Baseball Teams Aim To Bring Fans In, While Keeping Phones Out

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Photo Credit: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

For the Corpus Christi Hooks, the Houston Astros’ Double-A affiliate, the allure to come to one of their games should extend just beyond the play on the field.

“We have a beautiful panoramic view of the harbor bridge across Corpus Christi Bay – the USS Lexington is in view,” said Dan Reiner, communications coordinator for the Hooks.

But in an era when most fans’ eyes and hands are more synced to their phones than their surroundings, Reiner said the team was at a crossroads: “We thought: how many people truly appreciate where our stadium is when they come to a ballgame? Do they look up from their phones and take it all in? We want to show our appreciation for it.”

That led Hooks Director of Marketing JD Davis to do some research, where he stumbled across an article about entertainers such as Chris Rock and Jack White enforcing phone-free performances. Those unique events were facilitated by Yondr, a Silicon Valley-based startup. With Yondr sponsoring these showings for musicians and comedians, JD Davis wondered what a phone-less minor-league baseball game would look like.

“I came across Yondr as the leading company that was helping these artists perform [cell phone-free events] already,” said Davis. “I reached out to them, sent them an email and said, ‘hey, have you guys ever done this for a sports team?’ And that’s kind of where it all started.”

Yondr was founded in 2014 by Duke grad Graham Dugoni, who after attending a music festival and witnessing two men post a video of a drunk guy on YouTube, wanted to find a way for people to feel free at events.

“In our hyperconnected world, we provide a haven to engage with what you’re doing and who you’re doing it with. In physical space and real time,” the company’s website states.

After being introduced to local music acts along the West Coast, Yondr has grown into a technological staple, appearing everywhere from Childish Gambino concerts to Dave Chappelle comedy shows to schools and in courtrooms. To ensure the privacy of fans and prevent footage leaking from an event, spectators are required to place their cellphones in a Yondr pouch.

The case then locks, and everyone maintains possession of their phone. If someone wanted to unlock it, they would have to visit an unlocking base and tap their phone on a saucer-like device to retrieve it.

Still, even after meeting with Yondr, Davis still had some reservations about the logistics and how baseball fans would respond. It also didn’t help that the Hooks would become the first professional baseball team ever to host a phone-free game.

Davis’ confidence was tempered before meeting the tech-startup. Once he did, he was shocked with the ease in which to get people to use Yondr.  Shortly thereafter, the duo agreed to host the “Phones Free Hook Game” on June 20th.

“As soon as we saw the technology and their system, it all kind of clicked for us as, ‘oh this is actually feasible’,” added Davis. “I think that the great thing about what [Yondr’s] created is that it’s not this new tech device that requires a whole lot of overhead. As soon as we saw how they did it, we were able to see this could definitely work for our stadium and definitely work for our fan base.”

Even without using Yondr, there have been a  few instances where sports traditions have prevented cellphone usage amongst spectators. For example, The Masters golf tournament, unsurprisingly, enforces a no cell-phone policy during tournament play.

“I think our patrons appreciate our cell phone policy,” said Fred Ridley, chairman of Augusta National Golf Club and the Masters Tournament, at his annual press conference during the event. “I know that we have now become an outlier, if not the only outlier in golf, as well, at allowing cell phones … I can’t speak for future chairmen, but speaking for myself, I think we got that right.”

The first sports team that worked with Yondr on a phone-free event was the Kalamazoo Growlers, a summer collegiate baseball team in the Northwoods League. On June 3rd, the Growlers banned phones during the game and, to make sure fans could get pictures, added more photographers to take pictures of them.

Even though the stakes weren’t that high, the game ran smoothly, and Growlers’ employees were amazed at how communicative the fans were. “I think that it’s just important to keep encouraging people to disconnect [from cellphones] when appropriate,” said Dana Wagner, director of live events and operational efficiency for the Growlers.

Added Wagner: “When you’re in environments here, like the ballpark, where you’re supposed to be taking a break away and coming to a fun place and reconnecting with family, friends, coworkers — it’s just meant to help people take a pause for a moment and actually think about their phone usage. We’re just highlighting more of the good that can come from it.”

Kelly Taylor, marketing lead at Yondr, said in an emailed statement that “the logistics of a baseball game and music concert may differ, but the audience response is consistent. We’ve found that the overwhelming majority of people are happy to part with their phones for a few hours. It feels good to be in the moment.”

The Hooks informed social media followers about the usage of Yondr prior to the game. If people didn’t want to attend as a result, the team advertised future promotional games to attend in which they could exchange their tickets.

Once they arrived at Whataburger Field, visitors slipped their phones into the Yondr pouch. Only a handful of the 6,199 fans in attendance complained about the procedure, Davis said. For many, they sacrificed Instagram and Snapchat for a rare opportunity to watch George Springer appear in a Hooks uniform. The Astros slugger began his rehab assignment that same night, and in typical fashion, went 2-for-4 with two home-runs and four runs batted in while leading the team to a 10-2 win.

“We had [George Springer] for three games over the weekend, and the fan engagement in that [phone-free] game was so much higher,” said Davis. “He played on Saturday as well and in his first at-bat, there’s a thousand phones that are being held up, filming it and people are watching and taking in the game through their phone instead of just taking in the experience around them.

Yondr’s Taylor said the company expects more teams to also give the technology a shot. “We’re very excited about the conversations we’re having with sports organizations about partnership opportunities. There are many more phone-free games, series, and tournaments in Yondr’s future,” she said.

Davis said that while the Hooks aren’t planning on hosting another phone-free game in 2019, he expects the promotion to return in 2020 – especially after what he saw from fans leaving the ballpark.

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Following the game, Davis and his staff went out to the exits to give their routine thanks to fans for visiting Whataburger Field. Instead of catching lively, personable chatter between spectators, their heads were down, staring at their cellphones, settling back into the reality they’re accustomed to living.

“It was like a zombie hoard of people pulling out their phones and bumping into each other and looking at their phones,” said Davis. “It was like this three hour experiment was over and people were back into that world. I think that moment solidified it for some of us to say this is something we should probably do next year.”