Major League Baseball scores a home run with Google Cloud to improve fan experience

Profile picture for user ddpreez By Derek du Preez July 21, 2020
The oldest major professional sports league in the US, Major League Baseball, is making better use of data with Google Cloud to personalize the fan experience.

Image of a baseball pitch
(Image by Cindy Jones from Pixabay )

Major League Baseball (MLB) is a US professional baseball organization dating back to 1903 and is now made up of 30 teams. According to a report in 2019, nearly 170 million people call themselves MLB fans - and digital is becoming an increasingly important platform for engagement.

For example, towards the end of last year MLB said that the MLB At Bat app was started over 2 billion times, becoming the most downloaded US sports league up in 2019. In addition to this, the 2019 MLB 13-game exclusive series of YouTube broadcasts averaged 1.3 million live views per game.

In terms of market context, according to PwC direct to consumer streaming will grow significantly to nearly $74 billion in 2023. That's a growth rate of nearly 14% year over year. In addition, with the impact of COVID-19 this transition has accelerated over the past few months. According to a recent study by Accenture, video streaming has increased by 36% since the beginning of the pandemic.

With this in mind, MLB is focusing in on how it can make better use of a wide array of data available to it to enhance fan engagement and personalize experiences. The sports organization recently announced it has signed a multi-year deal with Google Cloud to upgrade MLB's business processes and support "next level experiences that inspire fans around the world".

MLB will migrate its cloud and on-premise systems to Google Cloud and make use of the vendor's machine learning, analytics, application management and data/video storage capabilities.

Jason Gaedtke, CTO at MLB, was speaking at Google Cloud's annual (now virtual) user event this week about the organisation's plans. He explained:

When we sat down to take on this infrastructure and product refresh mission, we had to ask ourselves - what is our end goal here? And pretty quickly became obvious to us that our number one goal is fan engagement. It's bringing the game of baseball, which is a beautiful game, to our millions of fans. Being able to come in and introduce new technology that allows for things like personalization, personalized recommendations, a social viewing experience, where something happens in the field and you get excited about that and get to share it with other fans. These are the things that really motivate us and Google has been a great partner in building some products that I think embody those values.

Pitching for success

Gaedtke gave Statcast as an example of some of the work that's being undertaken, which is MLB's baseball analytics platform. Statcast allows the organization to measure everything that happens on the baseball field to extremely high degrees of fidelity. He said:

This started off about 5 years ago as a ball tracking technology, so that we could track pitches. Today we can track literally everything that happens on the field. Not only pitches and hits and throws, but also player positioning for all players on the field, even coaches and umpires. And we are moving from tracking players as a single point of mass, a centre of mass on the body, an approximation for these players, to skeletal tracking.

This is a real time data feed that really captures the player poses and positions and how a player responds to a play in the field. It gives you a much richer sense of the game as it's being played. This is something that is now entirely being powered by the Google Cloud.

MLB's technology infrastructure team is also deploying Google Cloud's Anthos, which is effectively an application that allows organizations to manage all of their multi-cloud and on-premise workloads in one place, using a single UI. Gaedtke said:

What Anthos allows us to do is provide a common control plane for all of our compute workloads, whether we are running them on-prem, at the baseball parks themselves where we have small data centres in each facility, or within the cloud.

MLB also has a project underway called Fast Ball, which Gaedtke describes as a fundamentally new approach to video for the game of baseball and its fans. He explained:

So traditionally baseball has been a one to many kind of publishing platform, where our editors and producers cut highlights like home runs or double plays or exciting moments within the game. There's a handful of those that then go out to the fans.

What Fast Ball allows us to do is cut literally every play out of every game and put those in the hands of the fans, with some powerful tools such as advanced search, personalised recommendations and social sharing. We think that this is a new way of experiencing the game and it's one that is really going to appeal to a younger generation of fans.

Data, data and more data

According to Gaedtke, the deal with Google Cloud has gone down very well with the organisation's marketing teams, which now are able to integrate their ad management natively into BigQuery and the Google Ad Platform. However, perhaps more interestingly, MLB is also analyzing fan touchpoints using Google Cloud across all of its operations to help understand how it can better serve fans. Gaedtke said:

Finally, an example behind the scenes, maybe more of a baseball operations workload is our business analytics platform. We have   project in-house called Wheelhouse, which is a large data lake that integrates all of the interactions that our fans have with the game of baseball. This could be buying a ticket, buying a jersey, streaming a game online, visiting our website, using the mobile app.

All of these touchpoints tell us a little bit about how individual fans engage and enjoy the game. By putting Wheelhouse on Big Query we found that we have an extremely powerful data analytics platform for running complex queries. It also integrates very well into the rest of our workflow and tooling. Whether that's single sign on using G-Suite IDs or integrating Google Sheets to do ad-hoc queries and analysis.

As noted above, the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated changed behaviours amongst consumers in a variety of ways, particularly as it relates to direct to consumer consumption. However, with sporting events being cancelled during lockdowns, MLB has taken the time to think about how it can take advantage of these changes in the market as and when sports resume, focusing on its technology projects. Gaedtke said:

Our MLB teams and our club teams haven't missed a beat. We've used the time that's available to us to pull in some projects that we had planned for later in the year, finishing the workload migrations we have, polishing of our products, testing our infrastructure, making sure that last 1% of our use cases are buttoned up and ready to go so that we can provide a great fan experience when play resumes on the field."