The Personalities and Passions Behind the Web Sites
by Thomas E. Bleier and Eric C. Steinert
"A Man for all Sports Seasons"
Ballparks.com is a site that lists pictures, facts and histories of the places professional and amateur sports teams play baseball, basketball, football, hockey, the olympics and soccer. The list of sports facilities is not limited to just each team's present stadium, but also shows the same information about their former and future facilities. The site also has a virtual mall to buy sports related gifts and a map section that allows you to click on a map of the world, drill down to the appropriate city, find the right stadium and get directions.
All over the world millions of spectators watch sports. People trek many miles to see their teams. Cory Suppes, a father of three in the Silicon Valley area, is one of them. Cory's interest, however, extends beyond the actual game to the buildings where the teams play.
I have always wanted to be a "sports" architect. I love all sports, but am fascinated by how these very quiet buildings turn into absolute nut houses when they are filled with players and fans. The transformation of these places into arenas where people absolutely worship their teams intrigues me.
I still remember visiting my first arena. It was the Calgary Corral hockey arena when I was about 7 years old. I watched the Calgary Centennials junior hockey team, which featured a goaltender who later went on to play professional hockey and become a national announcer, John Davidson. My first stadium was McMahon Stadium in Calgary where my Edmonton Eskimos football team played the Calgary Stampeders. Finally, my first ballpark was when I was flown out to Los Angeles on a business trip and went to a game at Dodger Stadium where the Philadelphia Phillies played the Dodgers. During that game, Mike Schmidt, the Hall of Fame, Phillies third baseman, hit one of his last home runs.
After going to so many sport facilities, I thought that I could design and build a better stadium than anyone else in the world to house all sports. My stadium would house soccer, football, track and field, hockey, basketball, indoor soccer, indoor football, boxing and even have a golf course. I know I was the first to come up with the idea of having a sliding floor with natural grass moving outside the facility to allow it to grow.:-) My idea was to be able to have a football game up top and a hockey or basketball game under the sliding floor at the same time. The facility would also have "smart" traffic and parking, plus the capability to house non-sports activities like conventions, hotels, shops and restaurants. Your seats would have plug-in radios to listen to the play-by-play and order pads for food. Now facilities are going up using some of these ideas. Oh well, I missed out on some patents!
Cory realized he would probably never build his own stadium, so he wanted to become a chronicler of sports facilities.
My first goal was to do a book on all the facilities. It would be a series called, "The Places We Play In". I would start with baseball and continue with football, hockey and basketball. They would be similar to the wonderful books called "A Day In The Life". Mostly it would be a picture coffee table book, which gave the viewer a feel for what it is like to be in a sports stadium in another part of the world. I am not a wordsmith, but more of a visual person. I had hoped to be the first to create such a book since there really isn't anything out there. I wanted to be able to sell them at the stadiums and be able to offer them to the teams and players. Unfortunately, due to my lack of resources and contacts, the book was truly a pipe dream.
As computers became easier and the multimedia programs became much more cost effective, I decided to investigate making a CD-ROM with all the material that I had collected over the years. After speaking to a computer friend in December 1995 about how I could accomplish this dream, he said that I should explore using the Internet. This was a good idea because with the Internet I would be able to change anything instantaneously, while with a CD-ROM or even a book, this would not be possible. As I started to surf the net using American Online, I found a site, which had been up for a few months that basically did what I had in mind, but only with baseball. I noticed the URL was http://www.sfo.com/, which meant that the Internet Service Provider was in San Francisco. In May 1996, I contacted the web site's owner via e-mail and told him, Paul Munsey, that I was interested in forming a partnership. Paul responded by asking what I had in mind and I wrote back some of my ideas.
We got together that week and started bouncing ideas off each other. Paul wanted to work on baseball only and improve the pages there. I was thinking much larger. I wanted to cover all sports arenas and even other facilities like convention centers, bridges, churches and skyscrapers, until I found out how much work it would take. Scaling back my plans to just sports buildings, I said that I would have football up by the start of the football season, followed by hockey and basketball. Unlike baseball, which has an enormous amount of information about their ballparks, football, hockey and basketball stadiums are not as romantic as baseball's, thus collecting the necessary information is a much tougher challenge. We agreed to become partners and acquired the Universal Resource Locator (URL) www.ballparks.com in September of 1996.
Even with the challenge of collecting all the information, it was very important to me that the site contained different sports. It is my opinion that there is a bigger sports fan base out there than just baseball. When the baseball season is over, then our web site would be over until next baseball season. Again, because I am such a huge sports fan of all sports, I decided that we needed to be able to follow all the sports from season to season. This way, our site was always "on". Also, if we were just one sport, we could easily have been duplicated, but with the size of the site now, covering over 650 facilities and over 1,500 dedicated and related pages, it will take someone with an awful lot of determination to go head to head with us. We also realize that the big boys, - ESPN, CBS, CNN, Sport Illustrated, ABC, Fox and NBC, have all the money they need to blow us out of the water. We believe that if we just keep building, we might foster a relationship with all of the above and not be a competitor to any due to the fact that we do not delve into teams or players.
Therefore, utilizing Paul's "recipe", which allowed him to micro-create the look and feel of the baseball section, I was able to macro-create the entire site. To this day, Paul continues to explore the details of each ballpark's page, while I continue to work on the other sections and build it's bulk. I am also constantly exploring potential partnership arrangements with other web sites and traditional sports companies. I want this site to be the center of the Internet universe for all sports facilities.
Each one of these profiled buildings is a city unto itself, where an incredible amount of money and people resources converge. One of my goals is for Ballparks.com to be the webmaster for these facilities in which we could distribute their information on-line and interconnect to the other facilities. This would enable them to do what they do best, which is run their facility. An overhead savings would occur for them because they would not have to employ a programmer to do this work for them. We could then tie in tickets, scheduling, bookings and even cost savings for travel, hotels, restaurants and merchandise and food services into our site.
Although Cory is still working on becoming the "official" webmaster for all these different sports facilities, people inside and outside the facility business do acknowledge his site.
Paul has been in contact with some of the baseball teams and even arranged a meeting with the San Diego Padres who were very kind in that they sat down with us in their office and gave us some artist renderings of their proposed new stadium. We were then treated to a tour of their ballpark, Qualcomm Stadium, formerly Jack Murphy Stadium, and given free tickets to the July 3rd, 1998 fireworks show. I have also been in contact with the people in charge of the Staples Center in Los Angeles, the new basketball/hockey arena, who told me that NBC used our site for a half-time feature of a NBA game in which they were showing the new facility from our site. One problem though, we did not have the newest renderings with the Staples Center name on the facility. Other correspondence includes talking with people in St. Paul, Minnesota, who are working on the new Wild Arena and being interviewed by Facilities Management Magazine on the Toronto Skydome in which Paul and I had very opposite views of the facility. Lately we have developed a working correspondance relationship with The United Center, The New Jersey Meadowlands, Madison Square Gardens, the Nashville Arena, the Georgia Dome, the new Seattle Football Stadium and designed and are hosting a page for the Portland Baseball Group.
The site has also allowed us to interact with sports and Internet people ranging from HOK Sports, Ellerbe Becket, NBBJ Architects, Ticketmaster, CBSportsline, Universal Studios, Lycos, Alta Vista, Yahoo and people writing books and articles like yourself. We have had people come by in desperation mode to ask for information and pictures and for the most part we have been able to steer them in the right direction or help them. A couple of students have even asked me questions for a research paper and I've enjoyed speaking with a couple of older players from football and hockey, who have written me and told me about their time at their respective home stadiums. Even the radio announcer for the professional hockey team, the San Jose Sharks, has checked in to make a friendly correction.
What's amazing is that almost immediately after posting our site, we started receiving e-mail from people who either added, corrected, commented or complained about what we were putting up at the site. I was averaging 25 to 30 e-mails a week from the beginning. Today, I am averaging 125 e-mails a week. We even started getting people from the newspapers, radios and magazines e-mailing requests for more information about our site, and then getting write-ups in the Wall Street Journal, US News & World Report, CNN Interactive, Toronto Star, Houston Chronicle, and the Los Angeles Times, it was then that we knew we had something good going. In March of 1999 we were ranked #8 out of 40 sports websites by Sport Magazine in amongst CNN, Fox, CBS and ahead of ESPN who was at #13.
Cory is very ambitious as he tries to constantly add more facilities to Ballparks.com, but it takes a lot of time.
I spend about 30 to 40 hours per week working on the web site. This time is in addition to the time I spend at my regular job as a project manager for a hazardous waste company. My weekly web site duties usually involve answering the e-mail that I get from people regarding additional information about a particular stadium. Unfortunately, some of these changes can take anywhere from between one and three hours to make the fixes. People send me updates, pictures, new facts, corrections, articles, heads-up on new projects, questions and even stories of when they used to work at a place. I always respond to all e-mail whether it is positive or negative. I believe in repeat business and I want people to come back. If they can take the time to say anything to us, then I believe we should respond in kind.
I've had only three negative letters where people found something wrong and were very rude with how they expressed it too me. One letter was from a Marine Sargent who was based in Korea. Now he and I started off by actually threatening each other with constitutional rights and freedom of speech all over the moving of the Cleveland Browns football franchise to Baltimore. I think he started e-mailing his buddies and they started contacting me to make a change in how I had the links set up at the Cleveland Municipal Stadium page. He did not want anything to do with the Browns moving to Baltimore and stated very vigorously that the Browns franchise and all its history would remain with Cleveland and not be moved to Baltimore. After researching the agreement with the NFL, I decided that he was right and removed a link from Cleveland Stadium to Memorial Stadium in Baltimore and vice versa. The great thing is we do get many, many positive letters telling us about how they love coming back to the site and seeing the new changes.
Along with answering e-mails, I add new pictures, articles and new vendors to our virtual mall. I correct coding problems when they are found and I expand the Map Search section, which allows a visitor to click on a map of the world, drill down to the appropriate city, find the right stadium and if I have found them, get directions. Each one of the individual maps takes approximately one and a half hours to create. I use four separate programs just to create one map page. I also work on future sections of the site that I have in mind such as the Soccer section. Other new projects include adding a NCAA basketball section, a racecar and horse track section. My major project for this year is to create a dynamic calendar for each facility. I designate Friday nights as the time I upload all the changed information and answer emails.
Due to the fact that Ballparks.com gets a lot of visitors, Cory has been trying to leverage this fact into partnerships and profitability.
We get approximately 1,000,000 page views per month, but because we use two different ISP's and only one has a counter, the number might not be that accurate (it might be much bigger). An example of something we cannot count is if someone does a search and comes directly to a facility from what I call from the "side" instead of the "front door" then we are not able to count that hit. Usually the baseball season puts a spike into our count just because of the nature of the game where people are always searching for different pieces of trivia and data. Currently, the most popular page on our whole site is baseball's Oriole Park at Camden Yards, the home of the Baltimore Orioles. People also like to view the Old and New Facilities area, which overall are the sections that gets the most visitors.
The site is paying for itself and has allowed us to invest in newer technology that will allow us to automate the site and offer "jazzier" features. We run the site from two local Internet service providers. Paul's baseball parks piece is at one ISP and my football, hockey, basketball, olympics, soccer, maps and mall sections are at another. Each has a monthly fee for a combined total of $45.00 per month, which Paul and I split. Each year we also have to pay a subscription fee for our URL, which is $50 per year. The only other cost is when we upgrade our software, hardware or buy informational material for our research. This has been bought out of our own pocket. The largest expense is our time, which is spent updating our site and then uploading it to the web. Unfortunately, advertising alone does not make much money and therefore we have had to explore other revenue generators. We are getting revenue from our Virtual Mall, which gives us a percentage of every sale via our site, but of course we would still like to earn more money.
In 1998, I went to Kansas City and met with the top two sports architectural firms in the world, HOK Sport and Ellerbe Becket, to develop a working relationship. They told me that they were very aware of Ballparks and have all their computers "bookmarked" at Ballparks.
Ballparks.com has redefined Cory's future.
I started this site to basically display all the information that I have collected. I wanted to present it in a format that no one has ever presented. It is our living book that is now becoming more than just a book. It is becoming a central meeting place for all kinds of people with a passion for this type of information. As I created my sections, I have started to develop an entrepreneurial mindset of how else this site could be used to potentially make money and re-invent my career and myself. I love sports, computers, organizing large amounts of information and visualizing all the ideas that this site could produce.