CHATTING SPORTS TECH

with CHARLES

Long-form musings on how sports tech is shaping the future of sports business

Can Entry Technology Defeat Lines For Good?

TL:DR version:

  • Though it doesn’t provide direct revenue, investing in access technology has a trickle down impact for your entire sports operation
  • Stadium entry technology has evolved in the past decade to keep pace with mobile ticketing adoption
  • The future of access control? Facial Authentication

Is there anything more demoralizing than missing the first pitch to a baseball game because the line outside the stadium was moving slowly? Ok sure, I could have arrived earlier, but I swear it wasn’t my fault. The stadium’s access control infrastructure was at fault!

Good news. Recent developments should make missing a first pitch while waiting in line a thing of the past AND also delivering a high level of security. 

Too good to be true? I’m optimistic emerging technology will get us there.

Let’s dive in and learn more… 

Before you begin, what exactly do you mean by access solutions?

Please jump ahead if this is too self-explanatory but by access / entry solutions, I’m referring to the infrastructure in place to prevent people from entering a venue without a ticket. 

Obviously, all stadiums and arenas have one or more gates where fans enter. These gate areas need two components: 1) verification aspect where there’s usually some type of turnstyle plus a ticket taker confirming you purchased a valid ticket and 2) security aspect where fans are checked for any weapons (also doubles to prevent evil smugglers from bringing in outside food. You must buy that $10 hot dog).

That should set the stage for the rest of the discussion. 

Why is it important for properties to invest in access control solutions?

Similar to investing in wireless connectivity, entry solutions do not have a direct return. You can’t charge a toll for fans to go through the gates without causing a revolt. 

That said, I can think of four distinct reasons to invest in a better system:

  1. Most obvious? The longer fans are inside your venue, the more money they’ll likely spend on concessions and merchandise. It’s a big reason why marketing departments use promotions to get people inside the gate well ahead of kickoff (e.g., the classic free souvenirs for the first 5,000 fans).
  2. There’s an improved health and safety angle with new technologies. The increased public health emphasis post pandemic led to more contactless solutions to avoid spreading viruses. Additionally, new technologies enhance safety by improving the ability to detect weapons and threatening individuals. 
  3. The overall customer experience is crucial. A positive experience entering the venue sets the tone on game day. Remember – Someone watching from his couch doesn’t need to wait in line. That couch is often your biggest competition. 
  4. Automation requires fewer seasonal employees to scan tickets, removing the need for training and / or enabling redeployment to higher priority areas.

What’s the current state of access control technologies?

For the longest time, fans were forced to print out paper tickets to be scanned by clunky scanners at the gate. However, over the past decade plus, scanner technology has advanced where venues now have the option to continue using more advanced and sleeker mobile scanners, an RFID / NFC reader directly attached to gate hardware (e.g., smart turnstile) or even use a mobile phone application which enables the camera to read and convert data. Access control technologies are evolving to work in conjunction with mobile ticketing options

Above primarily references mass entry into a stadium but to host any sporting event, the sports property and venue manager also needs solutions for VIP suite holders and team personnel only areas. Smart access systems or credential badges often fill the void here. That said, the rest of this article will focus on mass entry since entry challenges for VIPs and team personnel are not unique to sports.

Sports organizations have been placing an increased emphasis on safety as leagues and teams are adopting policies requiring metal detectors a la an airport. Metal detectors outside a venue are mandatory for NFL and MLB stadiums, while universities in the SEC and  Notre Dame adopted similar policies in 2019. Metal detector options are limited as the market is dominated by CEIA and recently public Evolv.

Finally, the pandemic accelerated the adoption of contactless scanning which allowed for the introduction of new hardware options such as touch-free pedestals. But that’s only the tip of the iceberg for what the future has in store.

That sets us up well for the next question. Where is the future going?

Biometrics. Specifically, facial authentication. 

Clear is the most recognizable brand here.  You’ve probably noticed lanes at major airports but the company is rapidly expanding into stadiums and arenas. Their website includes a brief ‘How it Works’ section but essentially you enroll in their system and then can pass through any of their lanes by flashing your eyes at a Clear kiosk. 

Clear’s business model is pretty interesting. If I had to guess, venues and airports collect a small rental fee from Clear to host kiosks (versus paying Clear for usage). Meanwhile, Clear charges consumers a $15 monthly subscription fee for use across all Clear locations. The value proposition for frequent travelers who hate lines is clear – pun intended – but as Clear seeks new customers, it needs to appeal to a wider audience that hates lines but don’t necessarily travel often (like sports fans). I’d be curious to see the attrition rates during the pandemic when travel was slashed as well as growth rates now that the pandemic may have fundamentally altered the need for business travel. Regardless, the company has a tremendous first mover advantage and benefits significantly from economies of scale (more locations -> more benefits to consumers -> more stickiness). 

But Clear isn’t the only player tackling facial authentication. What actually prompted me to write on this topic was seeing Wicket partner with the Columbus Crew for facial access control. Wicket’s software appears to work similarly to facial activation on recent iPhone models. From what I can gather, Wicket charges the organization and / or venue for use of its technology unlike Clear’s consumer model. The added benefit of Wicket is a more holistic approach to customer experience, with facial ticketing and potential for more marketing automation. Most intriguing though is Wicket’s technology allows for mass entry into stadiums (note: this is pure speculation from reading through the website and Columbus Crew announcement but I feel confident predicting if not now, eventually).  

Enabling mass entry is important for facial authentication technology to scale and become a widespread solution. Alcatraz, Stark RFID, and AnyVision all tout biometric access solutions but they are mostly tailored for smaller and targeted use cases. Example? The New Orleans Saints using AnyVision technology to restrict access to facilities for only players, coaches and staff. 

Anything else worth bringing up? 

Access control technology needs to be part of the connected customer journey merging physical and digital in the future. In the Mobile Ticketing edition, I argued for the importance of connecting all customer touchpoints to create a seamless fan experience. It starts with access control. In an ideal world, a fan scans their ticketing at an entry point and immediately gets a personalized notification. “Welcome to the Game. Take a Left to get to your section and seat. We’ve added a new food court on the Third Level since your last visit. Here’s 20% off to skip the line when you order through our new mobile system.”  Fan and team win together.

Last point before ending – We skimmed over facial ticketing as part of Wicket’s value proposition. Forget paper tickets, it’s not unrealistic to think that in a decade, technology will have advanced where we no longer need to scan mobile tickets. I wasn’t even considering biometrics when I provided ten ticketing takes earlier this year

That said, I’d expect the legacy primary ticketing providers (i.e., Ticketmaster) to fight tooth and nail to maintain market share and prevent facial ticketing becoming mainstream without getting their cut. Thus, for the time being, let’s just file this as an area to monitor. But if you are reading this and happen to go to a Columbus Crew match and use Wicket’s technology, I’m genuinely curious to hear about your experience.

Closing thought: Facial authentication and facial ticketing has the potential to revolutionize mass entry. If the only thing standing between you and entering a venue is tilting your head toward a whiteboard, don’t expect lines to be a problem again.

Until next time,

– Charles

I haven’t decided on the next topic for a long form piece so stay tuned. 

Miss some of the old editions on the future in-venue experience? Check out:

If you enjoyed this edition, tell your friends or colleagues about Chatting Sports Tech. Add me on LinkedIn and follow me on Twitter @ccampisi_EES.


Tags

in stadium experience, mobile ticketing, sports technology, sportstech, stadium access, stadium technology


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