In the past year, Dodger Stadium has been used as a presidential polling site, cooling center, a massive COVID testing site and as one of the country's largest vaccination sites.
Now, it will finally be open Friday for its intended purpose. For the first time since 2019, fans will be welcomed through the stadium's turnstiles, though capacity is limited to around 15,000 people.
Those lucky enough to be in attendance will not only get to see the boys in blue in the flesh for the first time since they won the World Series last year, but they will also get to experience a stadium significantly updated for the digital era.
The improvements include a revamped $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.
The enhancements 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.
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.
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 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 MLB has been 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.
In order to prevent fans from congregating, some of the new areas will initially be shut off to fans, but the Dodgers hope that will be short lived and their refreshed stadium can soon operate in its full glory.
"The fans that will be coming here on Friday will be able to walk through here and get to their seats, but most of the areas will still be closed off to fans," Dodgers President Stan Kasten told members of the media this week. "We're hoping some time between May 1 and June 15, according to the governor, we should be open 100%. That's the day we're all looking for."
A version of this story originally ran July 23rd and was updated April 9th.
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‘We’re Building a Product in a Hot Market’: How Betty Labs CEO Built a Clubhouse for Sports Fans (Exclusive)
Things are moving rapidly these days in startupland, particularly in the suddenly crowded red-hot audio space.
Just six months ago, Betty Labs pivoted for a third time – from sports gambling to live audio – and the third time proved to be the charm, as Spotify announced Tuesday it was buying the Los Angeles company for an undisclosed sum.
Betty Labs' Locker Room app is often likened to a sports version of Clubhouse, the much-hyped live audio app that has hosted conversations with the likes of Elon Musk and Bill Gates. But Betty Labs co-founder and CEO, Howard Akumiah, says he actually first saw the appeal of audio conversations after he realized users were more interested in talking to each other than wagering on games.
"The major thing we learned building products around sports betting is that the most important thing you can do for sports fans is facilitate communication between them," Akumiah told dot.LA in a wide-ranging interview before the sale was announced.
Still, he does not deny Clubhouse, which recently raised new funding led by Andreeson Horowitz at an eye-popping $1 billion valuation, has been helpful.
"We're building a product in a hot market," Akumiah said.
He admits people being cooped up inside all day unable to go to sports bars — much less games themselves — has also been beneficial, but he does not think Locker Room's appeal will diminish when life returns to normal.
"People want to talk regardless of whether it is pandemic or post pandemic," Akumiah said. "I think that will continue to be true."
Akumiah started Betty Labs in San Francisco in 2018, when he was still a product manager at Pinterest, as a way to make sports wagering more accessible to a wider audience, hence the name Betty Labs.
"Betty was a personified sportsbook," Akumiah said. "The idea was that you could text this number and Betty would text you back to make bets that were related to what was happening in the game that you were watching live."
Akumiah, who was the one texting people back, soon started getting more action than he could handle.
"I went from hacking this fun thing during the NBA playoffs to basically being an illegal bookie with 500 people on my book," Akumiah remembers. "So I quit my job, shut the product down and I raised a little bit of money to start exploring what was possible."
Akumiah moved to Los Angeles and began hiring.
Betty Labs co-founder and CEO Howard Akumiah
"I moved to L.A. to get closer to the people who would ultimately use the products that we built," Akumiah said. "When I was talking to people about what I was wanting to build in San Francisco, I was met with a lot of confusion."
Betty Labs launched an app called Sideline in 2019, which offered live in-game predictions for sports betting. The predictions aspect did not take off but the social features did.
"People were coming to the Sideline app to talk to other fans about games that they were watching on television," Akumiah said. "If we wanted to take it to the next level, we needed to add audio because we needed to create a medium that is endemic to sports like sports talk radio and podcasting," Akumiah said.
The company raised a $9.3 million seed round last October, with backing from Precursor Ventures, Chapter One Ventures, Maveron, Amazon Alexa Fund, Lightspeed Venture Partners, MaC Venture Capital, and M13. NBA stars Kevin Durant, Andre Iguodala, Baron Davis also participated in the round.
The same month, Betty Labs released Locker Room so users could talk to each before, during or after games. And in this case, talking is what users really wanted to do, a throwback to a time before online chatting, texting or e-mailing.
"I think of the growth in audio not from the consumption side, but actually from the creation side," Akumiah said. "The average person is realizing that they don't have to prepare any materials. They don't have to convert their thoughts to type. They don't have to create a video. They can just begin speaking what's on their mind."
It's not just fans talking to each other. Andre Iguodala and Indiana Pacers center Myles Turner have hosted live Q&As. Mark Stein, the well-sourced New York Times NBA writer, signed a deal with Locker Room last month.
"Instead of doing a podcast, he's going to do regular rooms on Locker Room where answers people's questions about the league and shares his insights," Akumiah said.
Spotify's acquisition is not only a large shift for Betty Labs, but also for the Swedish audio giant. It's Spotify's first major foray into live audio. Interestingly, the company said it plans to soon expand Locker Room well beyond sports to offer conversations focused on music and cultural programming.
"Creators and fans have been asking for live formats on Spotify, and we're excited that soon, we'll make them available to hundreds of millions of listeners and millions of creators on our platform," Gustav Söderström, Spotify's Chief Research & Development Officer said in a statement.
Akumiah added this is an email Tuesday: "Joining Spotify unlocks the ability to grow quickly and deliver that same platform and experience to other communities of passionate fans, whether they want to talk about music, culture or sports."
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There's finally a media company that will make women's sports a top priority.
Olympic medalists Alex Morgan, Chloe Kim, Simone Manuel and Sue Bird are launching TOGETHXR, created specifically for Gen Z and millennial women. The four hope to elevate the stories and voices of women in sports, as well as intersecting areas like activism, culture, wellness and beauty.
Although women make up almost half of all participants in sports, they receive less than 5% of sports coverage, according to a report by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.
"We have our individual legacies as athletes through championships and medals, but what's most important to us is championing for the next generation of women — because that will be the legacy that lasts," said the co-founders in a release announcing the launch.
The company will debut its premiere video series on YouTube, the first being "Fenom," a docuseries that follows 17-year-old boxing champion Chantel "Chicanita" Navarro, as she trains for the Olympics. "Kaikaina," which means "little sister" in Hawaiian, will be the company's second series. It launches next month and features a group of young Hawaiian surfers.
The company is also planning content that features female athletes and sports journalists like Maya Brady, Ibtihaj Muhammad and Taylor Rooks.
TOGETHXR is backed by Magnet Companies with a "mid-seven figure investment," according to the New York Times. It comes as women's sports has drawn a growing audience and with it a greater appeal for advertisers.
Morgan was captain of the U.S. Women's National Soccer Team last year and has won two World Cups and an Olympic gold medal. Bird has won four gold medals as well as four WNBA titles. Manuel won four gold medals at the 2016 Olympics and was the first Black woman to win an Olympic swimming individual event. Kim was the youngest gold medalist in the 2018 Olympic Games snowboarding half pipe competition.
The new company joins a growing number of media and entertainment companies founded by athletes, including Kevin Durant's Thirty Five Media and LeBron James's Springhill Company, but TOGETHXR stands apart in being entirely female founded.