Merchant Innovation

Take Me Out To The (Payments) Ball Game

While high tech and baseball might not seem like a natural fit, FIS and the Minors are hoping to change that. One ball park and customer experience at a time. We got the inside scoop of what the ballpark of the future might look like from FIS’s Bob Legters, chief product officer of FIS Global Retail Payments, and David Wright, Minor League Baseball’s chief commercial officer — and what brought two such different organizations together to build it.

High-tech may not be the first thing you think of when considering Minor League Baseball (MiLB). But that may be about to change. Because after 100 years of history, MiLB has a new vision: to become a dynamic leader in sport and entertainment.

Baseball is America’s pastime — with emphasis on the “past” part of the word. As George Carlin famously observed, “Baseball is a nineteenth-century pastoral game. Football is a twentieth-century technological struggle.”

But baseball, particularly in the minors, is not quite as nineteenth-century pastoral as George Carlin once assumed — in fact, according to Minor League Baseball’s Chief Marketing and Commercial Officer David Wright, the minors have some major-league ambitions when it comes to the future of upgrading baseball for the twenty-first century.

“We think we’ve got a unique opportunity to be a technology trendsetter,” said Wright. “If you think about minor league baseball and what makes it so special, among many points of difference, we can do things that other sports entities can’t do or at least can’t do as quickly as we can.”

Minor league baseball has a massive fan base — 42 million Americans “go through the turnstiles” each year, and 75 percent of the U.S. population live within a minor league baseball market. If that wasn’t enough, the average fan also has a higher income than the U.S. household average, while attending games where tickets cost a fraction of major league prices.

All in, Wright noted, it adds up to a big opportunity for minor league baseball — and a big goal: to increase its fan base to 50 million by 2026.

“And the inside-the-park experience is going to play a big role in that,” noted Wright.

To make that experience one that entices fans to return and encourages them to spend more, MiLB turned to FIS, a global leader in financial technology.

“In banking, we use a lot of sports metaphors, but in professional sports, they use almost no banking metaphors,” said Bob Legters, chief product officer of FIS Global Retail Payments, when describing to PYMNTS how FIS is collaborating with MiLB to build “the ballpark of the future.”

“But because of FIS’s work with community banks and businesses, we are partners ideally suited to work together, even if banking and sports aren’t a combination that immediately springs to mind.”

According to Legters, these are two sides with a lot to gain from playing ball together. After all, between the point-of-sale terminals, mPOS devices, ATMs, mobile app engagement — not to mention a plethora of back-end services that make sure players have access to per diem funds stadium services are paid for and more — the 160 teams that make up the minor leagues have a whirlwind of vendors, partners and providers with which to work.

It is not an ideal setup for innovation.

“Our partnership with minor league baseball allows us to be their preferred technology partner,” Legters said. “This plays right to the strengths of FIS, because we’ve been so involved and connected to the community banks and credit union market — we have a huge presence in the community space. And, when you look at minor league baseball, it is a very hometown feeling, especially among owners who are very active in their communities. This was the fastest partnership we could have forged, because we are so well aligned.”

So what will that alignment mean?

Universal Improvement, Tailored Adoption

As any minor league fan can tell you, minor league baseball stadiums are an extremely varied experience.

On one end of the spectrum, for example, is a reasonably large market in Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp, where the park of the future is currently under construction right now. Other, smaller, parks have a longer way to go.

“Different parks have different needs — and all of our solutions can be tailored so each owner can make those decisions themselves,” Legters said. “But the technology is available from the smallest of the small to the biggest clubs and making sure that money, no matter where it is moving, is visible and trackable.”

Because as minor league baseball’s David Wright noted, for all their variation today, parks tend to have a common problem: payments happening on a lot of platforms — ticket sales, merchandise sales, vending sales — without a lot of easy visibility into the system as a single unit.

“The ability to have a seamless, cohesive system that encounters all consumer touchpoints has a lot of value to us. We can understand a lot more about our consumers and their preferences. And it also creates a lot more opportunity to create a frictionless experience for fans in a variety of ways,” Wright explained.

The Secret to Sports Loyalty

Connecting with fans and understanding their preferences also gives the opportunity for MiLB’s first national loyalty program.

That’s something that has been a problem with sports teams, because fans don’t stay as connected during the off-season.

Overcoming that challenge, Legters said, is first and foremost about acknowledging the three keys to loyalty: figuring out what exactly it is one is trying to get customers to do, getting them to do it and then influencing future behavior with rewards and incentives.

The what, in terms of baseball, can be any number of things — seeing more games, buying more concessions — but Legters said, when it comes to building the loyalty program and the reward, “the trick is to really make it matter to the customers.” And that reward doesn’t have to be a discount — throwing out the first pitch at a game or priority parking are both popular.

“Of course,” he said, “there are only so many first pitches you can throw out over the course of a season. So there is a balance therein and a lot of working in partnership with the owners and the minor league baseball association to figure out what are the behaviors they want to track — and what are the right proportional rewards.”

And that experience, he noted, tells them that choice is key in developing these programs, including in rewards. That means partnering with local businesses so that MiLB rewards are meaningful outside of a stadium. In other words, points earned at local businesses should be available at the stadium, while points earned at the stadium also should be redeemable at local businesses.

“It is about creating a ballpark experience and using loyalty to contribute to that. True loyalty makes you think of the park even when you aren’t actually at a game.”

What’s Next

Whether or not you consider baseball forward-thinking, the reality is that team owners are very sophisticated and generally own other businesses as well.

“These folks are not unaware of technology,” said Legters. “And they very much have types of experiences in mind they want to be able to offer their customers.”

Seat-side ordering — where customers can tap on their phone and have their peanuts and crackerjacks show up — is a popular area of exploration. Another well-liked idea is concession stand order ahead, where the hot dog and soda portion of the baseball dinner can be picked up during the seventh-inning stretch, as opposed to waiting for it during most of the eighth inning.

“Owners know what they want, and they have ambitious visions,” Legters added. “We bring the solution to make those visions possible and usable across the country. We can bring things together that have never been done at the ballpark.”

For example, Legters noted, in the not-too-distant future, older children could be given Wi-Fi bracelets that allow parents to track their location throughout the park. Such bracelets also could be linked to a credit or debit card so that older children could run to the concession stand without mom or dad having to hand them money.

The possibilities are endless, Legters noted, and the whiteboarding sessions are extremely fun — because baseball on its own is already a pretty great experience.

Finding ways to reward people for going to baseball games? Nice work if you can get it.

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