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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Future of Sports
Chatting Sports Tech

Edition #12 – Mobile Ticketing & In-Venue Experience

Schools are going fully mobile but should more be done?

Back in Edition #5, I wrote the following: 

“The pandemic accelerated mobile ticketing’s inevitability…it’s only a matter of time before mobile ticketing is the norm for every fan (Yes, I believe the need for some paperless ticket is overblown if mobile ticketing becomes the exclusive option).”

Clearly, I inspired a reader at the NFL. Per the Athletic, the NFL is the first major league to make mobile ticketing mandatory.

Is this a big deal for the game day experience? Yes, in my opinion. But while a positive first step, I don’t think the recent mobile ticketing roll-outs go far enough. 

What do I mean? Let’s dive in…

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First off, why haven’t you written anything over the last several weeks?

“I’m sorry..but a lot of good will come from this.”

Throwback reference. Let’s segue to mobile ticketing. What’s going on in college athletics? 

When I think about the in-venue experience, ticketing and gate entry kick off the entire process. Long lines and an inefficient check-in can put a damper on a fans mood before a game begins. 

Following the NFL’s lead, multiple college athletics departments also decided to go entirely mobile ticketing for the upcoming year. My alma mater Notre Dame, my mother’s alma mater UConn, and two ND rivals Michigan and Boston College all announced intentions to go mobile last month.  

What do all four schools have in common? All four have Paciolan as their primary ticketing provider.

Why does that matter? From what I’ve gathered, after lagging other primary ticket providers with its mobile technology (e.g., Ticketmaster), Paciolan used the pandemic to emphasize its mobile capabilities and allow fans of these schools to more seamlessly download tickets to a digital wallet. 

With Paciolan handling ticketing for ~80 percent of college athletics programs, expect a lot more universities to announce mobile only ticketing as we approach the upcoming season.

Isn’t this great news? You advocate for technology and all these schools are taking strides?

Yes but I want more intentionality and strategy. I’ll get to what I mean below but first let’s dive deeper into the four school announcements:

  • Notre Dame – All tickets including premium will be mobile only. No mention of the school’s mobile app integration. Fans download to Apple Wallet or Google Play. 
  • UConn –  Similar to ND, no more print at home option. No mention of mobile app integration / have to download to Apple Wallet or Google Play.
  • Michigan – Returning football season ticket holders will have the option to download paper tickets. The new Michigan app will be the easiest way to access mobile tickets.
  • Boston College – Similar to ND, no more print at home option. No mention of mobile app integration / have to download to Apple Wallet or Google Play.

For fans, this is a positive development. The technology has existed for other industries – Airlines allow you to download your boarding pass directly to your mobile wallet. With Millennials and Gen Z no longer buying printers, paper tickets should be a thing of the past. Mobile ticketing stands to speed up the entire entry process.

But notice how I specifically called out three of the four schools for not mentioning their mobile app in the announcement. I wholeheartedly believe college athletics mobile apps are the most underutilized departmental asset and nothing else is close. As time spent on phones passes time spent on computers, why aren’t universities embracing the trend?

That’s an interesting insight. Can you elaborate?

Let me caveat that there’s plenty of time for these schools to change the process before the season starts (though I’m skeptical). That said, here’s how I envision the current ticketing buying process from those announcements:

Customer signs into existing account with school and purchases tickets -> Email confirming purchase with link to access tickets through Paciolan -> Download to mobile wallet before game day -> Scan at gate day of game

The problem in my mind? At no point during the buying journey laid out above is that person introduced to your digital ecosystem (i.e., your mobile app). No chance to stumble upon a sponsor ad placement. No chance for re-targeting with notifications like food and beverage discounts, coaches show reminders, etc. 

I’ve spoken to multiple people who consider themselves die hard college fans but admit to either never downloading their school’s app or downloading it for game day for a single activation (like a Cue Audio lightshow) then immediately deleting. At the same, a bunch of my ND classmates spend an hour everyday on message boards following football and basketball recruiting so clearly there’s a huge appetite for regular content. Given schools are starving for new revenue streams, controllable digital assets and inventory should be a focus for monetization.

Sounds like you could go on a long rant there. What other problems do you see?

The other big issue in my opinion is the fragmentation of the digital game day experience. Ideally, a mobile gameday app solves this by being the hub for customer touchpoints, starting with integration of the mobile ticketing. 

During a game, a fan journey may involve all of the following – parking or public transportation, ticketing, checking stats and scores, concessions and mobile ordering, merchandising, incident reporting and customer service. If I care about fan experience, shouldn’t there be a single location where a fan accesses all of those services? 

What do I actually see when I skim through college athletics mobile apps? Until the Paciolan SDK allowed integration into mobile apps, ticketing might have been available through a web pass-through but couldn’t be relied upon in bad service. Few schools have added mobile ordering or parking capabilities. A couple schools have plugged Satisfi Labs in for customer service but these schools are the outliers. Incident management reporting isn’t really a feature I’ve seen. Links to a merchandise store (i.e., Fanatics) are generally available but the in-app shopping experience is painful. 

I often use the Sacramento Kings as a model sports organization embracing technology for the customer experience (with tech billionaire Vivek Randive as owner, this makes sense). The ideal state listed above? That’s their reality. 

The Kings do something else smart, using technology to drive real-time operational insights. They use Lava to integrate all customer-facing points from the Golden One Center on game days, allowing them to act on those insights with in-game promotions and other targeted discounts. Anyone in your stadium is a captive audience during the game. That’s the best time to get fans to spend. 10% discount for arriving early. Free popcorn for paying with a team branded card. Notify sales reps when a season ticket prospect is in the venue. Possibilities are endless if utilized correctly. 

What’s preventing college athletics from going full Sacramento Kings?

I see four barriers: 

  1. Added complexity of college athletics – In a normal year, the NBA’s Sacramento Kings have 41 home games at the Golden One Center to maximize profit. On the other hand, a college athletics department may have 41 home games in a given month for all sports at multiple venues.  Factor in the wide disparity between big budget sport resources (e.g., Men’s Football) versus small budget (e.g., Men’s track and field and add unique aspects from college (the academic component, student tickets), there’s way more added complexity to maintaining a mobile app that represents the department. For that reason, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish app will never resemble the Sacramento Kings app. This is the nature of the beast comparing pro sports to college athletics. 
  2. Connectivity on campus – Prior editions have mentioned how venue technology upgrades require better on-site connectivity especially if everyone needs their phones to transact. But it’s not always an easy solution for older venues. Other than Madison Square Garden, the oldest NBA arena is younger than I am, while many college football stadiums were born before your grandparents. Schools I’ve spoken with recognize connectivity as an issue but are struggling to find the funds for the necessary upgrades given last school year’s financial turmoil. Let’s label this as mostly out of an athletic department’s immediate control.
  3. Having the wrong mindset – This is where departments have control but fall short in my opinion. Having worked with multiple schools considering new mobile apps, I’ve often come away disappointed with their perception. Most schools see mobile as an extension of their website and a drain on the marketing department’s budget. If schools adopted the mindset that mobile apps could be a profit center and utilized it as a tool to regularly connect with their fanbase (exclusive merchandise drops, more gamification, facilitating community) and improve the gameday experience (in-game trivia, mobile ordering), a five figure investment could turn into high six figures profit driver.
  4. Lack of resources devoted to success – This goes hand and hand in with number three above. Many schools assign interns to manage their apps, clearly deprioritizing the platform. Fans won’t download and spend time on the app if the mobile content doesn’t differ from the school’s website. The department is then disappointed by download numbers and time spent on app metrics creating a downward spiral. The value for sponsorship declines and nobody is happy. Give fans a reason to download your app. Give them personalized content.  

Before moving on, I’d argue the point of added complexity of professional versus college sports creates opportunities. There’s more potential to distribute differentiated content to a rabid, niche fanbase with smaller sports. Stories on the Sacramento Kings are being covered across every sports media outlet. Same for Notre Dame football. But Notre Dame men’s track and field is not, so why not better utilize your mobile app to include track and field content? 

Wrap it up and take us home with a quick summary

Making the decision to go 100% mobile ticketing is a good first step for athletic departments in their journey of technological adoption. But the recent announcements on how mobile ticketing will work illustrates these departments haven’t fully considered how to utilize digital assets for revenue generation.

Certain professional sport teams provide a roadmap to create a better customer experience by integrating all aspects of gameday. Real time data and greater visibility into individualized customer journeys lead to more revenue opportunities.

The first step requires changing the mindset that mobile apps are simply a cost center and recognizing digital assets can be powerful monetization tools.

Until next time,

– Charles

The next topic in the future venue technology series will be diving deeper into venue connectivity

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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