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 #13 – In-Stadium Connectivity

Venues Can No Longer Avoid Upgrading Their Networks

TL:DR version:

  • Mobile device connectivity is no longer a luxury; it’s a necessity for the fan experience
  • Rollouts of WiFi-6 and 5G offer hope to satisfy future in-stadium network requirements and provide a foundation for innovation around the fan experience
  • Professional teams are focused on modernizing available WiFi and cellular networks coming out of the pandemic while college athletics programs have historically budgeted WiFi upgrades as part of major stadium renovations but are running into difficulties after last year

Confession: I knew almost nothing about in-stadium wireless and connectivity before deciding to write this. But over the past several months speaking with athletic departments, there was a common theme: to improve the gameday experience, schools need to upgrade their connectivity. 

So I embarked on a quest to learn more since future in-stadium innovation is reliant on a robust network.  After doing my homework, I can confidently say I now know more than nothing. Not much more, but more. 

My goal with this piece is for every reader to be able to carry a conversation centered around WiFi . Thrilling water cooler talk / zoom conversation starter I know.  

Also my girlfriend gave me the hard-hitting feedback that these pieces are too long so I’ll be adding the summary up front going forward. Tell me what you think (charles@engagemintpartners.com).

And if you like this content and want to be notified when the latest pieces drop, subscribe at the top of the page.

Let’s dive in…

Is connectivity important to the in-game experience?

Really? That’s a clown question, bro, You might as well have asked if Bonita fish are big…

Quick challenge – next time you’re in a waiting area, count how many people are NOT checking their phones to pass the time. If it’s more than a quarter of the room, I’d bet you are lying to me.

85% of Americans own a smartphone. Smartphones bring the world to your fingertips. With the world at your fingertips, you can easily fill any dead time. 

What has a lot of deadtime? Live sporting events. If there’s limited or no connectivity at the venue, people accustomed to killing time on their phones have a bad experience and question why they decided to buy a ticket. 

Placing bets. Checking rival scores. Seeing the Twitter chatter during the game. Real-time highlights. Reading work emails. Monitoring Bitcoin prices. Fans want all of these from their seats.

I get the fan experience side. But what are the considerations for a sports organization? 

Upgrading a stadium’s connectivity is a significant capital expenditure and now, finding the funds can be particularly challenging coming off last year. 

If I was modeling return on investment, I realize the benefits are not easily quantifiable. How do you accurately estimate lost ticket sales due to poor WiFi? How do you quantify how a negative fan experience impacts per head spending (merchandise, concessions, etc.)? Can I confidently project higher concession sales if I implement mobile ordering in my venue? Will mobile ticketing actually help get fans into the venue faster to increase spending? Is it worth upgrading connectivity in a football stadium that hosts less than 10 events a year?

That’s a challenge but let’s look at it from the opposite angle. Connectivity has become table stakes in today’s environment. We already discussed the Gen Z problem in sports and how the generation that grew up with smartphones expects ubiquitous WiFi. If the in-stadium experience continues to lag behind the at-home, you risk losing an entire next generation of fans.

There’s also the revenue component we touched on in the last edition. When you have a captive audience, fans are much more likely to purchase merchandise and concessions. If you don’t have adequate connectivity to push notifications, you’re missing out on new sales.

So I recognize the improved fan experience and the increased revenue potential but I want to understand the actual technology. What do I need to know? 

In simplest terms, WiFi-6 and 5G are the latest iterations of two technologies using radio frequencies to transmit information across networks. WiFi is typically used indoors as a local area network (LAN) whereas cellular networks such as 5G LTE are types of wide area networks (WAN) generally deployed over longer distances. They are considered complementary technologies – think your phone defaults to LTE when WiFi isn’t available. 

If you want to go deeper, here are some helpful articles to understand key terminology and latest trends:

Interesting but why is connectivity such an issue for sports venues? 

You haven’t experienced frustration until you’ve tried to rendezvous with friends at a tailgate outside Notre Dame stadium after a game. “Did you say Pole 8 or 18? Hello? Hellooooo.”

Since the proliferation of the mobile phone, connectivity at stadiums and arenas has been a significant problem. Part of it is that WiFi wasn’t created with the size of venues and the sheer volume of people trying to use the network during a packed sporting event in mind.  Plus, older cement and concrete buildings significantly diminish connectivity. Add on top of that the combination of large video displays, ribbon displays, pitch perimeter displays, LCD networks, concourse displays, exterior displays, wayfinding displays, and both wired and wireless broadcasting equipment that release a large volume of electromagnetic interference impeding network performance.

How people are using their phones has also led to a significant increase in data consumption (watching videos is much more data intensive than sending a text). I assume there’s a better study illustrating the increase but to give some context, 6.2 TB of data was used at the 2015 Super Bowl at the University of Phoenix Stadium in Arizona versus 26.4 TB of data used at the 2020 Super Bowl At Miami’s Hard Rock Stadium. That’s nearly a 4.5X increase in only 5 years!

The previous generation of LTE and WiFi technology was ill-equipped to handle a significant volume of data and messaging transmission across the network resulting in all sorts of latency issues and poor signal. 

Properly outfitting a stadium with WiFi requires a thorough understanding of the population and internet usage density which then informs the number of access points needed for a distributed antenna system to provide coverage. For reference, Stanford required 600 access points to upgrade its stadium, while Nebraska’s stadium required 900 points (at a cost of $5M).

What’s the current state in professional sports and college athletics?

Safe to assume every sports organization recognizes the importance of connectivity to the fan experience. 

We saw a big push from professional teams using the pandemic as an opportunity to upgrade both available WiFi and Cellular networks. Some updates from the first half of the year:

Pivoting to college athletics. We mentioned Stanford, considered the first school to add WiFi in stadium, and Nebraska above but here are some notes on other schools: 

There are plenty more but I think you get the gist. Most major stadium renovations have included an allocation to modernize connectivity. 

The problem? Most of these upgrades were completed or announced before the pandemic and may not reflect the latest networks (e.g., WiFi-6). That’s significant because these schools may require future upgrades as fans consistently test network bandwidth. This is especially challenging now as many schools push stadium renovations into the future post-pandemic.

Any final thoughts?

Sadly this piece didn’t provide as actionable advice like past Chatting Sports Tech editions but hopefully, you’re a little bit smarter after reading through. 

Here are my thoughts on what your organization should have on the radar for next steps:

  • If you DON’T have a plan to upgrade your in-stadium WiFi and have identified it as a pain point for fans, go through a strategic planning exercise and estimate the opportunity cost for not updating, both in the immediate and long-term future. If the cost is high and the long-term risk is an empty stadium, ask yourself these questions: What specific actions can we take to improve the fan experience with better connectivity? Do we need to budget upgrades as part of our overall fundraising plan? Can we leverage any upgrades the university is contemplating? What are the paths for monetization once upgrades are complete?
  • If you DO have a plan to upgrade WiFi systems or have already upgraded your WiFi, shift the conversation internally to 1) how to convey the benefits to get people off the couch and back in the stadium and 2) consider avenues for monetization by leveraging technologies that may require connectivity (mobile ticketing, mobile ordering, in-game notifications, etc.).  You’d be surprised by the possibilities. 

Until next time,

– Charles

The next and last topic in the future venue technology series will be on entry solutions. 

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 #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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Edition #11 – Smart Checkout Technology

To purchase at the venue of the future, just walk out

So I underestimated the aftereffects of vaccine shot number two. 36 hours of sluggishness caused me to skip my writing routine to catch up on client projects. Alas, after a week hiatus, I’m back to continue the future of venue technology series.

This week’s topic, smart checkout technologies, is a natural segue from mobile ordering. Even with the best mobile ordering technology at their disposal, a segment of your fanbase will always prefer getting up from their seats and heading to a concession stand. 

Enter smart checkout technology.

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

Let’s dive in…

Dumb question but what do you mean by smart checkout systems?

Great place to start. Smart checkout or autonomous systems eliminate the traditional retail checkout experience. In simple flowchart terms:

Traditional Checkout: Walk in store -> Gather items in cart or on tray -> Wait in checkout line -> Scan Your Items -> Pay with Card or Cash -> Receipt

Smart Checkout: Walk in -> Grab Items -> Walk out

Which one sounds like the better customer experience? 

According to a recent study, the volume of transactions that will be processed through smart checkout systems is expected to grow from $2 billion in 2020 to $387 billion in 2025. Stadiums and arenas will make up a large chunk of that volume.

How does the technology work?

I am not an engineer and can’t speak to the technical minutia. But how it was explained to me:

Smart checkout systems intertwine smart entry solutions, computer vision and smart sensors. No cash registers. No cashiers. 

Customers scan an app or credit card upon entering the store. Think no different than a subway turnstile in New York. No access if you don’t scan your payment information.

Using computer vision, cameras identify items that are picked off shelves and assign them to your cart. Note – Computer vision is a form of artificial intelligence where computers are trained to identify images. Meanwhile, smart sensors provide for real-time inventory management.

Customers then simply walk-out. Since the venue has your payment information upon entrance, a receipt is automatically sent afterwards.

Gotcha. I understand the ‘what’ now but it all seems so complex. Can you explain why to adopt in layman’s terms?

Many of the benefits overlap with the reasons for adopting mobile ordering technology:

  • A better customer experience – No lines. No cash or cards. You get it. Moving on.
  • More revenue – Goes hand-in-hand with no lines, the faster people get in and out, the more volume is passing through your storefront, the more dollars flowing to your bottom line.
  • Robust data collection – Understanding buying history allows you to personalize offers while operation you benefit from being able to better manage inventory.

Two additional benefits that don’t overlap with mobile ordering:

  • Labor efficiency – As I mentioned above, smart checkout systems remove the human element to operate cash registers. On top of eliminating salary costs, you remove human error (e.g., mis-keying an item) and training requirements. Note – I’d recommend still having a security guard or greeter to oversee entry. 
  • Real estate efficiency – Retail stores commonly use a sales per square foot metric to analyze financial returns and efficiency. When utilized effectively, smart checkout drastically improves your sales per square foot in certain areas of the venue.

That sounds appealing. If I’m managing a venue should I go full smart checkout?

To steal some words from the immortal Lee Corso, Not so fast my friend. 

Before committing to any smart checkout technologies, here are some considerations:

  • The hot food dilemma – Smart checkout technology works great for packaged items (e.g., soda bottles, candy bars, etc.) since it’s easy to train a computer to recognize the same image. But hot food and platters are more complex since there isn’t always uniformity of product (i.e., a wrapped hamburger looks like a wrapped chicken sandwich to a machine). Plus, building a smart checkout store with an attached kitchen opens up additional questions.
  • Processing power – Due to the reliance on cloud hosting for the smart technology, the current iterations of the technology needs strong connectivity. Given the age of many stadiums, connectivity and network infrastructure weren’t concerns when being built.
  • Build-out costs – Retrofitting existing stadium space comes with a cost. Plus determining the return on investment must consider the upfront capital costs of equipment (purchasing the entry turnstiles, sensors, etc.) and one-time implementation fees.

If I was managing a venue, I’d think of my concession footprint as a portfolio. Smart checkout solutions shouldn’t replace my hot food stations but can complement my other stores for small areas (700 square feet or less). For example, a small station with primarily cold drinks and canned beer caters to the beverage consuming crowd who have no interest in waiting in a line on a hot day (assuming the entry solution solves for age verification).

Who has already adopted smart checkout systems?

A couple of forward-thinking venues have implemented smart checkouts over the past several months.

Anything else to have on the radar?

Two additional points worth raising. 

First, up until this point, we’ve been referring to smart checkout technologies as full stores for customers to walk in and walk out. But there’s also the potential to use computer vision technology and other creative solutions to speed up the checkout line process or automate certain aspects. I lump the following companies in with my definition of “smart checkout:”

  • Mashgin has built a touchless checkout system that uses computer vision to identify items and tally up a customer’s bill. You achieve many of the same goals of a smart checkout store without needing the upfront capital investment (machines are rented per month). Labor costs are still eliminated as cashiers are not required.
  • Then there’s TendedBar, which delivers venues a modular smart bar to speed up lines for beer, wine and cocktails. 
  • Last edition mentioned SwipeStation which utilizes kiosks and a mobile application to eliminate lines and improve ease of service.

Second, I’m getting ahead of myself since there’s a long way to go in smart checkout adoption but don’t be surprised if in a decade people are commonly paying using eye, no different than opening up your iPhone. Blink has built eye tracking technology, more from an analytics perspective but I’d bet the future use case involves more payment technology.

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

  • Smart checkout systems utilize computer vision and smart sensors to improve the customer experience by removing frictions associated with the traditional checkout process.
  • While I wouldn’t advise overhauling your entire concessions footprint, smart checkout stores can improve utilization of certain real estate and be accretive to overall sales.
  • Zippin has deployed some stores for the Sacramento Kings and Denver Broncos while Amazon MKRTs have been installed at the TD Garden in Boston.
  • You don’t necessarily need an entire walk-in, walk-out store as there are several other options for disruptive technologies to improve the checkout experience for customers and increase throughput.

Until next time,

– Charles

The next topic in the future venue technology will be digital ticketing & mobile wallets given all the recent announcements from teams, venues and universities.

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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Edition #9 – Smorgasbord

Checking Back On Old Editions For Changes And Updates

I dislike how little traditional media revisits past articles and predictions. Opinions and positions shouldn’t be static. When new information comes to light, we should reconsider old perspectives.

With that in mind, I’m going to periodically revisit old pieces to highlight what’s changed and add new information or tidbits originally left out.

Now you may be asking ‘Why is this edition called Smorgasbord?’ Great question, reader. Well, smorgasbord is defined as a “buffet offering a variety of hot and cold meats, salads, hors d’oeuvres, et.” When I was growing up, anytime my mother needed to clear out the fridge, she would call it ‘Smorgasbord Night.’ Clever marketing to get us excited about week old leftover ham.

Since I’m going to jump across past topics, I’m calling this the smorgasbord edition, in honor of my lovely mother.

Let’s dive in…

Edition 1 Super Bowl Special & Edition 1.5 Super Bowl Post-Mortem

  • NFL Media Rights: When the Super Bowl Post-Mortem was released, I mentioned the NFL was going to quickly sign new media deals and that the dip in Super Bowl viewership would have no impact. Well I’d say $105 billion over 11 years and increases from all existing media partners is a good outcome.
  • Issue with Nielsen Ratings: Ratings for sports are down across the board but could it be caused by the way Nielsen measures audience? Nielsen claimed no, rebuking an audit request but it does beg the question. I have a feeling we haven’t heard the last of this issue.
  • Correction on LiveLike: I spoke with someone at LiveLike after publishing the piece and realized I made a small mistake categorizing them as a VR company.  The company started in VR but when mass adoption of VR hardware never materialized, it pivoted more to real-time engagement. 
  • Bullish on AR/VR: That said, I’m still very bullish on the long-term potential of AR/VR. One reason? Facebook announced that 15% of its current org chart is working on solutions in the space. Another reason? The ability to simulate in-game action for training purposes. Here’s the NJ Devils using VR training.

Edition 2 Power of Community

  • Superfans: The community edition touched on building social+ companies, offering your customers community instead of a simple rewards program to build loyalty and why you should hone in on super fans per the pareto principle. This billboard article highlights the technologies enabling artists, creators and athletes to interact directly with their super fans as well as the economics behind it. 
  • Brand Love is Built on Emotion: Thought this was a good op ed in sports pro media reiterating many of the points raised in the community edition. Two specific quotes worth highlighting: 1) Brand love is built on emotions, not transactions; and 2) Brands need to understand the zeitgeist to build and grow human connections.
  • Community Thoughts From Twitter: Good notes from podcast guest Zoe Scaman around the idea that in social tribes, we seek a sense of togetherness and aligned passions. Meanwhile, here’s another thread explaining why soccer clubs are great examples of how to build communities at scale since there’s so many entry points to participate (buying merchandise, watching on tv, going to a game, etc.) 

Edition 3 Why Your Organization Should Pay Attention to the Fan Controlled Football League

FCF Updates: At the time Edition 3 was published, the FCF was only two weeks in but I made the argument there was serious staying power given the league didn’t copy the failed AAF and XFL models. With the season completed, we can point to a couple metrics illustrating the first season was a huge success.  Viewership increased from 735K in week 1 to 2.1M in week 5 while over 2K fans collectively invested $1M in team ownership. 

Edition 4 Future of Ticketing & Edition 5 Ten Ticketing Takes

Edition 4 discussed the potential for virtual seating to create new inventory and bring immersive experiences into the living room. No updates here – the technology is still being built by companies like Tru Spot

Some updates on the state of sports ticketing:

  • Rewarding Season Ticket Holders Despite Capacity Constraints: If you are a sports property and have been operating with limited capacity, you’ve probably faced the dilemma of how to prioritize fans when demand outweighs supplies. I thought this blog post had some good ideas but the starting point must be understanding who your fans truly are. And that requires using technology effectively. 
  • NFTs & Tickets: I mentioned how I was bearish on NFTs being attached to tickets except in unique situations. I also never mentioned the current high transaction costs with crypto (gas fees) which need to drastically decline to handle existing ticketing volume. That said, clearly there is an industry focus on bringing this idea to life, with SeatGeek in talks to roll out a prototype with the NFL and NBA. 
  • Breaking Up the Ticketmaster Monopoly?: Developing story worth monitoring – Several members of congress want to investigate Ticketmaster’s standing as a monopoly in the ticketing and live entertainment space, claiming damaging impacts to consumers. More to come.

Edition 6 Gamification

  • Robinhood: I mentioned how the financial services company uses digital confetti to gamify the act of buying stocks. Well, less than a week after publishing my piece, Robinhood made the choice to remove its digital confetti feature. As I hinted by labeling fans as ‘losers’, gamification can cover up actual risks behind a behavior. Sounds like Robinhood recognized the confetti was distracting from the company mission and decided to make significant design changes (that or they spun caving to political pressure).

Edition 7 Five on Fan Engagement

  • Fan Engagement & Sponsors: Since publishing, we spoke with the CEO of a ‘fan engagement’ company that intentionally brands itself as a sponsorship platform. Unprovoked, he echoed many of my concerns around fan engagement, including the definition being fungible and the importance of aligning sponsors with activations to drive fan conversion. His company has had recent success from sponsors bringing them directly into properties even if had previously been unsuccessful pitching that same property. The whole conversation speaks to the shifting balance of power from properties to sponsors.
  • Nike & Social Commerce: I wrote some thoughts here (published under David’s name due to a website quirk) why I love Nike’s decision to roll out an app specifically for women with a lot of fan engagement principles.  

Edition 8 The Gen Z Problem

  • Social Media & Challenges: I forgot to include how teams and leagues can utilize social media channels to engage Gen Z through fan challenges. One example? The NHL using Tik Tok and Instagram for an at-home skills challenge.
  • Millennials Killing Cable: Some more research and insights into how the 18-34 demographic has significantly lowered their live TV consumption, while 65+ remains fairly steady. Along the same lines, Gen Z places watching TV and movies way behind playing video games on a survey of entertainment options from Deloitte’s 2021 Digital Trends Survey. As a result, media networks are in the unenviable position of having to extract value from older consumers while adapting to changing consumption habits by Gen Z and young millennials. 
  • Creative Partnerships & Simulcasts: I used Fortnite NFL skins as an example of a creative partnership to garner Gen Z awareness and mentioned the NFL-Nickelodeon Simulcast for the Saints-Bears as a huge success. The NBA decided to aim higher, announcing a new MarvelCast for an upcoming Warriors – Pelicans game. Tune in on May 3rd. 

Until next time,

– Charles

The next edition will examine the Future In-Venue Experience

If you want Chatting Sports Tech delivered to your inbox, enter your email and hit the subscribe button at the top of the page.  

Finally, 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 #8 – The Gen Z Problem

How Sports Tech Can Help You Secure Your Next Of Generation Fans

Today’s edition is all about Gen Z. There’s been no shortage of media attention on their sports appetite, with takes ranging from ‘they don’t like sports’ (uh-oh) to ‘they like sports but consume content differently’ (not so bad). Below I’ll share some research on the current situation and then touch on what it means for your organization and how technology fits in.

Two quick housekeeping items: 

  1. Subscribe at the top of this webpage to receive the latest edition in your inbox. For subscribers only, I share a weekly roundup on new sports tech investments on Fridays. 
  2. Check out past editions here. Topics have included community, gamification, ticketing and fan engagement.

Let’s dive in on Gen Z…

Explain this to me like I’m five. What do we know about Gen Z?

Generation Z – Gen Z for short – refers to persons born after 1996. The graphic below illustrates the generational segments per the Pew Research Center:

Although the age cut-offs are arbitrary (i.e., no reason not to use 1998), researchers rely on cohort classifications to analyze changes in views and behavior over time.

Unlike previous generations, Gen Z is digitally native, having grown up in a world with smartphones. 

They are also more racially and ethnically diverse than previous generations and on track to be the best-educated generation but in my opinion, those characteristics would lead us into a discussion around social activism in sports. Since social activism deserves its own edition, let’s table that and focus more on engagement. 

What does research around their fandom and viewership explain?

Research firm Morning Consult released results from a survey on Gen Z fan identity and sports viewing habits. Here are the two most telling charts:

It’s a bleak picture. I’m not surprised by the first chart for two main reasons. Number 1: There are soooo many other entertainment options available. Video game streaming in particular has captured a percentage of the population that would have gravitated to sports in past decades. Number 2: Youth sports participation rates have declined significantly over the past decade. The Aspen institute has some research here

But on the second chart, the key word in the question was live. How often do you watch live sports? And herein lies an issue.

Variety ran a great piece using data from analytics firm the Maru Group showing consumption habits of different age brackets. Granted the brackets don’t line up neatly with generational classifications, but if you use the 18-34 bracket as a proxy for Gen Z behavior, there’s some telling insights. Here are two more charts:

The big takeaway? Highlights are becoming a more dominant means of consuming sports (chart 1) but younger populations don’t consider themselves any less of a fan compared to older generations (chart 2). 

As a sports property, why should you care?

It’s pretty simple. Here’s a quote from NFL’s CMO Tim Ellis from a November Washington Post piece:

“There’s no strategy for bringing in a 35-year-old fan for the first time…You have to make them a fan by the time they’re 18 or you’ll lose them forever.” 

When thinking about customer cohorts for sports properties, you need to aggressively attract young people as the next generation of fans. If you can secure lifelong fans at an early age, they become profitable consumers once they’ve built discretionary income (tickets, merchandise, potential sponsors, etc.). But if you fail to lock Gen Z early, you’ve lost out on 60+ years of value. Meanwhile, your existing fanbase will slowly attrite from natural causes.  

What are interesting strategies you have seen to attract Gen Z? 

Here are a couple interesting ones:

  • The Simulcast Approach – In other words, having a separate broadcast targeted at younger populations. The NFL had great success with the Nickelodeon simulcast of the NFL’s Saints Bears wild card playoff game, bringing in over 2M viewers. Nickelodeon recently brought this model to the NHL, partnering with Islander’s second screen platform for a game versus the Penguins. 
  • Investing Directly in Youth Sport – One example? The NFL and Nike invested $5 million to bring girls flag football to every high school in America. There are selfish motives – Nike wants to sell more gear while the NFL wants to cultivate its next generation fans – but girls who never had a platform to play football also benefit greatly. 
  • Creative Partnerships with Popular Non-Sport Platforms – Popular video game Fortnite allows players to purchase NFL jersey skins for their characters. Fortnite enthusiasts who wouldn’t otherwise watch the NFL could be exposed to the league by seeing one of these skins, starting them on the path to fandom. 

I work in sports and want to target Gen Z. Where and how should I invest in sports technology?

Let’s approach it from two lenses depending on where you are in the ecosystem. 

If I’m at a property, I’m focusing on the fact Gen Z prefers consuming content in highlight form and therefore, investing in social media content creation tools to meet them on multiple platforms. 

  • For Your Internal Social Team – Technology can’t replace human creativity when it comes to producing interesting content but it can make the process more seamless. Slate, Tagboard and Kickly all have SaaS platforms for sports organizations to create templates and graphics, making the lives of social media teams much easier. These tools save your organization time while producing more interactive and visually stimulating content.
  • For Your Athletes – In the college space, this refers to platforms allowing student athletes to manage their own social media presence. See Opendorse and INFLCR
  • For Your Fans – Your organizational social media strategy needs to remove barriers and encourage fans to post authentic user-generated content. Some examples for fans attending games include: Digital Seat Media which uses QR codes on the back of seats to encourage fans to post on social media, Brizi which providers venues with an aerial camera that fans can use to take in-venue selfies and FanCam where fans post in-venue photos of themselves directly to social media.

If I’m at a rightsholder or media company, I’m focusing on quickly turning live action into shareable clips as well as making my broadcasts more similar to Twitch streams. Therefore, I’m investing in smart automation tools and production plug-ins like the following:  

  • Smart Automation – Both Thuuz and WSC Sports have built platforms using artificial intelligence and machine learning to automatically analyze live game action and create highlights of the most exciting moments. 
  • Production Plug-ins – By production plug-ins, I’m referring to widgets and other gamification features that can be added to live broadcasts and drive interactivity. We mentioned several companies in the gamification edition such as LiveLike, Maestro, Sport Buff and Rebus which can add polls and trivia items directly to broadcasts, to drive fan engagement.

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

Absolutely. Here are the key takeaways:

  • Gen Z is the first digitally native generation, growing up with smartphones. 
  • Gen Z consumes their sports content differently than older generations, with more emphasis on highlights and short form videos. 
  • If you don’t lock in a fan at an early age, odds are you lose them and any potential spending across their lifetime forever. That’s the reasons sports properties need to target these fans early.
  • If I’m a sports property, I’m investing in social media creation tools to make it easier for my digital team to produce and distribute content. 
  • If I’m a rightsholder or media property, I’m investing in smart automation to create bite-size highlights using technology and production add-ons to better engage younger generations.

Until next time,

– Charles

The next newsletter topic will be Smorgasbord. What does that mean? Just wait and see!

Have some thoughts? Want to talk more? Let me know via email (charles@engagemintpartners.com). 

If you’re part of a sports organization in the process of thinking through digital strategies to engage your next generation of fans, shoot the EngageMint Partners team a note. We’d love to help out.

Finally, 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 #7 – Five On Fan Engagement

Five Thoughts on Fan Engagement Tech – Part 1

Last edition went in deep on gamification, which sets us up perfectly to transition to today’s topic: fan engagement. 

One quick housekeeping item: For newsletter subscribers only, I’ll be writing a brief roundup on new investments in sports tech dropping weekly on Fridays. Subscribe at the top of this page if that’s up your alley. I WILL NOT be posting those round-ups to this Chatting Sports Tech website.

Back to fan engagement. The Enterprise Solutions team has spent significant time thinking about the future of fan engagement technology given EngageMint’s core offerings around customer experience. Over the past two months, we’ve spoken with over 40 companies with fan engagement platforms or products. The below are some of my thoughts from those conversations.

Let’s dive in…

1) Collectively We Need To Be Smarter About How We Talk About Engagement

Oftentimes, vanity metrics such as followers, likes, comments, views, etc. are used as placeholders for value when it comes to engagement. Since these metrics are widely available and easy to track, much of the sports industry defaults to this data. The problem is these measures don’t always tell the whole story.

Put differently, not all likes or not all followers are created equal. If you’re running a marketing campaign, would you rather have 10K shares on social and generate $10K of revenue or 1K shares on social and generate $100K of revenue? 

As a rule of thumb, the larger the reach the more valuable. However, when you factor in the effectiveness of reaching your target demographic and alignment with organizational goals (for example, direct sales > awareness), going viral should not always be the goal.

The good news? Digital tools have become more robust, given the emergence of artificial intelligence and machine learning. The fan engagement companies that provide the most value will continuously adapt how they measure engagement and not simply rely on those early generation internet metrics (likes, views, etc.). 

2) Is There a Fan Engagement Bubble? 

Lately when I haven’t been scouring Twitter for the latest sports news, I’ve been reading the book, A Random Walk Down Wall Street. One chapter goes in depth on the largest speculative asset bubbles in history, including the internet bubble. Leading up to this bubble, non-digital businesses were changing their names to include web-oriented designations like dot.com or dotnet to take advantage of higher valuation multiples. And the strategy worked for awhile….until the bubble burst.

Why do I bring the internet bubble up? Well, it seems like every company is slapping “fan engagement platform” to describe itself even if that terminology doesn’t adequately describe its products or services. A quick search through our growing Enterprise Solutions database of sports tech companies yields nearly 100 companies having a description including one of ‘fan engagement,’ ‘fan experience’ or ‘engagement platform.’ 

For example, we’ve looked into some companies that provide in-venue digital displays. How do they label themselves? Fan Engagement Platforms. Technically not untrue since fans engage with digital displays but if I’m in marketing at a college athletic department evaluating fan engagement strategies, I probably don’t have the authority to recommend a new in-stadium digital display.

So are we in a full-on fan engagement bubble? Probably not the appropriate terminology. But I would say the uptick in companies focused on “fan engagement” is real and sadly unsustainable. 

3) The Business Model For Fan Engagement Companies Is Overly Reliant on Sponsors 

Obviously there’s a cost for any sports property to plug in a new fan engagement technology. But when we talk with fan engagement companies, they argue a sponsor will easily cover the cost. That’s logical; however, it doesn’t make for an easy sales process.

What do I mean? Let’s say I was the decision maker in an athletic department and Start-up X pitched me a free-to-play game costing $20K that will not only double in-app engagement but also create $50K of sponsorable inventory. Even if I take the doubling of engagement as fact with a tangible benefit to my fans, I can’t take the $50K of sponsorship revenue for granted without having to jump through some hoops. 

To realize that revenue, I would have to revisit my current sponsor portfolio and gauge interest in the new asset. If no existing sponsor is willing to spend more for an unproven asset, I may then need to find a new sponsor and they don’t grow on trees. Given sponsor relationships would be managed by a different department or a third party rights-holder, there are now four parties required to reach a successful outcome (Gaming Start-up, Me in Marketing, Sponsorships Sales, Brand / Sponsor). The complexity to reach a deal compounds as the number of parties increases. 

If I agree in principle with the free-to-play game but can’t get a new sponsor and my sponsorship team on board, I’ve simply created a cost center with no clear path to ROI.

4) Fan Engagement Is Worthless Without Data Collection and Data Analysis

If you are not collecting information on your fans while engaging them, your organization is missing out. This includes an inability to understand if adjustments to features are required (i.e., something causing bounce rate) and inability to monetize active fans down the road. 

Now, most fan engagement companies I’ve spoken with understand the value of capturing data and providing back-end analytics to their clients. The problem though is knowing how to act on that data to drive operations. Too much data can result in paralysis.  

There’s also the privacy issue from data collection, clearly a regulatory priority between GDPR in Europe and the California Consumer Protection Law. However, recent research shows people are willing to provide non-essential personal information if it leads to more desirable personalized experiences. Thus, the ultimate winners creating fan engagement technology will leverage the data collected to provide the most personalization. 

5) Give Me A Company That Stands Out

Sure. Let’s talk about CUE Audio, which is not only fascinating from a technology perspective but also has a smart business model.

First the technology. CUE patented technology that collects data through sound and turns phone speakers into audio beacons. For in-person events, CUE will create an inaudible audio file to play over a team’s speaker. Phones recognize the trigger and give CUE access to play video or content through the phone. No wifi, cell service or bluetooth is required, important for older venues with poor connectivity. 

Additionally, when the pandemic kept fans from attending events live, CUE innovated, building a new sync feature which allows videos or content to be pushed to fans anywhere across the globe (though requiring a connection). 

You may be asking where does the fan engagement component fit in? Well, CUE’s most popular product is an experiential light show that has been activated at hundreds of sporting events across the pro and college ranks. It’s a cool, immersive experience where fans become part of the show by using their phones. Memorable and unique? Check and check. 

The company does much more than light shows but since I want to keep this short, check out the company website for more use cases. 

Besides their game changing technology, CUE separates itself from other fan engagement technologies on the business side for multiple reasons: 

  • Whereas I mentioned an industry over reliance on sponsors above, CUE often goes to market with a sponsor, having partnered with the major soft drink partners when pitching several teams. 
  • Standard contracts usually span the length of a season, not an annual period, showing a willingness to work around the client’s schedule. 
  • The technology can integrate directly into an existing mobile app and become a traffic driver (downloads of team apps for attendees spike before an event). Relying on a separate CUE audio app would create an unnecessary friction to adoption.
  • CUE continues adding features, providing upsell opportunities for them and new experiences for fans. During the pandemic, a couple universities used CUE’s trivia module to engage fans from home during the week. (Yes I know I bashed trivia as stale and undifferentiated in the gamification edition but with CUE you can upload corresponding videos, making it more of an interactive experience).

That’s all for now. Until next time,

– Charles

The next newsletter topic will be The Gen Z Problem

Do you disagree with these takes? Let me know via email (charles@engagemintpartners.com). And if you’re in the process of evaluating fan engagement technologies, shoot me a note. The EngageMint Partners team would love to hear your thought process.

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 #6 – Gamification

Why Gamification Must Be Part Of Your Digital Strategy

After last edition shared thoughts on ticketing trends, let’s pivot to a more fun topic. Gamification. Who doesn’t love a good game? 

Gamification is nothing new. But whereas gaming used to be a way to pass the time, gamification must be a part of any sports organization’s digital strategy for engaging fans.

In this edition, I’m going to:

  • Define Gamification
  • Talk about how the world’s biggest companies embrace gamification
  • Discuss the importance to the sports industry
  • Touch on some of the sports tech companies in the space
  • Give some predictions for the future

Let’s dive in…

So what do you mean when you say Gamification?

The term gamification traces its roots to 2002 but didn’t hit the mainstream until 2011. This article describes the history and basics but here are the most salient points: 

  • Definition: Applying fun and addictive elements of games to real-world activities to encourage engagement
  • Gamification relies on principles of psychology to drive behavior. The article lists three main components: 1) Motivation, 2) Mastery and 3) Triggers
  • Motivation = Reason someone participates in the game; the best games use intrinsic goals
  • Mastery = Set of rules or skill needed to compete at the game; should be fair and skill-based; not determined solely by luck
  • Triggers = Actions that create a positive feedback mechanism
  • Some other popular gamification aspects include loyalty programs, leaderboards and status bars

Gamification is critical because it helps solve a key challenge every business faces – user retention. 

Before we proceed, gamification is not an entirely new concept. Sweepstakes, contests, leaderboards, loyalty programs, etc. have been around for decades. But it’s the explicit intentionality when designing digital features that has made gamification a recent hot topic. 

That’s some helpful context. Where can you find gamification in the world? 

Short answer: Everywhere. It’s difficult to find a successful consumer facing technology company not built with gamification principles. Some examples across various industries: 

  • Social Networks -> Facebook, Twitter, Tik Tok, Instagram all have feedback loops with likes / follow features 
  • Fitness Apps -> Peloton uses leaderboards and tracks progress throughout a workout
  • Financial Services -> Robinhood uses push notifications and rains confetti when you make a trade 

Here’s a great twitter thread from an Andreesen Horowitz partner exploring gamification examples 

But gamification does not need to only be used for customer engagement. The applications can be much broader. Here’s a case study how Amazon is expanding its gamification program for warehouse employees to improve performance on monotonous tasks.  

Interesting. Bring it back to the world of sports. 

Sports teams are no different from other consumer facing businesses. Fans are consumers and teams are in a constant battle to capture more fan attention. Your fans already tune in to watch your matches but how are they spending their time before and after? They might be reading recaps or checking injury updates already but what else can you do to drive engagement? Enter gamification. 

“Fan engagement platform” has become the trendy way to label a digital platform that includes some level of gamification. We mentioned in edition 2 how professional sports organizations have wisened up and are using team mobile apps as the new fan hub. Most of these mobile app platforms have built-in trivia, loyalty programs and / or other free-to-play games or at least integrations with a third party provider for those features. 

The benefits to a team are obvious. Some examples: 

  • Games drive certain fan behaviors. Many colleges establish rewards programs to get students to attend non-revenue generating sports (i.e., geofence the area for check-in). Students are intrinsically motivated to show they are the most loyal fan and reach the top of the leaderboard.
  • Games drive traffic to a mobile app or website resulting in greater sponsor exposure which can be leveraged for more revenue. A weekly trivia contest creates a sponsorable asset (“brought to you by XX”) plus gets fans in a rhythm of visiting your mobile app and puts more eyeballs on sponsor activations.
  • Games improve fan profiles. If certain fans always enter contests to win an autographed team jersey or unique gameday experience, they can be retargeted with a new merchandise drop or ticket sale link with a higher probability of conversion. 

Final point and it’s a big one: Gambling. Everyone and their mothers are bullish about the impact of legalized gambling to grow the entire sports industry since every research study conducted shows having money on a certain outcome results in higher levels of engagement. We could spend all day on this topic so let’s just focus on one angle: Gambling Properties are in a land grab to acquire customers and in the process, sponsoring sports teams everywhere. 

The playbook usually looks like this. A gambling company enters into a partnership with a team. As part of the deal, especially in states that haven’t legalized mobile gambling, the team introduces a free-to-play game sponsored by the gambling company. Often these are prediction games which involve a series of ‘bets’ without money tied to them. The gambling company gains access to customer information, which can be used to find higher prospect future customers (i.e., fans who are bad at making predictions). Recently, the Warriors, Cavs, LA Kings, Clippers and Bulls all announced partnerships with Betway that appear to be following this playbook. 

I’m not going to comment on the ethical implications of encouraging gambling. Plus what gambling apps know about you is scary. But if you assume gambling being adopted across the entire US is inevitable, teams might as well use this opportunity to create new assets and revenue streams. 

Who are some of the interesting companies in this space?

Most sports organizations don’t have the capabilities or employee expertise to internally create a mobile app with gamification features or design the technology for free-to-play games. Thus A LOT of companies have emerged looking to capitalize. Here’s just a handful of the companies we’ve looked into for Enterprise Solutions:

Companies building games for properties as their core offering:

  • FanBeat – Mobile sports application helps increase fan engagement through gamified live-action and curated content
  • FanneX – Mobile application designed to provide interactive entertainment for sports and entertainment event production
  • Tally – Free-to-play sports prediction platform dedicated to powering immersive, real-time predictive experiences
  • Partake – Mobile fan-engagement platform enhances the experience and connects the fan to the venue
  • Boom Sports – Builds mobile gaming products in conjunction with sports properties
  • GTG Network – Powers arcade-style games for organizations

Companies offering gamification features as part of broader services and products:

  • PICO – SaaS fan management platform to help sports teams, live events and brands build relationships with fans
  • Jebbit – Marketing platform designed to collect & activate relevant consumer data through innovative mobile experiences
  • Cue Audio – Utilize proprietary audio technology for real-time mobile trivia game; also building out 50/50 raffle capabilities
  • SportBuff – Developer of a live-streaming solution platform designed to create a live social game around the video content
  • LiveLike – Audience engagement platform allows broadcasters to transform streaming into fan-driven interactive experiences
  • Rebus – Platform designed to help events achieve profitability by giving event attendees an easy way to tailor their experience; donations, auctions, sweepstakes, raffles, trivias, gamification, etc.

Mobile app providers with gamification features:

  • FromNowOn – One-stop-shop mobile fan experience helping colleges, teams, leagues and venues transform the fan experience on gameday; includes loyalty program and trivia platform
  • InCrowd – Mobile fan engagement & sports marketing platform intended to enhance the fan experience; gamification digital experience tools
  • Fanisko – Fan engagement platform connecting sports teams with their fans and help them engage in mixed reality experiences; AR gaming includes Treasure Hunt type game a la Pokemon GO
  • Venuetize – Mobile engagement platform intended to improve and innovate the guest experience; In-app gamification
  • FanMaker – Athletic team loyalty programs intended to track and reward ticket purchases and other fan engagements; gamification through trivia and polls
  • Bleachr – Fan engagement features to test fans’ knowledge with Trivia and create buzz with challenges

Give me your predictions. What does the future hold?

I’m going to use a winner / loser format to address how the future will play out for the major stakeholders.

Winner: Fans 

We didn’t touch on it above but games are fun! Check out the Cavs partnership with GTG for some arcade style games. I could waste some serious time with that Hoops Daddy game.

With gamification features an essential part of the team app, content lives in a single place and fans have more entertainment options without leaving the team ecosystem. When you factor in many of these gamification features have prizes without any cost to enter, fans are winners. 

Additionally, fan expectations for gamified content will only rise. Competition exists from all forms of entertainment which means in order to compete with video games and social media, the gaming experience has to be interesting to keep fans coming back. 

Loser: Gamification Companies

Did you see how many companies I listed above? And that’s only a fraction of them. 

Products like trivia, free-to-play predictions, rewards platforms, etc. are all commodity-like. There’s no proprietary technology behind the design. Plus most of these companies are beholden to the platforms where users are gathering since these games rely on the team’s underlying audience. This isn’t analogous to creating a stand-alone mobile game because for every hit like candy crush, there’s hundreds of failures that never got off the ground.

So what’s going to happen? 

Those commodity-like gamification features (trivia, rewards) are becoming table stakes for mobile app providers instead of a revenue generating additive feature. Thus, these providers will need to build out their own capabilities or acquire stand-alone gaming companies to even get a seat at the table. 

Meanwhile, stand-alone gaming companies who don’t provide differentiated products or don’t handle actual administration of contests will need to create new innovative products to stand out. The problem though is that even if you create a new unique game, it’s really easy for another company to replicate the features meaning it’s impossible to sustain a competitive advantage. Gamification can help solve for user retention, but building a successful game in the first place is not easy and is why we often see the same tried and true formula (trivia, predictions, arcade style games, etc). 

It’s too early to speculate who the specific winners and losers will be from the companies listed above but anytime products are commoditized, distribution ends up being a significant factor. I’d expect some attrition in the category (i.e., shuttered companies), some consolidation and partnerships and even some new entrants (more AR/VR games) over the next several years. 

Winner: Sports Properties

On the opposite side of the coin, sports properties are big winners. Why? Since there is a large supply of game providers, teams have negotiating leverage. They already have a captive audience of fans and existing brand equity that gamification companies want to leverage. Plus, while hiring a company to build a game costs money, this cost can be off-set through sponsorships of new digital assets created. If properly executed, gamification can be a profit center, not a cost center.

Winner: Brands / Sponsors

Above I mentioned free-to-play games creating a customer lead generation funnel for gambling properties. That’s an easy example of a high sponsor ROI on an activation. But the potential extends beyond gambling properties. New assets created through gamification allow sponsors to activate in a way that’s aligned with their mission or brand, providing much higher return versus old models (i.e., paying for in-stadium signage).   

Loser: Fans  

Wait? Aren’t fans winners? Why are they also losers?

It’s complicated. By labeling fans as both, I wanted to highlight the double-edged sword fans face. When it comes to gamification, you are the product, not unlike how advertisers flock to Facebook to target users. If fans recognize that and resist the upsell attempts for paid products, you can simply enjoy some gameplay. 

However, companies have improved their targeted advertising and resisting is not easy. Posting this again since it’s eye-opening but check out how much a gambling app knows about you. People who are consistent losers of prediction games will find it difficult to escape the barrage of offers from a sportsbook.  

That was a lot. Can you summarize real quick? 

Absolutely. Here’s the key takeaways: 

  • Gamification means applying fun and addictive elements of games to real-world activities to encourage engagement
  • Gamification is everywhere (social media, financial services, fitness). The sports industry is no different with gamification being a core pillar of fan engagement platforms. 
  • There is no shortage of sports tech companies with gamification solutions or relying on gamification features.
  • In my opinion, sponsors and sports properties will be the winners from the increased emphasis on gamification due to commoditized offerings while the tech companies themselves will be forced to consistently innovate and defend market share. 

That’s all for now. Next week’s edition will be a mini one with Five Thoughts on Fan Engagement Tech.

Until next time,

– Charles

Do you disagree on what the future of gamification will look like? Let me know via email (charles@engagemintpartners.com).

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 #5 – Ten Ticketing Takes

Sharing Some Thoughts on the State of Sports Ticketing

Whereas the last edition explored a future where virtual ticketing gives fans courtside access without leaving the couch, this edition will bring us back to the current ticketing landscape. Given how complex ticketing is, I’m going to deviate slightly from the normal format and list my ten thoughts up front. I’ll then briefly explain each below, with emphasis on some interesting sports tech companies. 

  1. The greatest short-term hurdle for the industry is low consumer confidence…
  2. …Which means the balance of power will shift to the fans
  3. The ticketing industry is experiencing its own unbundling
  4. Organizations must think about ticketing holistically and use technology to maximize profit, not just ticket sales
  5. The pandemic accelerated mobile ticketing’s inevitability 
  6. And exposed the need for better credit solutions
  7. Ticket buying is finally becoming more social to the benefit of all
  8. Membership pass programs are here to stay
  9. Blockchain might create a new buyer pool…
  10. …But it will definitely shake-up the current secondary market

Let’s dive in…

The greatest short-term hurdle for the industry is low consumer confidence…

Until health restrictions are fully lifted which can’t be expected until 2022 at the earliest, a large portion of the population will be uncomfortable attending live sporting events. This obviously shrinks the ticketing buyer pool dramatically. Some of the statistics I’ve seen from released surveys: 

Thus, even if a stadium allows for 100% capacity, the data suggests fans won’t necessarily come back and tickets won’t sell out. Burden will fall on teams’ communications staff to continuously convey the message that health and safety protocols are in place and being adhered to as fans begin trickling back.  

…Which means the balance of power has temporarily shifted back to the fans

ESPN had a good article titled ‘Fans win post-covid ticketing which listed five ways fans will benefit: 1) Lower prices and more freebies, 2) Greater flexibility on refunds and exchanges, 3) Farewell to cash and paper tickets, 4) Bye-bye to bots and 5) No expected fee hikes on major reseller market. How properties react with ticket prices coming out of the pandemic will be fascinating to watch. 

Prices will have to be lowered, especially as there’s less demand in the market (putting my MBA microeconomics class to use). But by simply lowering prices, teams establish a lower starting point for future year increases. 

Let’s use simple math to illustrate. A ticket was $50 before the pandemic. The team drops it by 20% for 2021 to lure fans back. Psychologically, fans internalize the new $40 ticket as the norm.  But to then raise prices back to $50 in 2022 would mean a 25% price hike. Some customers become outraged by the size of that increase. The sports team’s PR department has to put out a fire. 

This is the same rationale why NYC landlords use free month rent concessions to entice lessees rather than drop the average monthly rent. The economics to the renter are the same (or better if you factor in time value of money) but the landlord can re-establish old prices once life returns to normal.

The customer will win but teams would prefer freebies over price drops (one solution? membership programs discussed below). Will it be enough to get fans back in the stands? I’d guess not. Teams will ultimately have to bite the bullet and lower prices.

The ticketing industry is experiencing its own unbundling

Unbundling in my words – When a one stop shop for multiple services each with separate pain points is disaggregated by companies laser focused on a specific service. One of the most common examples is the unbundling of the commercial bank from the FinTech world. Whereas the community bank used to provide its customers with every type of financial service, startups have emerged that are focused on a single aspect (e.g., home lending, wealth management, payment remittances, education finance, etc.) and do that one service much more efficiently or at a lower price.

The ticketing industry is facing a similar unbundling, albeit on a smaller scale. There used to be the primary platforms (e.g., Ticketmaster, Paciolan, etc.) and secondary platforms (e.g., StubHub). But over the past decade, multiple smaller companies have emerged in the ecosystem targeting specific pain points and providing tools in areas such as group sales, membership passes, VIP experiences, seat upgrades, marketing, etc. These areas weren’t core competencies of the primary platforms, leaving the door open for smaller and more nimble companies. I’ll touch on some of these new companies below.

Organizations must think about ticketing holistically and use technology to maximize profit, not just ticket sales

With any ticket strategy, the goal should be to maximize the bottom line and not necessarily ticket revenue. Would your organization rather sell a ticket for $100 or $80? Obviously $100. But what if the person who’d buy that $100 ticket never spends at the ballpark while the $80 buyer always buys a t-shirt, program and meal for $50 generating 60% margins. Or if the $100 ticket would sell through a site taking 30% commissions while the $80 ticket would sell through a site taking 10% commissions. In both scenarios, the $80 ticket drives more to the bottom line. 

The above is a hypothetical but hopefully you see that sticker price isn’t always the telling metric. Thinking about ticketing holistically involves a deep understanding of who your customers are, what they do when at the stadium, what your ticket broker ecosystem looks like and what your channel mix is selling across primary and secondary platforms. 

Ticketing is driven by supply and demand principles. Organizational goals will differ drastically across sports. Ohio State football will almost certainly sell-out home games so the school’s goal becomes revenue maximization. That’s a big reason why the school announced a new tier model for season ticket holders going forward, a clever way to frame price increases. On the flip side though, the Yankees are more worried about getting people into the stadium on a random Tuesday against the Orioles, meaning their goal is to maximize distribution across the multiple platforms and keep seats from going empty. 

Regardless of goal, technology has to be a pillar of any organization’s strategy to optimize profit. That could involve using dynamic pricing software in-house from a company like QCue to manage supply and demand or hiring a third party specialist to handle distribution using their own proprietary technology (Dynamic Pricing Partners, Eventellect, Event Dynamic).

The pandemic accelerated mobile ticketing’s inevitability 

Mobile ticketing was always the future. Rapid smartphone adoption was enabling teams and venues to go paperless. Plus with teams wanting to control the fan journey and collect more data to provide personalized experiences, mobile ticketing had to be the backbone. But some teams were hesitant to force mobile ticketing on fans because they didn’t want to upset the portion of their base that wasn’t tech savvy. 

Well COVID-19 reshuffled priorities and accelerated the pace of paperless (and cashless) adoption as teams wanted to avoid exchanging physical tickets and risk spreading germs. With nearly every professional team already having mobile ticketing integrated as a feature of their gameday app and most colleges utilizing some type of mobile pass-through, 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).  

And exposed the need for better credit solutions

The pandemic was a black swan event when it came to event cancellations. Besides the one off weather catastrophe or sick artist, events were almost never canceled so ticketing providers never built infrastructure to handle mass refunds. All of a sudden, fans were sitting on hundreds of dollars of credit but without a clear ability to direct those funds, particularly if a fan was hesitant to attend an upcoming game during the pandemic.

Season Share, the company behind the Orlando Magic credit program from the ESPN article, has created a flexible spending product that makes it easy for fans to track unused credit and apply to other purchases and experiences (seat upgrades, merchandise, etc.). Hopefully – and this may be wishful thinking – but products will change the age old industry mindset that all sales are final. 

Think about the potential. Let’s say 48 hours before a game, a family can no longer attend due to an emergency. Historically, either the tickets are relisted on the secondary market or the tickets go unused. Scenario 1 is bad because the fan likely takes a loss after fees and the team doesn’t collect info on the new attendee. Scenario 2 is also bad because the family gets no money while the seat goes unfilled and the team earns no concession revenue. 

With tools that easily allow for cancellation and credit receipt, the original buying family is happy (money can be applied later) and the team is happy because they can re-release the ticket inventory. Assuming deadlines would be added a la the hotel industry where people can cancel up until XX number of hours prior to stay without a charge, teams would be protected from the downside of a flood of last minute cancellations.

Ticket buying is finally becoming more social to the benefit of all 

Edition 2 touched on the power of community and how the next wave of giant companies need a social element (social+). Ticket buying is no exception. In the past, it was a solitary activity. If I planned to attend a Yankee game with three friends, I’d buy a block of four tickets, then collect payment from each of those friends on venmo, and up until recently when mobile wallet transfers became easier, I had sole custody of all the tickets. The team would have no visibility into my three friends while the buyer faced the annoyance of collecting payment.

The good news? Companies recognize these pain points and are solving them. FEVO has built social commerce features that sits on top of the normal checkout process. Consumers can buy as individuals and easily share socially to drive higher conversion rates on group buying. 

Then there’s also the group sales component. One ticketing company founder estimated that up to 90% of a ticket sales rep’s time can be spent coordinating group sales (think a local little league purchasing tickets), which make up only 10% of total team sales. Spinzo wants to make the lives of these ticket sales reps easier, by providing white label templates to easily customize and manage group sales pages for different organizations. 

Membership pass programs are here to stay

If you want to dive in on membership programs, check out EngageMint’s interview of Chris Giles, former ticketing exec with the Oakland A’s who implemented a membership model and then left the A’s to start FanRally. Chris does a great job talking through the economics and the business model so I won’t go into many details.

Besides FanRally, more companies are building various pass programs with FanMaker, Fevo and Season Share all joining the fold. Though detractors think this model introduces cannibalization (i.e., members who would have bought higher priced single game tickets are now getting a discount), I’m bullish because of a) more data collection allows for more experience personalization (think country club model), b) drives more attendance for off games and c) new stadium inventory (i.e., sell standing room then get people to upgrade seats or buy concessions and merchandise).

Blockchain might create a new buyer pool…

Ted Leonsis, owner of the Washington Capitals, Wizards and Mystic and part of the NBA owners committee investigating blockchain, recently shared his thoughts with Sportico. A big headline? Packaging tickets with a digital asset enabled through the blockchain will create a new buyer pool interested in the digital asset but not interested in ever attending the game. 

That may ultimately be the case, but I’m bearish besides the rarest of occasions. The article mentions how attaching a promotional item is similar to traditional bobblehead nights. Sure there are people who collect bobbleheads, but most promotional items aren’t valuable collectables. And yes, you need to actually attend the game and usually show up early to procure a bobblehead which wouldn’t be the case. Would I buy a ticket to get a digital asset and in the process assume the risk to re-sell the ticket? Not as long as there are transaction costs, both monetary (fees) and non-monetary (time). Plus, think how flooded supply in the market would become if every team is attaching a digital asset to every ticket. 

The ONE scenario where I do think this model could thrive is for that 1% of truly special games. Examples? Derek Jeter’s last game at Yankee Stadium or the Staples Center honoring Kobe Bryant after his death. People have emotional attachment to these players’ careers and are willing to spend money to feel a part of the experience, even if they can’t attend. These digital assets might not have serious investment value (too much supply) but people would place sentimental value on the memorabilia. Plus, demand for these tickets already exists if the original buyer wants to re-sell the ticket and keep the digital asset. But then again, maybe the better strategy is for the team to release commemorative digital assets completely separate from tickets. 

…But it will definitely shake-up the current secondary market

Where I am very bullish is blockchain’s potential to overhaul the secondary ticket market. Dallas Mavs owner Mark Cuban shared some thoughts here. Currently teams don’t benefit when a fan resells a ticket through a secondary platform (e.g., Stubhub). The team doesn’t know who the new fan is nor do they collect any of the transaction costs while the Stubhubs of the world collect a fee on both sides. Using blockchain technology, which records every transaction on its immutable ledger, allows a team to understand the entire transaction history and share in any sales revenue. If I’m Mark Cuban or any team owner, I’d be racing to figure out a blockchain solution that grows my top line while shifting power away from existing secondary platforms. From personal experience, I immediately venture to Stubhub when searching for a ticket.

I haven’t spent as much time analyzing emerging blockchain ticketing companies in depth and can’t speculate on who ultimately becomes a winner in the space but there are a couple to keep your eye on. There’s BandwagonFanClub, which has a proprietary blockchain database software monitoring each ticket transaction. And then there’s Aventus Systems, which has a Blockchain based B2B open source ticketing software from Europe for ticket sales and resales. It’s also very possible a company like Dapper Labs, the facilitator of NBA Top Shot, starts building in the ticketing vertical. 

Let’s wrap there as that was a lot of ticketing specific information. Thank you for taking the time to read all the way through. If you enjoyed, please share with someone else who loves sports business or is interested in sports tech. 

Until next time,

– Charles

The next edition will touch on one of the sports world’s favorite buzzwords, gamification

If you haven’t already, add me on LinkedIn and follow me on Twitter @ccampisi_EES. Feel free to share some feedback on the newsletter or just pass along interesting findings in the sports tech space via email (charles@engagemintpartners.com).

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