Future of Sports
Chatting Sports Tech

Edition #14 – Innovating Stadium Access

Can Entry Technology Defeat Lines For Good?

TL:DR version:

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

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

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

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

Let’s dive in and learn more… 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s the current state of access control technologies?

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

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

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

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

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

Biometrics. Specifically, facial authentication. 

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

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

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

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

Anything else worth bringing up? 

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

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

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

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

Until next time,

– Charles

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

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

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

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Future of Sports
Chatting Sports Tech

Edition #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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