately, if the fan has a bad experience while parking, it makes her less likely to come back for another game. The team is already accountable for the experience. So the team needs to control it, and either buy out or subcontract with the private lots.

Ideally, the price of parking should be low. You don’t want to deter people from coming to the ballpark, because their likelihood of buying a ticket is a lot higher once they’re already at the ticket window with their kids than it would be at their house. And after the game, it is paramount that traffic flows smoothly out of the lots. This may require police to temporarily block off surrounding streets. If fans can’t get out of the game in a timely fashion, they won’t want to drive, and if they don’t drive, they won’t come. Manfred and the league office could provide a set of guidelines for dealing with parking contractors, and a checklist to ensure that best practices are met.

Solo travelers, or fans meeting their friends at the park, are much more likely to take public transportation to the ballpark whenever possible.

EXAMPLE: On game nights, buses and subways can get stuffed beyond capacity. Many cities already do things like increase the number of trains running to and from the station nearest the ballpark, providing free shuttles from the subway to the park itself, and providing security to keep the crowds orderly. Subway turnstiles can be a major bottleneck.

PROPOSAL: Turnstiles should be sped up as much as possible by providing express lanes for riders with cards so they can bypass slower lanes for riders with tokens, paper tickets, or cash. As with parking, the team should pay major attention to safety and price, and work with the local transit authority, even offering to subsidize transit where necessary, to ensure that riders have as smooth a journey as possible to and from the ballpark.

Following MLB from Down Under
How to keep up with the baseball action back home from the other side of the planet.

Select fans may have the ability to walk from their home to the ballpark — like people who live in Wrigleyville or in the Fenway neighborhood — which means that public safety in the neighborhoods surrounding the ballpark is a valid area of concern for the team. No team should be expected to effect a serious reduction in city crime, but teams should nonetheless play an active role in their community. Their area of interest extends from the outfield wall all the way to the suburbs, and they should act accordingly. For example, teams could help facilitate public-private partnerships to develop affordable housing and bring in commercial investment into the areas around the ballpark. Many teams have foundations and charitable work that they have their players do, and focusing that charitable work around the ballpark would get a better buy-in from the players (as they wouldn’t have to go as far) and it would improve long-term relationships with local non-profits and neighborhood groups.

2. Buying a Ticket and Getting into the Park

Once fans are at the ballpark, teams should want to make it as easy as possible for them to spend money on tickets and get them inside, where they can spend even more money. Every minute they spend waiting outside is a lost opportunity.

EXAMPLE: Let’s say that you’re a young professional in Phoenix meeting your friends at Chase Field. Some of you may take the light rail right up to the park, but others will drive, so you’ll all arrive at different times, but you all want to sit together. If you had decided to buy single tickets ahead of time, you might have been able to use something like StubHub Go Together — but everything fell into place at the last minute and you’re buying a block of tickets at the ticket window. In that case, at least one of you is going to have to wait by the gate until all the stragglers arrive and give them the tickets personally. Whoever draws that short straw is going to be getting hungry and thirsty and missing the game, all because another guy got stuck in rush hour traffic.

PROPOSAL: It would be much better if you could give someone a ticket electronically via a smartphone app, or leave a ticket to be picked up at a ticket machine. This way, fans who arrived on time could sit down without missing any of the game, and latecomers would not worry about disrupting them. Teams should not have to pay the development costs themselves, however. Manfred could use the power of the commissioner’s office to work with MLB Advanced Media to produce an app that could be used by all 30 teams. Since all 30 teams own a stake in MLBAM, each team would only owe 1/30th the cost of development.

(Also, just because it’s worth saying: “convenience charges” are incredibly annoying, and utterly nonsensical. Tell customers that they’re going to actually pay the face value of a ticket, and it will start to feel like a bargain.)

Now, while you’re walking to the front gate, you’re going to walk by a lot of vendors selling low-priced food and memorabilia. Just as with the parking lots, they may not work for the team, and the quality may not be guaranteed by the team.

EXAMPLE: You’re outside Nationals Park in Washington. You have a couple of minutes to kill and a couple of bucks to spend. So you buy a bottle of water, a baseball cap, and a hot dog, all for about $10. You can bring the water into the park, but you have to eat the hot dog there. The next day, you feel horrible, and you figure you may have gotten food poisoning at the ballpark. You won’t necessarily know whether it came from something you ate inside the park or outside the park, but either way, you may not be as eager to come out to the ballyard next time.

PROPOSAL: Teams should consider competing with these entrepreneurs and selling caps, water, hot dogs, and even more palatable food options outside the ballpark, where they can guarantee the quality of the product. And they should not worry about cannibalizing in-stadium business, because once fans go inside, they cannot come out, so they will have to pay the in-stadium prices for the duration of the game.

Once you walk up, you have to stand in a huge line with all of the other tens of thousands of people trying to get into the game. One of the main reasons that ballpark lines are long is the security theater of the bag pat-down in front of the gate. At only a couple of seconds per bag, security guards don’t spend enough time to actually prevent anyone from smuggling something in, but they do spend enough time to create long lines of people  trying to get in.

PROPOSAL: I’d probably recommend ending the farce and just letting fans walk through the gates. (In this day and age, you don’t need a physical turnstile to count attendance. You could have a light beam that counts every time it’s tripped.) At the very least, there should be an express lane for fans who do not have a bag.

3. During Innings and Between Innings

When teams talk about “fan experience,” this is usually what they’re talking about: t-shirt cannons, cheerleaders (there are a lot of them now), children’s attractions, the JumboTron-guess-which-cap-the-ball-is-under game, and all of the other interactive things in a ballpark other than the baseball game. But that’s obviously a narrow view.

Of course, there are some crotchety baseball purists who would prefer that there were none of these; I don’t fall into that camp, but market research can settle the question empirically. The amenities are obviously less important than the main event, but they can be improved for the fan.

EXAMPLE: You’ve finally gotten to your seat in at Nationals Park, and you’re hungry. Rather than getting a generic burger or hot dog at the closest stand, you want to get the best that the ballpark has to offer: either the hot dogs at Ben’s Chili Bowl, or the burgers and fries at Shake Shack. But the lines are almost impossibly long. If you leave your seat in the top of the second inning, you may not get back to the game until the end of the fourth — and you’ve missed out on a third of the ballgame.

PROPOSAL: Wherever you see a huge line full of people who want to pay money and have to have no way of doing so quickly, you have identified a massive inefficiency. There are three possible solutions. First, and worst, the team’s food vendor could raise prices on the most popular high-end food options, which would lower wait times but would not improve the fan experience. Second, the vendor and the team could work together to expand or create new locations for the most popular eateries. Third, they can raise the quality of substitutes, by improving the other food products. Since Aramark holds the franchise at numerous major league ballparks, Manfred and MLB might be able to coordinate negotiations to improve food offerings at many ballparks all at once. Manfred’s long experience in successful labor negotiations could stand him in good stead to negotiate with a vendor who needs his business more than he needs them.

Of course, the fans will spend the better part of three hours sitting down, so it’s worth focusing a great deal of attention on the grandstands.

EXAMPLE: After a few hours of sitting in the same spot and watching your bums lose to the other bums, a number of minor annoyances that will increasingly grate on you, like tilted cup holders that cause drinks to spill, JumboTrons that hardly ever show replays (as at Nationals Park), or poor communication on how long a rain delay is expected to last so that you’ll know when you should leave the concourse and head back to your seat. Of course, there are major issues, too, like at Fenway Park: you’re sitting on hard, cushionless wooden seats, and your ticket might place you behind a pole with a terrible view of the field. At all 30 ballparks, particularly if you are with young children and sitting in field level, you’ll worry about getting hit by a bat or ball that flies into the stands.

PROPOSAL: Sightlines and seats are hard to fix without ripping out the stands and starting over. But instant replay should be a no-brainer. The 2014 regulations establishing the use of video replay by umpires specifically permitted teams to show replays of close plays on the jumbo screen. Major League Baseball should tell teams in no uncertain terms to make use of that privilege. Teams should also be precisely aware of the spray chart of foul balls into the stands, particularly foul line drives, and they should warn people who buy tickets in those areas.

The pace of the game is another big issue. Around half of a team’s games will occur on weeknights, which means that at least half of the time, many fans have a pressing need to leave before it gets too late, particularly families with children who have a set bedtime. Shane Tourtellotte will have more on this topic in Tuesday’s post.

There are a lot of reasons to improve user experience. Fans have numerous choices of how to spend their limited discretionary money and even more limited time. If Major League Baseball wants them to spend their money on a ballgame, it should try to make that choice as easy as possible, by improving the value proposition of a game and by mitigating their possible concerns.

Similarly, attendance is not just a short-term revenue source. It’s also an important long-term advertisement for the game. Most baseball fans love baseball because their parents took them to a game. Young fans are quite literally the future of the game, and baseball needs to do everything in its power to get its future fans into the ballpark today.

Similarly, every game has to count. Many passionate baseball fans live hours away from the ballpark and can get to a game only every few years. The experience of going to a game should be good enough to make them want to plan a special trip to come back, and to watch games on television or MLB.tv in the meantime.

In 15 or 20 years, the kids in the seats will have disposable income, and they’ll have an almost unlimited number of ways to spend it. Baseball needs to see the ballpark through their eyes, and do everything it can to make them want to come back when they have their own kids.

The new commissioner has a lot on his plate. But baseball is for the fans, and Manfred and Major League Baseball need to ensure that the fans receive at least as high a priority as the players and the owners. The future financial health of the sport depends on it.


Alex is a writer for The Hardball Times, and is an enterprise account executive for The Washington Post.
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Matt
Guest
Matt

One more note about replays – I would love it if they could show more replays during the game, not just on challenge plays. Also, I would love to have even a bare level of commentary in-stadium. Obviously it could get annoying after a while, but sometimes I find that I would rather stay at home and watch the game on TV, because at least there I get colour commentary. If I chat with a friend and miss a play, it can be nearly impossible to figure out what happened. I think that helps contribute to people being bored at… Read more »

Bill
Guest
Bill

I’d like them to show pitch locations somewhere too. Most fans don’t have a good enough view to know if a ball/ strike call is right. Fans should have immediate objective evidence of whether or not an umpire is indeed a bum.

bucdaddy
Guest
bucdaddy

Heh. I went to a game at PNC last season with a friend who is in AA. I like beer, but in deference to him I was going to stick with water at the game. At the city end of the Clemente Bridge, everyone knows there’s a vendor who sells water for $1 a bottle and you can take it into the park. We were on the wrong side of the bridge, though, so I decided to buy the $4 bottle of water in the park. The vendor at the counter actual kind of tried to discourage me from buying… Read more »

srpst23
Guest
srpst23

Is there currently anywhere you can see the foul ball spray charts for different MLB teams? That is something that would be good to know, even if it is hard to find.

bucdaddy
Guest
bucdaddy

OK, I’m back. Maybe 10 years ago, about the time PNC was being finished, I brought up with a co-worker the subject of what the next generation of ballparks would be like, past the sort of retro-cool trend that had developed. I was thinking that somehow each seat would be fully interactive, with Internet access built into the arms or something. (I guess I didn’t anticipate smartphones, which made all seats fully interactive without having to build anything into the seat arms — and also explains why I still have to work, rather than living off soaring stock profits). Anyway,… Read more »

J-Doug
Guest

But, still more t-shirt cannons, right? Real ones that can reach the upper deck?

DonnieD
Guest
DonnieD

Some of my best memories as a kid were going to the wall during/just after batting practice and getting an autograph from a bunch of different players. Now it seems like fewer and fewer players are willing to sign autographs inside or outside the stadium. Teams are even actively engineering obstacles to keep fans away from players like pull through parking lots so players don’t even have to go near fans on the way into the ballpark. My own kids are missing out on some of the most important memories that helped turn me into a huge baseball fan. I… Read more »

Rob D
Guest
Rob D

Not really a ballpark experience but games on internet radio should be free. What better way to build a loyal fan base? You could still charge for commercials, and the money they are making off this has to be minimal.

bob
Guest
bob

Although I haven’t tested this, I believe you can enter the ballpark by just telling them the code number of the ticket and they can type it on a keypad at the gate manually to verify it and give you a printed receipt. So if someone buys a ticket for you at the window, they could phone, text or email you with the number, then nobody has to physically hand you a ticket. That’s a backup system if they can’t scan a bar code that is either printed on paper or displayed by a smart phone. Obviously they don’t want… Read more »

j
Guest
j

I like the turnstile. I have a correlation between the physical sensation of walking through a turnstile and being at the game, and I don’t think the experience would be the same without it.

J.Henry Waugh
Guest
J.Henry Waugh

How about letting into the park early enough so they can see both teams do BP. How about letting fans sit in any seats that are definitely not being used from 7th or 8th inning on. At Wrigley last yr, early April night game, Cubbies loosing. Bottom 7th, noticed many empty seats in first 10 to 15 rows in 3 or 4 sections from end of dugout to HP. Daughter & I thought we’d move down for last 2 innings to enjoy a closer look since so many open seats. “Can I see your tickets, sir” said the usher. We… Read more »

bucdaddy
Guest
bucdaddy

It CAN be done. A few years ago, I had two tickets to a game at PNC and couldn’t find anyone to go with. So I went by myself and on the street traded my two seats for one way up in the upper deck, plus cash. I spent about three innings in the cheap seat, then went downstairs and gradually worked my way from the left field corner to behind the plate (not the first section directly behind, that’s for high-rollers, and there’s effectively a moat there, but the next section back), for the last two innings. I did… Read more »

bucdaddy
Guest
bucdaddy

* — Wandered.

natsfan
Guest
natsfan

I work as an usher for the Nationals. When the team was horrible (not long ago) we would unofficially allow fans.to move down later in the game. I think this is much more difficult to do once the team is successful and has a large season ticket base. I have customers who actively request that we not allow Dan’s to.sit in their seats when they are not present. We allow fans into the park 2 1/2 hours before the game specifically for batting practice. Of course, those outfield seats are uncovered, and if it cold or raining, unlikely to draw… Read more »

bucdaddy
Guest
bucdaddy

“3-4x” One thing that happens at PNC: There’s a restaurant behind the left field bleachers, Hall of Fame Club, I think it’s called, run by the Rivertown microbrew chain IIRC. As soon as the last pitch of the game is thrown, all beer prices in there drop to $2.50, for drafts, cans, bottles, and the place has a good assortment of top micros. Stuff that in the ballpark itself (and in the restaurant, while the game is going on, IIRC) sells for around $9. It’s probably not going to work, but maybe if all prices on everything in the park… Read more »

roadrider
Guest
roadrider

1. TURN DOWN THE F&^!#ING VOLUME!!!! Its almost impossible to have a conversation or even enjoy a bit of peace and quiet at the park when every spare second is filled with annoying loud music and sound effects blasted at a such a level that i wouldn’t be surprised if they could be heard in the next county. 2. The food is usually unhealthy junk that is badly prepared and grossly overpriced – never mind the wait at the concession stands. I always try to arrive early and eat somewhere else but this is not always possible. And for those… Read more »

bucdaddy
Guest
bucdaddy

Baseball would not seem to be the ideal sport for a socialist.

Just sayin’.

bucdaddy
Guest
bucdaddy

How about adopting the “rush ticket” tactic from other entertainment venues? Pittsburgh Symphony used to (and for all I know still does) make all unsold seats available at a discount if you were willing to show up an hour before the first baton dropped and take your chances. You might score a prime seat, you might wind up in the back row, but EITHER WAY you’d be in the house for a reasonable price, and you might buy something else. A reasonable price might be whatever the cheapest ticket in the park is that night. I guess you don’t want… Read more »

J.Henry Waugh
Guest
J.Henry Waugh

I think a lot of clubs already do the “Rush” ticket concept…..except it’s the opposite!! When the rival club comes to town all tickets get jacked up….. or when a team from the opposite league that has rarely been. For the Cubs, when the Cardinals come everything is jacked up, or when the Yankees or Red Sox. But of course, those first two or three series of 2/3 games in April often go for a song, especially in the northern climes. Then, there’s that airline type “Variable Demand” concept that is slowly sweeping the country for everything…… the fan next… Read more »

Stirrups
Guest
Stirrups

How can we list out ways to improve fan experience and miss the notion of beefing up wireless service for every location in every ballpark???

JG
Guest
JG

My good fella,

MARTA parking is free if one parks at the MARTA station for less than 24 hours. It is an amazing bargain and leaves me with zero reasons to ever drive to downtown Atlanta. It is one of the greatest bargains I have ever come across.

Ron M
Guest
Ron M

The worst is waiting in line for food for your hungry family. I missed three innings once doing this. And I still came back with the wrong thing for someone. It’d be so much better and more efficient if everyone could order from their seats — at least with their phones. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone do this, but it shouldn’t be too hard. When the order is ready it could be delivered, or the customer alerted to come get it. You would have already paid, you’d just need to show them your number on your screen and… Read more »

Duane
Guest
Duane

Love this idea!

Jack Vincennes
Guest
Jack Vincennes

“Also, I would love to have even a bare level of commentary in-stadium. Obviously it could get annoying after a while, but sometimes I find that I would rather stay at home and watch the game on TV, because at least there I get colour commentary. If I chat with a friend and miss a play, it can be nearly impossible to figure out what happened. I think that helps contribute to people being bored at games.” Seriously? With all of the scoreboard info you get these days, and the time between pitches and even if you are a Brewer… Read more »