Dodgers, 49ers show that more technology isn't always better

Who truly benefits from "innovation" -- fans or owners? Mark Matcho for ESPN The Magazine

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ON APRIL 13, the Dodgers beat the Mariners 6-5. The game was an extra-inning thriller, but 70 percent of Los Angeles couldn't watch it on TV: Because of a pricing dispute between cable providers, Dodgers games have been blacked out across the city since last season.

On April 14, the team issued a press release. It didn't mention the blackout. Instead the Dodgers announced, in a statement brimming with enough tech jargon to arouse a roomful of MBAs, that they're launching an accelerator for startups. "Since purchasing the team three years ago, the Dodgers ownership has shown an unwavering commitment to their fans and the community ..."

A community that can't watch Dodgers baseball.

"The sports industry is ripe with opportunities for innovation," the release continued. "There are countless ways for new technology to create more powerful consumer experiences, heighten fan engagement ..."

Such as ... finding a way for fans to watch games?

As the Dodgers faithful endure another spring of neglect, abandoned at the curb like children whose parents forgot to pick them up after school, it rings tone-deaf when the team gushes about "fan engagement" and "innovation." Callous even. But given the sports world's infatuation with Silicon Valley, it's hardly surprising. Every team wants to modernize the stadium experience; every C-suite is stocked with executives spouting the sort of technobabble that renders their quotes incomprehensible to those who don't watch TED Talks for fun. While the movement has hatched a few useful changes -- mobile ticketing, better Wi-Fi, etc. -- the ideas are starting to feel more shiny than substantive, especially when juxtaposed with meaningful problems like, say, a two-year television blackout.

Just look at the 49ers. Last summer the media were buzzing about owner Jed York's "smart stadium" -- a facility so futuristic, so laden with high-tech bells and whistles, that cnet.com called it "the stadium that Silicon Valley built." With the help of dozens of engineers and designers, the team created the world's most advanced stadium app, software that fans could use to find the shortest bathroom line, watch replays during the game and order food to their seats. It was an app that could order apps.

The team anticipated everything ... except for the horrendous road traffic. And the $1.4 million turf that had to be ripped up and replaced several times. And the blistering heat that scorched half the stadium during games, driving fans to the concourse for shade. That's how I envision judgment day: We'll be staring at our phones as the earth breaks open and hot fire pours from the sky.

And yet, York's ideas pale in comparison to the digital dreams of Vivek Ranadive. The Sacramento Kings' owner, who likes to call his team "a social network," has concocted ideas involving drones, bitcoin and Google Glass. (In January, a few weeks after Ranadive abruptly fired coach Mike Malone, the team asked players and cheerleaders to wear Google Glass on the court. The resulting video looks like an outtake from The Blair Witch Project.) Ranadive recently said he wants the Kings' next arena, which is scheduled to open in 2016, to identify season-ticket holders using facial recognition technology, "so you can have the best possible fan experience."

There it is again: the "fan experience." Yet one can't help but wonder: Who truly benefits from this experience -- fans or owners? Hundreds of sports-tech stories quote vendors and executives, but we rarely hear from fans. Do they mind having their faces scanned? Are they really clamoring for instant replay on their phones? According to Extreme Networks, which tracks data usage in stadiums, the vast majority of people who use the Internet during games are on social networks, not their teams' apps.

Perhaps the Dodgers' accelerator will break new ground. What's ironic, though, is that MLB already owns some of the most impressive technology on the planet: the league's streaming service, which fans in LA can't access because it would jeopardize the team's multibillion-dollar TV deal. So Dodgers diehards must find their own workarounds, like paying for an online service that masks their addresses, a trick that lets them access local games on MLB.TV. Some might call it innovation.