'It Feels Like I Got Stood up for Prom': Opening Day at an Empty, Digitally Remastered Dodger Stadium

Ben Bergman

Ben Bergman is the newsroom's senior finance reporter. Previously he was a senior business reporter and host at KPCC, a senior producer at Gimlet Media, a producer at NPR's Morning Edition, and produced two investigative documentaries for KCET. He has been a frequent on-air contributor to business coverage on NPR and Marketplace and has written for The New York Times and Columbia Journalism Review. Ben was a 2017-2018 Knight-Bagehot Fellow in Economic and Business Journalism at Columbia Business School. In his free time, he enjoys skiing, playing poker, and cheering on The Seattle Seahawks.

'It Feels Like I Got Stood up for Prom': Opening Day at an Empty, Digitally Remastered Dodger Stadium

When Dodger Stadium hosts its much-delayed opening day on Thursday, there will be a new $100 million centerfield plaza featuring food, entertainment, and play areas for kids and a host of less visible tech upgrades, including blazing-fast 5G wireless connectivity and an improved point-of-sale system allowing fans to order food and drinks without having to wait in line.

But, of course, there will be no fans on this strangest of opening days, just cardboard cutouts and piped-in crowd noise designed to make the cavernous stadium feel slightly less eerie.

"It feels like I got stood up for prom," said Ralph Esquibel, the Dodgers' Vice-President of Information Technology, who has been working on the upgrades for years. "I got all dressed up and ready to go and my date didn't show up. It's definitely a little bit disheartening that you have this beautiful new, shiny stadium. I want people to enjoy it."

The improvements were originally scheduled to coincide with the Dodgers hosting the 2020 All-Star game, which they have now been awarded for 2022.

Anyone who has ever tried to text or browse Instagram during a game – Dodger Stadium has the distinction of being one of the most Instagrammed places on Earth – will appreciate the wireless updates. The team installed over 1,000 5G access points and will be the first MLB team to feature next-generation Wi-Fi 6.

Dodgers Opening Day (2020) www.youtube.com

The team also installed new point-of-sale cloud software from Appetize, a Los Angeles startup founded in 2011 that went through the 2016 Dodgers accelerator, and is already used at Yankee Stadium and Fenway Park.

"The three of us co-founders are our massive Dodgers fans, and to have the Dodgers, to us, is that trifecta of having the three biggest brands in baseball," said Kevin Anderson, Appetize's co-founder and chief strategy officer.

Anderson says the last two months have easily been the busiest in the company's history as teams use the shutdown to upgrade their systems.

"Whether you believe that stadiums will have fans in their seats in August, in October or February, that's still a fairly short window of time to change your operating model to meet how fans want to order today, which is in a more touch free digital fashion," said Anderson.

As part of the switch to Appetize, the stadium hawkers who roam the aisles of Dodger Stadium selling cotton candy and peanuts will now carry handheld devices, which means the days of handing crumpled up bills down your row and hoping you get handed back change are over. All the hawkers will now accept credit cards.

The new system will also allow fans to use Postmates to preorder stadium food so they do not have to wait in line for Dodger Dogs, expanding a program the team piloted last year in the upper decks.

"Postmates is a big deal because every venue has always tried to do mobile ordering but I've never heard of it being successful," said Esquibel.

For baseball purists or even more casual fans, the idea of people spending more time staring at their phones rather than being engaged in the game may not sound so appealing. A growing number of concerts and comedy shows have banned smartphones. There is also a much more serious problem of fans distracted by phones getting seriously injured after being hit by foul balls. But the MLB, whose average fan is 53 years old, wants to stay relevant and appeal to a younger audience.

"I feel the romance of Dodger Stadium," said Esquibel, who grew up near the ballpark. "There is a lot of history, but at the same time we want to evolve and keep up with technology."

Esquibel also believes that, far from taking fans out of the game, technology will bring them closer to it because they can track advanced analytics and play fantasy on their smartphones. The next logical step: Fans will someday be able to make in-game bets, as is already commonplace in the U.K. and Europe.

"It could be very exciting," said Esquibel. "Wagering is coming."

Already this season MLB is encouraging fans to bet on games and plays to win contests that offer cash prizes, though the league is careful to point out it does not yet allow actual betting.

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