March 23, 2006



Posted: 08.04

Wi-Fi Hits One Out of the Park

Peanuts, Cracker Jacks and 802.11b. The Chicago White Sox ticket operations staff ushers in the newest ballpark mainstay.
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By Phill Britt

The Chicago White Sox, one of the oldest members of the American League, is using one of the newer wireless technologies to manage personnel and to provide improved customer service.

Almost since the inception of the team, ushers have stood at the entrance gates to take tickets to count attendance (though announced attendance has long been based on the number of tickets sold, rather than the number of people actually attending the game). A couple of innings after a game started the ushers would go to a room to count the tickets, then would turn them into their supervisors, who would then turn them over to the team.

That all changed for the White Sox shortly after the start of the 2003 season, according to Mike Mazza, manager of ticket operations.

Mazza was aware of wireless ticket scanning technology employing 802.11b connectivity that Ticketmaster, Los Angeles, had unveiled a few years earlier at some other sporting arenas. Then he had a chance to see it first hand at the United Center, home of the Chicago Bulls during the 2002-2003 season. Mazza and other White Sox officials liked what they saw, but also knew that U.S. Cellular Field, where the White Sox play their home games, would need some technology upgrades in order to employ the process.

The White Sox installed Ticketmaster’s AccessManager software, 18 servers and a central hub, all with Ethernet connectivity. Ushers scan tickets at the gates using one of 60 Symbol Technologies SPT 1700 hand scanners. The scanners look like PDAs and, in addition to scanning, can receive text messages and audio signals.

The information from the scanner goes to one of the 18 small servers, which in turn route the information to the central hub. The hub returns an audio signal that sounds like the common beep one might hear in a grocery store to the hand scanner (if the ticket is good). There is a different sound, sometimes accompanied by a text message if the ticket is bad. The entire round trip takes a quarter of a second, according to David Henderson, Ticketmaster VP of technologies.

AccessManager has provided several benefits for the White Sox, according to Mazza.

Rather than looking down to tear tickets, ushers now can look at the customer while scanning the ticket, enabling them to be more of a greeter than just a ticket taker. The scanning takes less time than ripping tickets, so patrons gain quicker entry to the ballpark.

Because the ushers no longer need to count the tickets, they can handle crowd control or other chores inside the park once they’re finished at the gate.

Some fans like to keep their tickets as souvenirs, Mazza says. White Sox management knew that would be more of an issue last July when they hosted the All-Star game.

Unlike human ticket counters, the Ticketmaster technology also provides immediate feedback on the number of fans coming through each gate. Most of the hand scanners are assigned to specific gates, while a smaller number are for roaming supervisors. This lets White Sox management know if one gate is running out of promotional giveaways (e.g., bats on bat day) faster than another, or if the crowds are unexpectedly heavy at some gates. Mazza or another White Sox official can see real-time crowd entry counts by gate from a desktop location.

For example, the east gates, closer to public transportation, often have heavier crowds on certain days of the week, while the West gates, closer to most of the parking, have more traffic on other days. While the White Sox will staff the ushers at the gates accordingly, with AccessManager, they can now quickly adjust their plan if the crowd flow shifts unexpectedly.

Thanks to the Wi-Fi ticket-reading system, park managers and employees can focus on the game at hand.
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