The Wireless Solution

By Wayne Rash  |  Posted 2007-05-04 Print this article Print

The Wireless Solution One of the details Rollins had noticed while he was studying operations at Churchill Downs was the lines attendees had to stand in to place bets were enormous during major events such as the Kentucky Derby. "People had to get in line two or three races ahead of time to place a bet on a specific race," he said. Rollins said that the ultimate cause of these lines was that the track simply didnt have enough betting windows to serve all of its customers. "We had a queuing problem," he said. To solve this problem, and as a result to improve revenue, Rollins found ways to improve the access to wagering. Those ways include self-service betting terminals (they resemble ATMs or airline check-in terminals), electronic wagering consoles that fans can use from their seats, and wireless betting. All of these methods let fans place bets without having to stand in line; this in turn allowed more wagers to be placed for any given race, which improved revenue.
The self-service terminals are located throughout the stands and service areas of the structures at Churchill Downs, including inside tents for major events. The consoles need wired infrastructure, so the mounting bases and wiring are located in areas of the stands where they are most likely to be widely used, including in the luxury suite and private box areas during major races such as the Kentucky Derby.
Adding wireless betting was the biggest challenge, according to Rollins. This required the development of applications to support the wagering process, the implementation of wireless security and a means of controlling access. The security problem is being addressed by an intrusion prevention system (Rollins, understandably would not provide much detail here) as well as managed switches and a means of detecting and neutralizing rogue wireless devices. Rollins said that access for the wireless wagering, as well as for other forms of betting came with the development of a new customer loyalty card, known as the Twin Spires Club. This card not only accumulates points for betting just as other loyalty cards do, but they can be loaded with money to use in betting. Then, to complete the process, Rollins acquired handheld computers that the track would lend to its best customers to make betting more convenient. The handhelds, Dell Axia PDAs, run a Web-based wagering application and require users to enter their Twin Spires information before they can use them. The Big Picture Of course, Rollins did a lot more than just improve operations and add wireless betting. He also implemented a new IT organization, took over the CRM operations, obtained service-level goals and agreements from vendors, and built a data center in downtown Louisville—far away from the leaky water main. When Rollins describes his challenges, he makes it sound easy, but it was anything but easy, according to Alan Cohen, vice president of mobility solutions at Cisco. "Theres high flex on the infrastructure." Cohen said, noting that on most days the network is lightly loaded and only a couple of thousand people actually use it. But then it changes. "When you hit the Kentucky Derby theres a quarter million people. Thats a lot of people, its not the graceful traffic modeling you normally see." Cohen said. "In this environment failover tends to be a very big piece of it," Cohen said. "A lot has to do with the newer range of devices on the network. Normally the great growth is in laptops or bar code scanners. But now you have wagering kiosks, you have tablets and PDAs and you have the physical environment outdoors as well as indoors." "Theres a sudden influx of a lot of people, speed and lots of new devices, its a pretty potent stew for Jay Rollins and his team putting it all together," Cohen said. "Its fast. The races are fast. What were really focused on is the experience people are having, the experience youre supporting for people. The big change is the transition from traditional computing devices to new devices," he said. "What happened at Churchill downs is like what John Chambers has in mind at Cisco Field—to take the experience and bring it to the Internet," Cohen said. "Sports is really about community," he said. "We want to really blend the experiences to where technology really touches the act of horse racing with the physical experience thats very intense and competitive. The thing thats most interesting for Churchill Downs and Cisco is that were now floating into a generation of people who are incredibly adept at mobile devices," Cohen explained, saying that the new availability of the mobile experience in sports and entertainment is "like what the iPod did for music." Cohen said that helping Churchill Downs implement their new IT infrastructure presented a number of challenges. First, it had to be fast regardless of the number of people using it at any one time. "If your network goes down in wagering, theres no way to get that back," Cohen explained. "If Im trying to get a wager in before post time and it goes off then I cant wager," he said, pointing out that once missed, such an opportunity is completely lost. He said that adding to the complexity was the historic nature of the race track itself. The building is 125 years old. "It has to remain intact," Cohen noted, adding that he had to make sure the aesthetics were maintained. But he said he also had to make sure that the network would work in other places, including tents. "Were hoping we can provide a better customer experience," Rollins said. He noted that Churchill Downs is starting to offer new capabilities to the new electronic infrastructure. Those include the ability to order food deliveries to your seat, the ability to redeem Twin Spires points and even the ability to cruise the Internet from the stands. One limit, though—you cant go to competing betting sites from the Churchill Downs network. Theres still work to do. With the support of a new management team, Rollins wants to set up a customer database so he can better respond to customer preferences. He wants to enhance compliance to privacy rules with the vendors that work with Churchill Downs; he wants to use customer data to add upselling opportunities; and he wants to use customer betting patterns to provide more incentives, such as free food or amenities where it might benefit the customer experience. The only thing he cant do is provide free drinks to customers, because state law in Kentucky prevents it. There is one problem, though. "Were hitting our ceiling," Rollins said. While he is still looking for a few very good IT people, he said it will have to go beyond that. "Well have to do more outsourcing," he said. Check out eWEEK.coms for the latest news, views and analysis on servers, switches and networking protocols for the enterprise and small businesses.

Wayne Rash Wayne Rash is a Senior Analyst for eWEEK Labs and runs the magazineÔÇÖs Washington Bureau. Prior to joining eWEEK as a Senior Writer on wireless technology, he was a Senior Contributing Editor and previously a Senior Analyst in the InfoWorld Test Center. He was also a reviewer for Federal Computer Week and Information Security Magazine. Previously, he ran the reviews and events departments at CMP's InternetWeek.

He is a retired naval officer, a former principal at American Management Systems and a long-time columnist for Byte Magazine. He is a regular contributor to Plane & Pilot Magazine and The Washington Post.

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