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Reaching a (Very) Local Audience

Here’s an odd one: The New York Yankees won’t allow you to bring your iPad into their stadium.

The Yankees apparently consider the new Apple device a laptop, and laptops are banned from Yankee Stadium, along with “any other devices that may interfere with and/or distract any sports participant, other patron, audio or audio/visual telecast or recording of the game or any technology-related service provided in Yankee Stadium.” Besides the fact that Steve Jobs would certainly object to an iPad being called a laptop, that’s an awfully broad category: It could easily include a cellphone or Blackberry (perhaps worth banning to eliminate the plague of morons waving behind home plate), a book or newspaper brought in by a baseball-averse spouse, or one of any of 50,000 objects spied by a sugared-up toddler.

The tech press had fun with the iPad ban, while the minor-league Hudson Valley Renegades astutely used it to gin up some press for themselves, offering free admission to iPad-toting fans on Monday nights. But the Yankees blog River Avenue Blues nailed what’s so strange about the iPad ban: “[T]he entire stadium is one giant wireless network. The Yankees provide free wireless but do not allow the technology into the stadium to take advantage of it. They want Yankee Stadium to be state of the art but do not want people to take full advantage of it.” (A Yankees spokesman didn’t respond to an email requesting comment.)

Whatever the reason for the ban, the Yankees are missing out on an intriguing new opportunity: Combine free WiFi and digital devices in stadiums and you unlock new ways for sports fans to get information, ways that could work to the benefit of fans, teams and sportswriters alike.

Let’s deal with the traditionalist objection first: Why would you want to use your iPad at a game? Shouldn’t you be soaking in the atmosphere of the stadium — the sight of green grass, the sound of the crack of the bat, and all that lyrical stuff?

Well, of course. But leaving aside folks who’d rather read a book or email (something lots of people do at the park anyway), an iPad can be a great baseball companion. Look no further than Major League Baseball’s own At Bat app, which lets you delve into statistical information, listen to other games (great during a pennant race) or watch highlights. You can access At Bat over a cellular network, but the app works much better over a wireless network, and it’s a beautiful fit for the iPad’s big screen.

But this isn’t just about At Bat. Any digital device that can access a wireless network at the stadium is a vehicle for exploring some interesting possibilities.

First and most obviously, the team can send anyone using its wireless network to a welcome page that offers stadium and scheduling information, links to ticket sales and more – why not use this page to offer specials for Kids’ Club members, for instance?

Second, there’s Twitter. Sportswriters are already using Twitter to provide updates, analysis and perspective from the press box, and fans in the stadium could benefit from that information, too. (And sometimes the flow of news can go the other way: A sharp disagreement between the New York Mets’ closer and bullpen coach recently unfolded away from TV cameras, but in front of fans seated near the bullpen.) Teams are now experimenting with Twitter, tweeting lineups, injury updates, news of player milestones and sometimes having fun: The Cleveland Indians and Chicago White Sox recently engineered a Twitter battle between their mascots to raise money for cancer research.

Then there’s Foursquare, the location-based service that lets users “check in” at places, finding their friends, leaving tips about locations and earning badges. Last fall Foursquare had about 100,000 users; today it has about a million. The service – or something in the same vein — should be an invaluable addition to teams’ marketing arsenals. What fan wouldn’t want to collect team-specific badges for attending games, visiting stadium eateries, or sticking it out through a long extra-inning game, to name just a few ideas? And what team wouldn’t want access to detailed information about potential customers who sign up to be “friends” with the club?

Major League Baseball is reportedly planning its own check-in application, which could be promising if MLB Advanced Media lets individual clubs experiment with badges, promotions and features, instead of handing down a one-size-fits-all template. (The features mentioned recently by MLBAM CEO Bob Bowman sound kind of lame, frankly – for better ideas, check out Dan Shanoff’s post on the subject.)

Foursquare could be a useful tool for sportswriters, too: You can use the “shout” feature to send messages to all of your Foursquare friends, making it a location-based version of Twitter that can be used to break news. The Wall Street Journal experimented with that idea early this month, offering a shout that portions of Times Square had been evacuated because of a bomb scare. The Journal has also created some striking badges for New York City readers, encouraging readers to explore and engage more with the paper’s new New York edition. (See more here.)

What works for general news would also work for sports. If a team is slow about taking advantage of Foursquare, there’s nothing to stop a news organization from partnering with Foursquare and doing some of the team’s work for it: creating badges aimed at fans, using shouts to give fans in the park news and updates, and otherwise working to turn fans of a team into fans of a sports section. Foursquare and similar services are in their infancy, and are certain to gain new capabilities that allow sharing of new kinds of information and better ways to target that information. News organizations that experiment with using such services now will be more nimble as these services mature.

The commandment for teams and sportswriters alike is to go where the customers are, whether the goal is to sell more tickets and caps or to deliver more page views and papers. Digital devices in the hands of fans at the stadium are the latest way to connect with those customers, and benefit from new relationships with them.

As long as those devices can get through security, of course.

Jason Fry is a freelance writer and media consultant in Brooklyn, N.Y. He spent more than 12 years at The Wall Street Journal Online, serving as a writer, columnist, editor and projects guy. While at WSJ.com he edited and co-wrote The Daily Fix, a daily roundup of the best sportswriting online. He blogs about the Mets at Faith and Fear in Flushing, and about the newspaper industry at Reinventing the Newsroom. Write to him at  jason.fry@gmail.com, visit him on Facebook, or follow him onTwitter.
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