In Major League Baseball today, teams strive to build winning franchises and billion-dollar businesses that reach far beyond the diamond by capitalizing on a wide spectrum of markets and audiences. Nowhere has that journey been more dramatic than in the wired heart of San Francisco’s high-tech universe, where the San Francisco Giants have excelled on several fronts.
Last season, the team hit a major milestone and moved just behind the Boston Red Sox to steal the second-longest sellout streak in Major League Baseball from the Cleveland Indians, selling out 456 consecutive regular-season games at AT&T Park. What’s more widely known are the team's World Series wins in 2010, 2012 and 2014, and while we’re about to kickoff an “odd year” the 2017 squad has back many of the star players that brought them victory in years past. What’s more, even in the down years when the team wasn’t winning the pennant, the Giants sold every seat. Since opening the new ballpark doors in 2000, the team has welcomed more than 50 million fans.
The Giants have done it by appointing executives with a keen sense of product-market fit, such as SVP and CIO Bill Schlough, who became the first CIO ever appointed by a professional sports team when he joined the Giants in April 1999. I recently had the chance to speak with Schlough, who shared lessons he’s learned over the years. He covered the intricacies involved in fostering a brand that maintains one of the most loyal fan bases in sports today. Many of Schlough’s lessons translate for startup founders building their target audience and customer base in highly competitive markets.
Target and satisfy disparate markets.
The Giants don’t only compete on the field, Schlough said. “We think of ourselves as a member of several markets: baseball, broadcast, entertainment, real estate. But, ultimately, we‘re in the happiness business. Our product is bringing joy to our fans.”
Of course, different people have very different ideas of what joy is -- and not everyone who goes to a Giants game is there solely for the joy of baseball. As Schlough noted, “If we just focused on baseball fans, we’d sell 15,000 to 20,000 tickets each game. There’s much more to it than that.”
There’s garlic fries, of course. There’s Wi-Fi (the Giants were the first team to install it). There are craft beers and a new “virtual reality experience.” Additionally, there are special events that target specific demographics, such as Jerry Garcia Tribute Night, Cancer Awareness Night and Yoga Day. There is a Star Wars Day and even a Peanut Allergy Friendly Day. In all, there are 33 special days and nights that attract fans that otherwise might not buy a ticket to a baseball game. By targeting specific demographics with added features to the game-viewing experience, the Giants are able to attract additional viewership that would otherwise be absent.
Pick your battles: Know when to be an early adopter.
Fans these days -- and particularly fans in San Francisco -- demand top-flight technology perks. They want connectivity, multimedia viewing options and even virtual reality. All are vital to selling tickets.
But, Schlough warned that it’s not always an advantage to being an early adopter of seemingly cool technology, noting, “You can’t be an early adopter in everything.” While it’s nice to be first to implement a new technology, it doesn’t come without pain. It can be extremely valuable to take advantage of your competitors testing out new technologies and then learn from their mistakes.
Schlough and his team first focused on tech-centric perks like Wi-Fi, dynamic pricing and seat upgrades. But, even these were challenging to execute at first. Though an eventual success, pervasive and reliable connectivity was difficult. Electric turnstiles for transferable tickets and upgrades also seemed like a great idea, and although it was buggy at first, new scanning technology rendered the original system obsolete.
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These experiences reminded the Giants that it almost always takes consumer feedback and trial and error before great ideas work well.
Ultimately, these are lessons that almost any business should take to heart when thinking about its position in the marketplace. Businesses should also remember that efforts should be focused on their target market first, because even the best product can’t entice everyone. And when they add new features and products, it needs to be done deliberately, all the while being flexible to insert key consumer feedback back into the product. After all, you can’t make the market fit your product, but you can always pivot to get the perfect product-market fit.