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Bill Schlough

Bill Schlough

Senior Vice President & CIO, San Francisco Giants

Bill Schlough Reimagines Baseball

The San Francisco Giants CIO explains why he believes the future of sports rests in the fans’ hands.

by Jen Swetzoff

“Our team has had a pretty nice run,” says Bill Schlough, senior vice president and CIO of the San Francisco Giants. “We’ve had three championships in the last six years, and we’ve sold out 489 straight games. But it isn’t just about winning. It’s about the fan experience. When every fan has a phone in their hand, investing in the Giants means investing in our technology and providing people with the content they want — where, when, and how they want it.”

Schlough puts people at the center of everything, including his tech strategy. And it has paid off: Under his leadership, the Giants’ AT&T Park (formerly known as SBC Park) became the world’s first stadium to offer full wireless connectivity in 2004. Since then, the team has continued to be a digital pioneer, which may be one of the reasons it has the second-longest sellout streak in the history of baseball.

To accomplish stats like these takes a remarkable combination of ambition, agility, stamina, and optimism — and Schlough has it. He mentors at least 20 people every year. He takes breaks from his job as CIO to serve as interim CEO and chairman of the San Jose Giants and to support the Olympic Games.

“I attended a high school that required students to balance academics with athletics,” Schlough says. “And that balance is really how I’ve lived my life ever since. I wasn’t a rebel. I just believed in sports and working hard.”

Schlough received his engineering degree from Duke University, where he served as captain of both his crew team and his ski team. After graduation, he accepted a job with Electronic Data Systems (EDS), where he focused initially on the aerospace and automotive sectors as an IT consultant. He wasn’t particularly enthusiastic about the work, but after about a year there, he got a lucky break: He was placed on a project with the World Cup, which showed him how he could merge his technical aptitude with his love of athletics.

Schlough left EDS to spend the next summer at the Atlanta Olympic Games, where he served as a sector coordinator at Fulton County baseball stadium. Then, he went to the Wharton School to broaden his management, business, and financial skills. With his MBA in hand, he joined Booz Allen Hamilton in the San Francisco office’s entertainment practice, hoping to focus on sports management. Soon after, the Giants started building their new stadium and recruited the uniquely qualified Schlough to be their CIO. Eighteen years later, his role and reach with the team only continue to expand.

Today, Schlough lives in Los Altos, Calif., with his wife and their two young sons. During a recent conversation, he discussed the importance of data, connectivity, and helping others.

What did you learn as a strategy consultant that remains relevant to your work now?

Persuading people to take action through data and research. Throughout my career at the Giants, I’ve used the same approach I learned at Booz Allen for making a clear business case to drive decisions. And I still use the same formatting style for my decks.

What’s the best part of your job?

My boss, our CEO, is an amazing motivator. He just brings out the best in everyone who works for him. In his 23 years here, no direct report has ever left, unless they were retiring, and he has never fired anyone. He is totally committed to innovation, and he wants us to do things nobody has ever done before — as long as they are aligned with winning championships, growing the franchise, and building our brand.

What’s the biggest challenge you face?

When it comes to baseball, the game stays pretty much the same from year to year. So the biggest challenge is how can we use technology to enhance the experience of our fans, whose attention spans continue to erode. To sell out 42,000 seats every game for 489 straight games — we strongly believe that enabling our fans to stay connected in our ballpark plays a huge role in that. We want to bring our fans closer to our players. We want to help our fans share the experience with their friends so they’re like, “Oh man, I’ve got to be at that game.”

Why did you invest in Wi-Fi so early?

When we renamed the ballpark from Pacific Bell Park to SBC Park, and our naming rights partner asked us how it could give something back to the fans, we had a vision. We believed that people would increasingly want — and need — to stay connected everywhere. So we put all this focus on wireless connectivity. And yet, when we launched it in 2004, we only had around 100 fans out of 40,000 fans per game using it, on a big day. In 2005 and 2006, the number of total users remained low, but we still delivered innovative and compelling content to our fans on their handheld smartphones and devices. We created our own “killer app” for the iPAQ [PDA] that provided replays to fans on their handheld device and told them where to find garlic fries based on their seat location. Then we hosted the All-Star Game in 2007, and the iPhone came out around the same time. When that happened, the whole world changed. Almost overnight, we went from hundreds of users to 10,000-plus per game.

How would the people closest to you describe you?

Tireless and people-centric. I work hard. I really care about the team and our staff. I stay in shape. I go home and spend time with my family. My schedule doesn’t include much sleep right now, and I’m the king of early morning emails, but I don’t think anyone holds it against me. It’s the way I stay on top of things.

How do those traits affect your management style and strategy?

I often tell people on my team: If you work for me, don’t ever give me two weeks’ notice. I want you to give me two years’ notice. I want you to tell me where you want to be and how I can help you get there. I don’t care if it’s at the Giants or if it’s at the Dodgers or if it’s at a bank, but let me help you. It’s like the saying goes: If you love someone, set them free. I believe that if I do that professionally, it inspires more loyalty than anything else I can possibly do. It’s also just the right thing to do. What are we here on this earth to do? Help others fulfill their potential and achieve their dreams.

When and where are you happiest?

Skiing is the greatest out-of-body experience on earth for me — especially in deep powder on a day when it’s snowing and not windy. And skiing with my wife is incredible. She’s better than me at everything. Watching her ski or hit a golf ball is like poetry. And as my sons get older, I can’t wait to watch them play sports, too.

What career advice would you give someone interested in sports management?

Option one is to start working for a sports team from the very bottom, when you graduate from college. You won’t make much money, but you can rise up the ranks. The second option is to go do your thing: Work in finance, or the law, or technology, but nurture a sports network in your free time — and then make a midlevel or executive-level jump later, like I did with the Giants. There are fewer opportunities at this stage, so you’ve got to be patient because it might take a while to find the right fit. Option three is to keep doing your thing — whatever it is — until you’ve made your millions. At that point, you can buy a team.

Jen Swetzoff is the founder and CEO of Closeup Content Studio, a strategic communications firm that focuses on sharing important, influential, and inspiring stories. She formerly worked as the deputy managing editor at strategy business magazine.

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