Hinds Hall, Syracuse University campus, 1:00 pm ET November 11 - It's 21 solid hours after the MLB.com Challenge officially began. The sky over Syracuse can't decide whether it's midday or twilight. It's exuding something that should never have been allowed to qualify as precipitation, perhaps an "anti-napalm" that instantly freezes everything it touches. Looking at their watches (or more often these days, their smartphones that have clocks on them), the students still with us are busy trying to recall if this is night or day. Some of them have dropped away, a few did get sick. But others have donned their business attire.
After building the mockup of their lives, they're being challenged to sell three MLB.com senior executives, posing as venture capitalists, on the best idea for expanding the MLB.com Web site, generating new traffic and, hopefully with it, revenue. They each have four minutes. And while the teams that are lower down the alphabet await their turns, they can't get a nap.
First up at the plate is the team calling itself DP3. Their pitch is for a virtual world of online trading cards, which wouldn't have to be printed but whose value would be established through a virtual system of baseball-centric currency.
"It would be similar to a normal baseball card, including bios and stats," explains Jake, "but with the addition of a lot of extra space on this additional platform. We include a scroll bar, and we mix-and-match custom applications, possibly a Twitter feed, other social media outlets."
Jake and Josh (above) really did take some cues from the presentations coach earlier in the day. They're both wearing matching black shirts and khaki pants. Each fellow took his turn for about 45 seconds before passing the floor to the other. Here, Josh presents the Virtual Marketplace, "where users can sell, buy, or trade various cards, and the prices will be determined by the rarity of the cards." He doesn't explain how "rarity" is accomplished in this system - perhaps it's arbitrary. Maybe the database has a limited number of Johnny Bench cards compared to Darryl Strawberry.
Evil Hemp-ire (pun intended, I guess) also had a virtual trading system in mind, though not necessarily using tokens representing player cards. They're well-dressed, but already they've swung a strike, starting the first sentence of the preso with the dreaded word "So," followed by the requisite pregnant pause.
But Jacob, a senior with dual majors in broadcasting (where "So" doesn't usually open a newscast) and psychology, picked up his game quickly. He addressed the point that MLB.com lacks a social offering, something the judges visibly agreed with. While baseball should, by all rights, be the second most popular sport in the U.S., it actually ranks behind hockey in Facebook popularity, and generates only the third greatest number of tweets.
"The MLB has a lack of a highlight database," Jacob goes on. "When you go into MLB.com, it's very difficult to find highlights, it's not easily accessible, and there isn't a database of highlights and a montage of plays for a particular player. It's one play, and it's not the same type of highlight database that NHL, NFL, and NBA are all operating.
So the team suggests an online video vault, where users can not only collect any historic highlight from any player at any time - "milestone moments." This would be coupled with a social app called MLB ID, that enables Facebook users to trade virtual cards that link to these clips and post those cards to their personal walls.
(See what I mean when, in the 7th Inning, I said that folks tend to think that back-end storage and bandwidth are infinite resources?)
Time wasn't an infinite resource either. Hemp-ire ran long, and Prof. Jeffrey Rubin turned up the heat on his timekeeping duties. Quickly, he sketched a big, bold numeral "1" on a sheet of notebook paper, and used it repeatedly to warn students when they had one minute left.
Lead judge (and director of MLB.com UI development) Mike Hoffman asked a question with a few barbs on it: Facebook's problem, he said, was that "Liking" a site was a one-time action that doesn't generate repeat visitors. Suppose a user has lined up a 25-man roster of favorite players with milestone videos attached. What about the team's social model would keep users coming back? The team scrambled for an answer. News updates about new events surrounding existing favorite players, was what the team settled on.
Fab 5 showed off its four-quadrant mega-screen, which it now called "Fancave Online." Bob, who had shown some signs of drowsiness earlier in the morning, had found another gear. "When we started our project," he said with a lilt in his voice like a proud dad, "we asked ourselves, 'Why do we love baseball?' We came to the conclusion [it was] for the games... But baseball is about more than just watching. It's about the whole experience. The song goes, 'Take me out to the ball game,' not, 'Take me into the TV screen.'"
In the lower right corner of Fancave's huge display were three columns devoted to live feeds from Twitter, Facebook, and the local MLB.com chat. Whenever a viewer watches a game in the upper left corner, the chat feeds in the lower right corner devote themselves to that game. "One great interface, one great user experience," pronounced Rachel with all the skill she's saving up for on-the-scene reports later in her broadcasting career. (She's already interned with an NBC O&O.)
One very original idea that got the judges' attention was an activity called "Stadium Speak," where viewers tweet comments to special hashtags supported by participating stadiums, and then display those tweets on their scoreboards. Mike Hoffman also commented positively about the basic idea of the proposed "Settle the Bet" activity, where online viewers watching the same game can place virtual bets on the outcomes of upcoming plays, although "after Pete Rose," he commented, "it's hard to do gambling with baseball."
Hashtag Swag's preso was pretty basic by comparison. It proposed a kind of loyalty contest, where each member is given a team affiliation and a loyalty score with respect to that team. The competition aspect is based around automated scoring of how members promote their teams online. "We decided to make a competition between different fan bases," says Jake, invoking the word "algorithm" a few times in the sentence that followed to suggest that some formula (to be announced) would determine each user's loyalty score over the previous three games his team played. The algorithm would be weighted, though, so teams in smaller cities like Kansas City won't be automatically dwarfed by the Yankees.
Lean Like @Rotolo (named for the campus' popular professor) dazzled. They had a plan for a kids' site, and their mockup was a line-drive base hit. It featured a way for kids to design Wii-style avatar characters for themselves, called "All-Stars," but with uniforms and gear acquired from special activities, and styled after their favorite teams and players.
Demonstrated they learned their lesson from Prof. Rubin's hint from around midnight, the team's logon system would be guaranteed COPPA-compliant - all a kid would need to log on would be a valid e-mail address for parents, with no personal information about children being collected.
The Rotolo group's dream is for kids to be able to play their avatars on a virtual ball field, with games that are like baseball and training. Prizes for winning virtual games are special apparel for the all-stars, or they could collect points that could go towards buying representations of MLB players as avatars for their own teams. Teams would generate records, and would eventually come together to compete in a "Grand Slam" tournament at the end of a season (not "World Series," that one's taken).
Mike Hoffman appeared to really like what he saw. He mentioned he'll buy a console game for his kids, only to watch them spending hours making their own avatars. And he added that MLB.com tends today to skew an older audience than Web sites for the other major sports.
The Rockford Peaches (named for the All-Girls' League team from WWII immortalized in the film A League of Their Own) produced a dynamite looking page for their War Between the Fan Clubs concept, but by now they were struggling to distinguish themselves from Hashtag Swag, which had a very similar concept and whose name started earlier in the alphabet.
"As Jackie Robinson once said, 'Above all else, I hate to lose,'" began Courtney. "After playing in the major leagues for a bit, we understand that there's a hatred towards losing to a rival. So we wanted to create something tangible, something of value, something meaningful. And that would be a competition, something beyond the traditional rivalries."
Courtney's presentation and her team's resourcefulness were already making hash of the Swag. "We targeted members of fan clubs, the die-hards with active fan cams, to prove no one is worthy of being a bigger fan than you are. We wanted a social scene on a social platform, and chaos would ensue with clout." Heywood Hale Broun would have been proud.
The Peaches would also utilize an algorithm for measuring the relative promotional activity of members through social networks, though their total would be rendered for entire fan clubs, as opposed to individuals. Lauren suggested that fan members could check into designated locations at MLB stadiums before live games, or hunt for QR codes hidden someplace therein, to earn more points.
Product Development Manager Josh Frost was concerned that fan clubs' rivalries would only follow familiar paths (A's vs. Giants, Cubs vs. White Sox). A rivalry between a Padres club and a Mets club, he suggested, might not generate immediate interest. What would the "War" site do to stoke interest that doesn't stoke itself? "I find comfort in winning with just basic numbers," Courtney responded. "I hopefully associate with others who believe that seeing a physical number above somebody else's, is incentive to keep going, hopefully. There's no peak on the number that cloud allows."
NEXT INNING: The rest of the presos, and the home run kings/queens are crowned.