Target Field a Wi-Fi wonderland

  • Article by: MICHAEL RAND , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 30, 2011 - 1:01 AM

2011 BASEBALL PREVIEW The Twins will have a free network fully operational by the home opener so fans can keep connected during games.

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Last year's Opening Day at Target Field. Year 2 of the Twins' downtown ballpark will introduce a few new features, including free Wi-Fi.

Photo: Renee Jones Schneider, Star Tribune file

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If the Twins needed any confirmation that many of today's fans have high expectations of technology, it came March 19. On that Saturday, single-game tickets went on sale. Online, that became a cumbersome process filled with hitches, glitches and wasted afternoons that left plenty of fans banging their heads against the virtual wall and venting on Twitter.

When supply doesn't meet demand, particularly with a subset of fans used to lightning-quick results, it can lead to bad public relations.

Yet Twins officials also recognize these are the same types of folks who are updating social media, texting, checking e-mail, tracking scores, you name it -- all while taking in nine innings at Target Field. They are modern fans with a specific set of wants and needs in 2011.

Kevin Smith, the organization's executive director for public affairs, calls those fans "the group that is out here to do things beyond keeping score with your pencil and paper."

To keep up with how they watch games, the Twins are adding a free Wi-Fi network throughout Target Field that is expected to be fully functional on Opening Day. They are also improving infrastructure that enables cellphone providers to beef up service to customers within the ballpark.

These aren't things that would have been on the landscape 10 years ago -- or maybe even five, Smith said. But whether on their couch or in a Target Field seat, fans watch games differently now.

Mike Haddad, 30, of Columbia Heights attended 15 to 20 Twins games a year ago and said he expects to do the same this year at Target Field. He was among the Twins fans who tried to buy tickets online March 19, only to get shut out after a long wait. Not coincidentally, he is on his mobile device constantly at games.

"While at the game there isn't anything I have to have access to, but I enjoy following along what's being said on social media outlets," Haddad wrote in an e-mail. "It helps when I can find out information about the game that normally wouldn't be available while in attendance -- injury updates, facts, etc. This past season I remember the network being very slow and sometimes nonexistent."

Haddad added that having access to a working Wi-Fi network would be "quite a big deal to me."

Similarly, Eric Folsland, 30, of Shakopee said that while he considers being able to multi-task at the ballpark to be a "luxury and not a necessity," he does try to do it fairly often for game-related information.

"I follow a lot of Twins bloggers and writers on Twitter and like to check in and see what people are saying about the game or to get additional information on things like injuries or close plays," he wrote in an e-mail.

Appropriately enough, Haddad and Folsland were contacted via Twitter.

The Twins are trying to keep up with the changing times, and seem to be ahead of the curve among most MLB teams.

Corporate Communications Director Chris Iles, who has worked closely with the Twins' Wi-Fi project, said the San Francisco Giants and AT&T Park are the standard by which the Twins are measuring themselves. From studying that ballpark, it was found that up to 10 percent of fans are logged on and using Wi-Fi at any point during a game.

As such, Target Field -- with a capacity of around 40,000 -- will have more than 100 access points that cumulatively should handle up to 4,000 fans on the Wi-Fi network at once.

The Twins can't guarantee perfection because some of the system's performance will be determined by how fans are using it. And in general, it's better to underpromise and overdeliver, particularly when it comes to technology.

"We don't want to say we're doing all this good stuff and it doesn't work. But we're making the effort to take care of that segment of our fan base," Smith said, before later referring back to the online ticket-buying glitches as a lesson learned. "Those are the things we don't want to have happen. Because it causes frustration. We want to go down every road to make sure we have as few glitches as we can."

That's the model going forward, as well. A few years from now, Wi-Fi and other features could be part of the new norm, leaving the Twins with a different set of ever-changing demands from evolving fans.

At a few ballparks (but not yet at Target Field), for instance, fans can order from a concession stand via a mobile application and get a text message when it's ready.

"The big thing is this: What's next?" Smith said. "But we think we'll be able to provide those tech-savvy fans the experience they're looking for."

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