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New owners seek new experience for fans at Dodger Stadium

They say that the game isn't enough for many fans. Changes could bring more autograph signings, giveaways and smartphone interaction.

May 19, 2012|By Bill Shaikin
  • New Dodgers owners, from left to right, Bobby Patton, Stan Kasten, Earvin "Magic" Johnson, Mark Walter, Peter Guber and Todd Boehly.
New Dodgers owners, from left to right, Bobby Patton, Stan Kasten, Earvin… (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles…)

The battle for the soul of Dodger Stadium is about to be joined.

It is a battle for your eyes, for your ears, for your wallets. It is a battle over what it means to attend a baseball game in the new millennium. It is a battle sanitized by jargon: This is about the "fan experience."

The Dodgers' new owners all but canonizedPeter O'Malley during their introductory news conference, so this would be a good time to recall that O'Malley did not employ mission statements or talking points or the term "fan experience."

Under the O'Malley family, the Dodgers put a good team on the field at a fair price. No bells, no whistles, one organist, six World Series championships.

Peter O'Malley sold the Dodgers 14 years ago. The stadium his father built turned 50 this year. It is almost as if you cannot say "Dodger Stadium" without "venerable" as the preceding adjective.

This is what Stan Kasten, the new club president, has to say about Dodger Stadium: "It's a place that is superb for sitting in your seat for nine innings and watching baseball — and not much else."

Hear him out.

"Modern fans want, deserve and will support you more if there are other things to get them excited at the ballpark," Kasten said. "If what you want to do is sit in your seat for nine innings and watch baseball, great. We want to be the best place to do that.

"If you might want something else while you're here — to get you to come early, to get you to come more often — we want to provide that."

Frank and Jamie McCourt could have said the same thing. In fact, they did.

In 2008, this is part of how Jamie McCourt — then the club president — pitched a Dodger Stadium renovation that would have included restaurants, shops and a team museum beyond center field.

"We hope to deliver all the modern amenities and conveniences of new ballparks, while protecting and preserving the greatest and most romantic venue in professional sports," she said then. "Families will have a reason to come early and stay late."

The McCourts ran out of money. The new owners will not. That kind of development is a virtual lock, right up there with Vin Scully wishing you a very pleasant good evening wherever you might be.

But this is also about what happens inside the stadium, and what the Dodgers and other teams now call "in-game entertainment." The concept that the game itself is the entertainment — that fans actually want to sit in their seats for nine innings and watch baseball — is as antiquated as the cassette tape.

That brings us to Peter Guber, the Hollywood guy among the Dodgers' new owners.

Guber's executive credits include "Rain Man," "The Color Purple" and "Flashdance," but his resume includes sports too. He is co-owner of the Golden State Warriors, and his Mandalay Entertainment Group operates five minor league baseball teams, one in partnership with Magic Johnson.

Whatever the Dodgers do to entertain fans — besides play ball, that is — fits into Guber's portfolio.

In an interview, Guber described baseball as "location-based entertainment" and said the Dodgers were in the "emotional transportation business," empowering fans to be "participants, not passengers" at the ballpark and "apostles" for the team in the community.

Oy vey.

The Dodgers have a fan base that revolted when the some genius decided Dodger dogs could be boiled rather than grilled. This "emotional transportation business" stuff might be too much.

But Guber can make his case in plain English too. This also is the same fan base that was prompted to yell "Charge!" for decades. If you want to sit on your hands for three hours, try the library.

"Fans want to believe they make a difference," Guber said. "They want to believe they can help the team win. So you want to give them the opportunity for meaningful participation."

He scoffs at the old Jerry Seinfeld line about players coming and going so freely that fans root for laundry. The better fans get to know a player, Guber says, the more they want to come root on the player and the team.

That could mean autograph signings, bobblehead dolls, posing for pictures. That could mean a player wearing a microphone during the game, with the feed available via smartphone. That could mean pregame fashion shows, where fans can meet a player or two, buy a T-shirt and put it back in the car before someone spills mustard on the shirt.

"Some ideas will fail miserably," he said. "Some will be big successes. The good news about failing miserably is that you don't have to do it again."

In a world where people twitch if they do not check their iPhone within two minutes, Guber wants to empower fans to use a smartphone to view a replay from their seat, to order ahead to the concession stand, to start an online dialogue with other fans in attendance.

He wants fans to stick around, rather than leave early and beat the traffic. In Boston, he says, fans await the eighth-inning "Sweet Caroline" sing-along no matter what the score.

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