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A digital Fenway Park

Ballpark is 100, but its cutting-edge technology keeps fans connected - unobtrusively

By D.C. Denison
Globe Staff / April 9, 2012
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No one goes to Fenway Park for Internet-age technology. Just the opposite: Most visitors seek an old-fashioned baseball experience that harkens back to a simpler time.

So when it comes to technology equipment, “fans really don’t want to see it,’’ said Steve Conley, 44, Red Sox director of information technology.

He is the guy who, for 11 years, has had to make sure the team and its fans can enjoy high-speed mobile access and the latest in spectacular video displays, all without spoiling the timeless appeal of Fenway - especially this year, as it celebrates its 100th anniversary.

And although it is the game that draws the crowd, there is real demand for state-of-the-art technology inside Fenway.

From the home opener this Friday through the end of the season, fans will trade snapshots via smartphones, reporters will upload stories and images, and players and coaches will review high-quality game videos that must be instantly available. Delivering all that data is a complicated job, especially because Fenway is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

“That means no antennas on the brick exterior,’’ Conley said. “Inside, no routers hanging off the columns.’’

A veteran of the financial industry, Conley said no previous job could have prepared him to outfit a century-old ballpark. “It’s safe to say they weren’t thinking of data and mobile connectivity when they built this place,’’ he said.

So a Fenway technology tour led by Conley was more like an Easter egg hunt than a splashy tech demo. Much of the equipment is stashed in inaccessible nooks and crannies, deftly tucked out of sight up high, or painted the color of the Green Monster left-field wall to blend in.

Take the park’s most recent and ambitious technology upgrade: the distributed antenna system installed last year by Verizon Wireless to handle the explosion of smartphone use by fans. It is run from a control center over the Lansdowne Pub across the street, and uses more than 370 antennas strategically placed around the park.

Conley hopes you will not notice them. “They are all over,’’ he said, “but you won’t see them unless you’re really looking for them.’’

The park also offers high-speed Internet access via Metro Ethernet, a service from cable provider Comcast Corp. that is designed for big-business use. Piped in from a trunk line under Brookline Avenue, it handles 2,500 Wi-Fi connections to the Internet on a typical game day, including 250-plus employees, sports reporters, and photographers, broadcast trucks, and the Wi-Fi-based ordering system at the Budweiser Right Field Roof Deck. Comcast usually delivers 100-megabits-per-second service, not much more than a medium-size business demands, but it can expand Fenway’s bandwidth to 10 gigabits per second for big games.

Humming along out of fan view is the team’s video retrieval system, through which players and coaches can watch every moment of every game, going back more than three years. It is contained in a mobile unit that looks like a giant packing crate, loaded with more than 10 terabytes of storage, enough for hundreds of games. It usually sits on the runway between the Red Sox dugout and its clubhouse; no video is allowed in the dugout or bullpen.

Pitchers can study their performance against specific hitters; players can see every at-bat against a particular pitcher. During Game 4 of the 2004 American League Championship Series against the Yankees, Red Sox player Dave Roberts consulted the system to study Yankee pitcher Mariano Rivera’s pickoff move to first base. In the bottom of the ninth, armed with that intelligence, Roberts got a jump on Rivera and stole second base, a play that was pivotal to that game’s comeback victory, and which ultimately led to the team’s first World Championship since 1918.

That was strong evidence of the system’s value. “Now the team never travels without it,’’ Conley said.

But it is the trio of high-definition outfield scoreboards installed before the 2011 season that is perhaps the most flashy technological extravagance at Fenway. The largest screen measures approximately 38 feet high by 100 feet wide and is flanked by two additional displays: a 17-foot-high, 100-foot-wide video screen in left center field, and a 16-foot-high, 30-foot-wide screen above the bleachers in right field.

Those massive expanses of digital real estate are controlled from a large booth above home plate that looks like a television network control room. Using a TV-style switcher, a Red Sox technical director can orchestrate a complex mix of real-time information: player stats, box scores, announcements, replays, fan contests, and highlights, all plucked from a dense array of digital storage units. The Fenway system was converted from videotape to all-digital when the new scoreboards were installed.

Near one of the main concourses along the first-base line, Conley pointed out how unobtrusively a new system of ceiling cable trays routes power and data cables around the park, then climbed a ladder to point out a tiny data room stashed above the Red Sox clubhouse. A second, larger computer room is under the stands near third base, and a third is just under the roof in a distant corner beyond right field.

To get into that last room, Conley crawled through a window-size opening, over a large pipe, and under another low-hanging rafter. The ceiling was about four feet high. Inside was a control box that tracks every beer served from Fenway’s taps. Another helps manage Verizon’s network, and a third controls the park’s sound system.

“Ideally, we’d have one central IT room,’’ Conley explained, “but that’s not what they were thinking about in 1912. So we take whatever space we can find.’’

Descending from the room, Conley stopped to point out a pair of wireless routers perched high in the rafters and a white closed-circuit camera with shiny metal hardware high on one of the tall iron support columns. “That’s another off-season upgrade,’’ he said. “We’ve expanded our network of security cameras around the park.’’

Conley’s gaze lingered on the white camera. “That will be Fenway green by opening day,’’ he said.

D.C. Denison can be reached at denison@globe.com.

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