Future of Sports
Chatting Sports Tech

Edition #14 – Innovating Stadium Access

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.

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Edition #10 – Mobile Ordering

Analyzing Mobile Ordering: Why Your Organization Should Adopt, What Not To Do & The Players In The Space

So I haven’t attended an in-person game since the pandemic began. But man am I itching to post up in the Yankee Stadium bleachers on a hot summer day. Vaccine shot number two on Monday and then straight to the ballpark (two weeks later).

Speaking of returning to venues, I’ve spent a lot of time over the past two months talking to companies building future in-venue technology. The next several editions will discuss emerging technologies changing the stadium experience. This edition will kick off the series by focusing on mobile ordering & in-seat delivery. 

One housekeeping item – If you want Chatting Sports Tech delivered to your inbox, subscribe at the top of this page. 

Let’s dive in…

All the rage coming out of COVID is stadiums upgrading to fully contactless payment. Is this the same as mobile ordering?

Not exactly. Contactless payment generally refers to the use of radio frequency identification (RFID) or near field communication (NFC) to make secure payments. Think paying with your smartphone by holding it near a point of sale terminal. Essentially you remove cash entirely and eliminate the need to physically hand over a plastic card.

By mobile ordering, I’m referring to the ability to place an order through a smartphone and eliminate waiting in concession lines or flagging down a hawker in an aisle. 

Going contactless doesn’t address certain pain points of concession ordering. Contactless might speed up lines but doesn’t eliminate them. Fans are still distracted from watching a game. There’s no benefit to the workforce who still need to manually key in an order and then quickly round up the items. 

Early in the pandemic, everyone clamored to go cashless since the coronavirus was assumed to live on surfaces and be transmitted through touch. Though proved untrue by science – don’t stop washing your hands however – the pandemic provided the spark for more venues to go fully contactless even though the technology had existed for a while. But don’t automatically assume headlines that a venue has gone contactless means it implemented a robust mobile ordering strategy. 

Gotcha. So walk me through the value of mobile ordering.

Let’s look at the benefits of mobile ordering from three angles: 1) Improved customer satisfaction, 2) Technology can drive more dollars and 3) Removing frictions aligned with cash.

  1. Improved customer satisfaction – When I meet a person who enjoys waiting in lines, it will be the first in my 32 years on this planet. People HATE lines, especially mid-game where time spent waiting could result in missing a game’s most exciting play. With mobile ordering, fans who value watching the game over getting food have an avenue to order efficiently. 
  2. Technology can drive more dollars – Besides increasing your customer base, mobile ordering technology can drive additional revenue through higher per caps. If used effectively, promotions and push notifications can increase cart size. Push inventory that’s not selling. Sell hot dogs 50% off within 5 minutes of a big play. Add popcorn to an existing item for $2. As long as you cover marginal cost, additional sales are accretive to your bottom line. 
  3. Removing frictions aligned with cash – We touched on this above. Cash is messy. You don’t collect any buyer payment history. It’s slow to process. It’s vulnerable to theft. Removing cash speeds up the check-out process, resulting in an increased volume of sales.

Those benefits seem obvious. Should I rush my venue to implement mobile ordering?

Lesson for any technology implementation – When you fail to consider the human element and training required, responses can be disastrous. Per Front Office Sports, MLB fans loudly complained about concession lines during opening weekend, forcing the teams to revert back to traditional walk up ordering from planned 100% digital ordering. Clearly, the pandemic accelerated the move to cashless but teams were ill prepared to deal with the high volume. 

Quick clarification before proceeding: We generally only hear when things go wrong. It’s why the media covers plane crashes so intensely but never mentions the tens of thousands of planes landing safely everyday.  Before you assume every mobile ordering implementation has hiccups, understand many venues successfully launched mobile ordering without a blip that you’ll never hear about. 

That said, it’s also very possible those MLB teams lost fans for life during those games. The in-venue experience is in constant battle with at-home viewing. Adding miserable concession lines can be enough to tip the scales for some people.

You mentioned the human element and training required. Can you elaborate on those and other operating challenges for implementation?

Identifying useful technology is only the first step to making life easier. The implementation piece is often the bigger determining factor whether technology can achieve its intended purpose (hence, why we are building a service to help sports properties navigate the entire sourcing through implementation process). 

Here are the operating challenges in my mind:

  • Awareness – People won’t order through mobile if they don’t realize it’s an option. How will you introduce fans to mobile ordering technology? Will there be in-stadium signage? Will there be a stadium announcement? Will fans be made aware prior to arriving? Success relies on a coordinated effort between venue operations and marketing. 
  • Access – In other words, how will customers be able to place orders? Mobile app or a QR web pass-through? I have a couple thoughts down below but what method you determine relies on connectivity in the stadium. More thoughts on this in a future edition. 
  • Integration – A customer facing ordering platform will often need several integrations to be successful. That includes: 1) Point-of-sale system – To accept payments, 2) Inventory Management – Back end reconciliation of supplies, 3) CRM – To collect customer information, 4) Mobile Wallet – To allow people to link branded cards and gift cards (optional), 5) In-Seat Delivery (if a separate vendor) – See below
  • Fulfillment – Fulfilling mobile orders is a different operational process. Will fans pick up from an existing concession stand or a designated pick-up area? If you use a designated pick-up area, how does that impact the customer flow in the venue? Regardless which you choose, you will need to retrain your workforce to ensure mobile orders get the same attention as walk-up customers. If I had to guess, this was a major factor in the opening weekend MLB fail. 
  • Workforce Size – Similarly, understanding the demand when implementing mobile ordering will determine whether additional staff are required. Normally, you’d consider piloting in a small area of a stadium but the pandemic forced many venues to adopt without a trial period. If mobile ordering increases volume of orders by 25%, will you have enough employees to adequately handle?

How does in-seat delivery factor in?

How I think about it – in-seat delivery is absolutely crucial coming out of the pandemic and for the next generation of fans. 

Why? Behavior is sticky, breaking habits is difficult and Americans are generally lazy. With everyone stuck inside, the pandemic accelerated the reliance on delivery services to the point customers now expect to have that option. 

With in-seat delivery, you face some of the same operational challenges as mobile ordering, namely adequate staffing and retraining your workforce. But if you can figure out a strategy that redeploys hawkers for deliveries, your operational flow can be made more efficient by transition from push supply to pull demand. 

What else should I consider as part of my mobile ordering strategy?

Your mobile ordering strategy shouldn’t be an isolated decision by venue operations. Rather consider other organizational objectives and how mobile ordering can influence fan behavior.

What’s an example? Let’s say a goal is to collect more fan information and supplement your CRM system. An asset at your disposal is your team mobile app. Thus, you can force fans to download your mobile app to access in-venue mobile ordering and then push additional notifications to that fan outside that specific game. Venue operations vendor selection would therefore benefit the marketing and sponsorship teams. 

What’s another example? An effective mobile order strategy can redirect flow positively. If you put a food pick up zone in front of a merchandise store, a fan may notice a cool new jersey they ultimately buy. Before mobile ordering, they would have headed straight to a concession stand, waited in line, maybe gotten frustrated and then headed straight back to their seat with a singular focus. With mobile ordering, free advertising of merchandising through strategic positioning. 

Who are the companies playing in the stadium space? 

There are a bunch of companies that have emerged. This list doesn’t even include mobile ordering solutions for non-sports use cases like restaurants. 

Since many of the companies aren’t solely focused on mobile ordering, I’m going through the list based on value proposition:

  • Don’t have sufficient WiFi in-stadium? UK company SwipeStation has built a mobile ordering system using kiosks that doesn’t require connectivity. Additionally, their system simplifies the order preparation process to reduce the training burden on concession staff. 
  • Looking for a low cost provider? Partake, which also has multiple other mobile fan engagement features, has partnered with multiple minor league baseball clubs at the lowest price point I’ve seen.
  • Want a company with a flexible contract model? FanFood offers fee sharing agreements or hybrid pricing (i.e., fixed per stand) allowing a client to choose the structure best fitting their situation. 
  • Think your fans are sick of another mobile app? TEXT4Service from TEZ Technologies enables ordering through a QR code without needing to overhaul your venue point-of-sale system. 
  • Looking for a company that is 100% focused on mobile ordering? Tapin2 provides a complete product set enabling mobile ordering including order taker hardware, kiosks, hawker technology, suite focused products and fulfillment solutions. 
  • Is in-seat delivery a priority? Several companies have grown since starting as in-seat delivery specialists, including SeatServe, Stadium Drop and sEATz
  • Do you have an existing POS system? That company may have built their own ordering solution. For example, point of sale company Appetize has built out its own mobile and online ordering software. 
  • Approaching mobile ordering from an ecommerce focus? Venuetize takes a mobile first approach to in-venue ecommerce, offering mobile wallet and a native loyalty & rewards program in conjunction with mobile ordering capabilities. 
  • Looking for a comprehensive venue solution? VenueNext combines mobile ordering with mobile wallet and point of sale as a complete offering.

That hopefully provides some quick context but if you’re looking into adopting mobile ordering in your venue and want to learn more, don’t hesitate to reach out for guidance.

That was a lot of helpful information. Can you summarize quickly?

Absolutely. Key takeaways:

  • The benefits to mobile ordering are numerous, including improved customer experience, ability to drive additional revenue and remove frictions associated with cash.
  • However, failing to consider operational challenges before deployment can result in headaches (see MLB opening weekend wait times).
  • Deploying mobile ordering technology effectively can help drive other organizational goals. 
  • The space is crowded. Certain mobile ordering companies have approached the service differently, though at the end of the day, customers only care about having a seamless ordering experience. 

Until next time,

– Charles

Future topics in this series will include digital ticketing & mobile wallets, smart check-out technologies, safety & security, connectivity and in-stadium engagement.

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.  

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