A lot of changes are ahead when the Tampa Bay Rays open their shortened 60-game season July 24 at Tropicana Field.
The Rays and other Major League Baseball teams have had to adapt to play ball in the midst of a Covid-19 pandemic, said Bill Walsh, vice president of strategy and development for the Rays.
Walsh and other innovation leaders from the Tampa Bay Lightning, Orlando Magic and Diamond View Studios took part in Wednesday’s Connections to Innovations panel hosted by the Florida-Israel Business Accelerator, a Tampa-based business development program.
Professional sports came to a standstill when the pandemic hit. Now as sporting events gear back up, the teams have to take into account fan and player safety.
“There’s a 150-plus page operations manual that staff and players need to adhere to in terms of where they sit in the dugout or in the stands,” Walsh said. “Many of us have had to reinvent and reconfigure our venues to meet the needs of home and visiting clubs, everything from new locker room facilities to batting cages, so a pretty dramatic impact in operations just to support the game, not even talking about fans at this point.”
In the National Hockey League, games stopped mid-season due to the pandemic.
As play resumes, teams will travel to a “hub city” at the end of July with the return to play beginning in August, said Andrew McIntyre, senior vice president for technology and innovation at Vinik Sports Group, parent company of the Tampa Bay Lightning.
The hub city concept is designed to provide a safe environment for players. Toronto is the hub city for the Eastern Conference, and Ontario is the hub city for the Western Conference.
Each city will have 12 teams, with the top four teams per conference getting a bye. The remaining eight teams will be playing a five-game series to advance to the first round of the playoffs, with a seven-game series for the rounds leading up to the Stanley Cup finals. No details have yet been announced for the Stanley Cup, McIntyre said.
Twenty-two teams in the National Basketball Association are playing at the Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando, starting July 30, said Jay Riola, senior vice president of strategy and innovation for the Orlando Magic.
With games at a standstill, the Magic has focused on creating new fan engagement solutions.
“We recently relaunched a new version of our mobile app. We’re working to integrate gaming solutions into the app so you can participate in live polls or trivia as you watch the broadcast of our games,” Riola said.
One way the Lightning has kept fans engaged is a series, called Dock Talk with Killer, featuring Lightning forward Alex Killorn doing interviews on a jet ski driving around Tampa Bay.
“There’s been a huge emphasis on making people know that even though the season is on pause, it’s going to restart and when it restarts, we want everyone ready for us to make this run for the Cup,” McIntyre said.
Rays fans won’t be allowed in the Trop, but for $60 ($40 for season ticket holders) fans can show their support by uploading photos of themselves that will be made into cardboard cutouts that will be “seated” in the general admission areas in the stadium. The Rays also are testing fake crowd noise in an effort to try to make the games a little bit more “normal” for players.
Baseball has a tradition of giveaways.
“We’re going to be launching a digital bobblehead in the next couple of weeks,” Walsh said. “I can’t share too many details about it, but it’s going to be free. It can be passed along among the fan base and we’re trying to incorporate a sweepstakes element to it. It takes a very traditional aspect of baseball and the fan experience and introduces new technology and a 21st century element to it.”
Diamond View, a creative video agency in Tampa, works with a lot of sports clients around the United States, said Tim Moore, founder and CEO. The agency uses XR, or extended reality, both to produce games and for production elements.
One example could be the traditional media day, where players are interviewed by sports reporters.
“The key advantage of XR is that it’s a completely remote operated production. Athletes can stand in front of a screen and get all the media opportunities they need,” Moore said.
Instead of a crew of 20 or 30 people, XR offers a contactless solution. “Come media day, they can get a package delivered without ever being in contact with the person.”
Back in the seats
Eventually the fans will be back, and when they are, they’ll face some new realities.
The Rays announced last year the Trop would be a cash-free venue. Although the industry has been talking about it for years, Walsh said the Trop was the first professional sports venue in North America to make that leap,
“In the span of four months, I think you’ll have most if not all professional sports venues operate cash-free. If not cash-free, a step further to being a truly contactless experience where the majority of folks are using mobile ordering or mobile wallet programs which is great from a fan experience, and it’s also great for clubs to be able to interact and incentivize fans, reward them and build in loyalty,” Walsh said.
The Lightning are watching how that plays out.
“We watched the Rays and how they moved to a cashless venue and what they might look like on our side. We’ve been looking at the Orlando Magic and their Magic Money digital currency. So these are things we have on our roadmap, and people in the region have done them and done them successfully. These are things we might need to accelerate as we move forward,” McIntyre said.
Vinik Sports Group also is investigating new technologies for security screening at Amalie Arena, allowing people to enter the building quicker and safely. Digital ticketing programs could lead to more self-scanning, allowing the ticket-holder to scan their own ticket when entering the building.
“Rather than have a traditional individual with a hand-held scanner, [we would be] enabling the person to do a completely touchless environment, from the time they get to Thunder Alley to entering the building, and doing it at speed and in a safe and secure manner,” McIntyre said.
The Orlando Magic is working with another Orlando company, Violet Defense, that uses ultraviolet light to kill pathogens. The team worked with the tech company to install units in the training facility for players and also to build some portable units. “It’s an example of an innovative solution that was started way prior to Covid – a year or a year and a half prior to Covid — but now there’s discussions around how can that technology be brought to ensure safety for all those involved,” Riola said.