Major League Baseball data find home in Omaha's Scott Center

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Posted: Sunday, July 28, 2013 12:00 am

Yankees games bring the Lodes family members of La Vista together.

They gather in their living room, each sitting — superstitiously — in the same seat on the couch for every game, watching as the live play streams into their home through their Roku device and onto their television, thanks to the family's subscription to MLB.TV. Sometimes, if action heats up at a different ballgame, son Chris Lodes, 24, opens an MLB app on his phone and watches that one, too.

Demand for live game video and online play-by-play action from users like Lodes has exponentially increased the amount of data generated and stored by MLB Advanced Media, owner of the MLB.com site and provider of the MLB.TV service. In a single baseball season, the Major League Baseball subsidiary generates 1.5 million gigabytes of live and on-demand baseball video. Including video streaming from the company's growing roster of nonbaseball clients, MLB Advanced Media creates and stores 6 million gigabytes of content each year.

Where to put it all? That's where Omaha — 200 miles from the nearest Major League Baseball franchise — comes in.

MLB Advanced Media is preparing to open a data center inside the Scott Data Center at Aksarben Village. The facility is MLB Advanced Media's first major “technological footprint” outside of New York, where the offices of this startup success story are located in New York's Silicon Alley, separate by design from MLB's midtown corporate headquarters.

MLB Advanced Media will be the Scott Data Center's largest tenant — with about 8,000 square feet of space, it's more than twice as expansive as the next biggest tenant.

The facility will house and back up everything MLB Advanced Media already stores and streams: live and archived ballgames, optimized for viewing on hundreds of devices and operating systems; millions of data points gathered on pitching, catching and outfield play across 30 franchises; as well as live video for other nonbaseball clients, such as World Cup soccer matches and March Madness basketball games shown on ESPN. The site will even serve nonsports clients like Glenn Beck's online show and a new partner, Row 44, a provider to airlines of in-flight broadband and entertainment services.

All told, the company will stream more than 20,000 live events this year, events that will stop off, digitally at least, in Omaha.

MLB's stature — both its brand name and its extensive infrastructure and power requirements — is expected to strengthen Omaha's position as a hub for data centers, said Scott Data Center President Ken Moreano. And while many of the metro area's big-name data centers — Yahoo, Google, Fidelity — are stand-alone facilities, MLB's will be “co-located,” leasing space inside a larger center.

Moreano said the MLB move shows that Omaha has co-location facilities that can handle the same security and power demands that a stand-alone facility can.

“The endorsement that MLB selected us, establishes us as having the same type of world-class facility,” Moreano said.

MLB came to Omaha through a connection with another company with area ties: Level 3 Communications, the Denver-area telecommunications networking firm that started as a subsidiary of Peter Kiewit Sons' Inc.

Level 3 already provided video streaming and content distribution services for MLB Advanced Media and built the firm's New York data center. Level 3 last year opened 10,000 square feet of space at Scott, and said MLB Advanced Media is the second tenant to sublease space there. More tenant deals are in the works. The site is one of about 350 Level 3 data centers worldwide, connecting directly to Level 3's fiber Internet “backbone,” which cuts down on the delay between the actual game and when the plays appear on your television or computer.

So much data for every pitch

MLB.com uses Pitchf/x tracking technology to capture, sort and share data from pitches at all 30 Major League Baseball stadiums.

The technology, developed by Chicago firm Sportsvision, uses three cameras and a central pitch-tracking system to record a pitch from the moment it leaves the pitcher's hand until it crosses home plate, according to Sportsvision.

The tracking system calculates and stores a digital record of each pitch, including the speed, location and trajectory, within an inch. The data are streamed live for television broadcasting, performance analysis and apps like MLB.com's Gameday play-by-play feature, shown at right.

MLB Advanced Media said Pitchf/x creates three dozen data points during each pitch. With about 290 pitches per game, that adds up to more than 25 million points of data per season. All of it will be stored in a new Omaha data center in addition to MLB Advanced Media's New York data center.

"When I started in baseball, this was science fiction," said Joe Inzerillo, MLB Advanced Media's chief technology officer. "Now, they can follow the game using, almost exclusively, the data we're generating."

Sources: The New York Times, MLB Advanced Media, Sportsvision

— Barbara Soderlin

Video content distribution is “one of the fastest growing types of traffic on the Internet today,” said Paul Savill, a Level 3 senior vice president.

MLB Advanced Media turned again to Level 3 for help with its need for backup outside of New York, said Chris Smith, director of data center services for Level 3. “The facility we have in Omaha is a special asset.”

That's because of the center's designation as a Tier III facility through the third-party Uptime Institute, a high mark of reliability.

“If a piece of equipment fails, there are three more just like it that will take over,” Smith said.

MLB Advanced Media already was looking for a second location, but Hurricane Sandy's October 2012 assault on New York City brought home the need, said Joe Inzerillo, the firm's chief technology officer.

With not enough fuel stored to power the firm's data center during the days-long outage, Inzerillo said, MLB Advanced Media staffers had to use teamwork to haul diesel fuel up six flights of stairs to a generator.

“It didn't matter if you were a tape editor or a (video) logger or one of the engineers in our Transmissions Operations Center,” he said. “When it was time to bucket brigade, everybody rolled up their sleeves and went up to the roof.”

Not only does Inzerillo hope not to repeat that experience, he said the business is at a point in its growth where it can't afford to fail in a natural disaster or power outage. During the baseball season, MLB.com sees 12 million visits a day, and 3 million paid subscribers stream 1.5 million live ball games a day. Considering his nonsports customers, too, he said, “We're just not going to lay down and let this happen if we can avoid it.”

He said MLB Advanced Media looked at a number of locations, and the Scott Data Center stood out as a “world-class facility” that would be able to back up all of the business's live streams in an outage.

His team is installing a system there that Inzerillo said “pushes the limits of what the technology can do,” as far as seamlessly switching from the main live stream to a backup stream in case of outage. That's easier to do when it comes to regular Web traffic, as a Web page is static unless a user is clicking on it. But with a live stream, Inzerillo said it's important that the switch happen without the user noticing a blip.

“When you make a promise to a fan, you have to do everything possible to keep that promise,” he said.

That kind of backup hardly seemed necessary in 2001, when MLB.com went live with opening day of the baseball season.

Before 2000, when MLB Advanced Media was incorporated, each baseball franchise handled its own website. But baseball Commissioner Bud Selig wanted to centralize all the digital media operations of the 30 clubs, and each team committed to supporting the new venture with $1 million a year for four years, a total of $120 million.

MLB Advanced Media took only $77 million of that before it had a positive cash flow, and by the end of 2007, it had returned to the clubs all of their initial investment. Today the clubs receive an annual dividend, and each team's 1/30th ownership in the company is considered a valuable asset. The company does not publish its annual revenue, which business and technology magazine Fast Company reported as $620 million, calling MLB Advanced Media “New York's top tech startup of the last decade.”

The company took some early risks that have proved to pay off, such as charging for its live audio feeds in 2001.

“As you can imagine, at the time everybody thought everything should be free on the Internet,” Communications Vice President Matt Gould said. “We believed at the time, and still do, that the advertising ecosystem is not sustainable as the sole revenue generator. There is value to live content.”

The company was on the cutting edge in 2002 when it streamed the first live full game before most Internet users had broadband access. In 2003, it launched MLB.TV, with a paid all-access season pass to watch live out-of-market games, valuable to, say, that Yankees fan who lives in Omaha. Today, that service is available on more than 450 devices, including PlayStation, Xbox and every conceivable smartphone.

By 2005, the company decided to embrace mobile content, and it had one of the first and most successful apps sold for the iPhone. The MLB.com “At Bat” mobile app has seen 7.5 million downloads so far this year, already exceeding the 6.7 million it had in all of last year.

“Our numbers are ridiculous,” Inzerillo said. When it comes to being ready for growing consumer demand for online content streaming, “We're well-positioned, and we've been slogging through it for a long time to be well-positioned.”

MLB Advanced Media already had a solid technology infrastructure for live streaming in place when other sports and entertainment companies decided they also wanted to join the trend. Now the company hosts events for others, even for competitor ESPN, as a “white label solution,” and can handle more than 100 concurrent live events.

Baseball is still its primary business, and MLB Advanced Media sees the interest in online baseball viewing as not replacing the traditional ballpark experience, but enhancing it.

New York Yankees fan Lodes said for all his online watching, he still prefers a real, live game — he attended as many College World Series games this summer at TD Ameritrade Park as he could. “I'd always want to go to a game, rather than watch it on TV,” he said.

Currently, MLB Advanced Media is working to fully wire all major-league ballparks so tens of thousands of fans can be connected on their devices at once, and when that happens, it is thinking about what “next-generation” apps could engage fans in the game. Interactive games and trivia, the ability to order a beer to your seat, and up-to-the-minute information about the length of the line in the ladies' room — that could all be coming to ballparks, information that would run in part through Omaha.

The company has already seen how its growing trove of baseball data is engaging fans. Fans and clubs alike have access to data about pitch speed and location and increasingly, even data about defensive play, and they are all fueling fans' and statisticians' conversations about players. Trash-talking fans now can use empirical numbers to back up their claims about their favorite player's greatness, Inzerillo said.

“Clearly the explosion of big data has coincided with big interest in baseball analytics,” said Andy Andres, a Tufts University professor of “sabermetrics,” or baseball statistical analysis, who, for fun and pin money, records details of game play at Fenway Park for MLB.com's live Gameday feature.

“That's happened in business, it's happened in health, it's happened all over the place. As you have accumulated more data about things, there are more ways to analyze it,” Andres said.

Andres said baseball translates well into the digital age, and data storage and networking needs around the sport will only grow.

“There's going to be an explosion of this data,” he said — data that will have a home in Omaha.

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