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How the Red Sox built a winning digital transformation roadmap

Years before it became a thing, Red Sox IT chief Brian Shield came up with a digital transformation roadmap that positioned the storied team for DX success.

Few jobs in IT come with the perks that Brian Shield enjoys as vice president of IT with the Boston Red Sox and Fenway Sports Management. After all, how many top-level tech executives have two World Series Championship rings? But Shield, who joined the company full time in August 2013 after working with the team as an IT consultant, acknowledged that his job isn't all about fun and games.

Like nearly all other IT leaders, Shield is contending with legacy systems and numerous business challenges, as well as the need to drive digital transformation (DX) and better customer engagement. Shield's modernization strategy spans four key regions of Red Sox Nation: baseball operations, business operations, fan-facing and Fenway Park systems, and a fan engagement operations.

Here, he talks about the beginnings of his digital transformation roadmap -- except no one called it by that name back then.

A digital transformation roadmap -- before DX became a buzzword

What was the state of IT when you arrived?

Brian Shield, vice president of IT, Boston Red SoxBrian Shield

Brian Shield: The Red Sox had a long history of being leaders in the use of analytics, a la [the baseball book and movie] 'Moneyball.' And so, from a baseball analytics perspective, we had a lot of capable people and a lot of good technology there.

But since those first days [of my tenure], we've overhauled virtually every system -- from the scouting system to medical systems to analytics systems. We have a good history of having good technology, but it was getting a little bit old, relative to being able to do certain things. For example, we weren't able to do mobility in the past or process as much data as we do today. So, we made applications more flexible, more intuitive.

What did your software stack look like six years ago?

Shield: There was a lot of legacy infrastructure in the organization that had to be overhauled. And, aside from our history with baseball analytics, we were a data-rich company, but hadn't really started to fully tap into that data. We knew very little bit about the fans.

Going into 2013, we reevaluated a lot of capabilities, like our [customer relationship management system] and understanding our fan base and our sales capabilities and really starting for the first time to think about what would a data warehouse look like to serve Red Sox Nation.  We also had very little on the mobility side -- virtually nothing. Yet, we had hundreds of employees [who needed mobile access], from scouts [who] are on the road to people serving fans at the park for ballgames or other events. Having rapid access to information was really pivotal for effective provisioning.

What would you single out as the most pressing problem when you started?

Shield: It varied by area, but I'd say, in baseball, it was overhauling the baseball system to really give the organization world-class capabilities and access to a broader range of data for decision-making and analytics. You can think about it as 'Moneyball' 2.0. That was very pressing from a baseball perspective.

From a business perspective, it was: How do we effectively build the infrastructure where we can understand fans and fan behavior? And how do we create the tools that allow us to effectively work with and sell to and communicate with various classes of fans, whether it's the premium areas or group sales or existing season-ticket holders? There's a different challenge with each group, so we need to make sure we understand their uses of our services, what they like and don't like, and how we can maximize the value of their experience at Fenway Park. So, we needed access to data and the tools to enable that.

We built the foundation to enable us to help grow baseball with existing players and prospects. And from a fan perspective, we built a base so we can begin to get into providing higher-quality service to our fans.
Brian ShieldVice president of IT, Boston Red Sox

Then, operationally, Fenway Park had no Wi-Fi. We now think of Wi-Fi as ubiquitous, especially at a public venue; you just take for granted that you'll have Wi-Fi. But we had limited Wi-Fi that we used for services like concessions. It wasn't fan-enabled Wi-Fi. So, we embarked in conjunction with Major League Baseball to deploy some 600 wireless access points around Fenway Park.

What was the value in tackling those particular challenges?

Shield: Those things are foundational. We built the foundation to enable us to help grow baseball with existing players and prospects. And from a fan perspective, we built a base so we can begin to get into providing higher-quality service to our fans. And that means having things like Wi-Fi to other fan amenities, like augmented reality and virtual reality and kiosks and display devices and all those different kinds of things that help us better measure and enable a better experience.

Do these all fit into your agenda for a digital transformation roadmap?

Shield: I don't know if we used that exact expression back in 2013, but we knew we needed to make fundamental changes in order to support our digital roadmap. Coming from the Weather Channel, I had a long history of understanding digital, whether it was web or wireless or mobility or any form of media we delivered.

There were a lot of similarities between being at the Weather Channel and being at the Red Sox. In both places, it started with ensuring we have fundamentals in place, the foundation to build on. But we had so much legacy in so many areas, building on it wasn't a practical option, so we had to replace. We built from the ground up new systems in support of all our key areas.

That really is now the foundation that enables us to do so many more things now that we weren't able to do. In that way, it was strategic -- it was obviously about a big digital transformation.

Editor's note: Go to part two to read about how IoT machine learning and MookieBot will be stat players in the 2019 season.

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