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Biometric ticketing a hit with major sports leagues

MLB, Euro soccer pave the way for NFL and more as facial recognition becomes ‘inevitable’
Biometric ticketing a hit with major sports leagues
 

More and more sports franchises are playing ball with biometric ticketing options for fans. Major League Baseball (MLB) and European soccer leagues have thus far led the way. But much as biometric systems are seeing increasing pickup in retail and transportation settings, a transformational wave of biometric ticketing deployments across the sporting world seems likely, if not inevitable – despite ongoing concerns from privacy advocates that facial recognition and other biometrics-based access control systems are a risk to personal privacy.

Major League Baseball: the Go-Ahead Entry system

This season, the Washington Nationals became the fourth MLB team to install MLB’s Go-Ahead Entry facial recognition gates at its ballpark. Japan’s NEC provides biometrics for the system, which is also in use at stadiums in Philadelphia, Houston and San Francisco. The end-to-end Go-Ahead Entry system is proprietary to MLB. But the league has experimented with facial recognition from various providers: Wicket technology has provided face biometrics for entry to New York Mets games and Clear has done the same for Cleveland Guardians games.

A 2023 Go-Ahead Entry pilot at Citizens Bank Ballpark in Philadelphia found that biometric lines moved 68 percent faster, and allowed 2.5 times more people to pass through than the fastest lane using physical or smartphone-based tickets.

Biometric systems find homes in European soccer stadiums

EU football clubs have also proven to be keen experimenters with biometric access control. In the Belgian Pro League, the Planet Group Arena (formerly Ghelamco Arena) in Ghent ran a trial of palm-based ticketing with Perfect ID and palm vein biometrics firm Palmki. Likewise, Veridas has provided biometric access control systems at El Sadar stadium in Spain, currently home to La Liga’s Osasuna football club. Italy’s Lega Serie A has plans to implement facial recognition at all of its clubs’ stadiums.

In the EU, facial recognition at soccer matches has been used for security control as well as gate access. But once a biometric system is implemented, maximizing use cases makes financial sense.

It is not only European stadiums that see the benefit. In March, Cooper’s Stadium in Adelaide, Australia became the country’s third major football facility to deploy biometrics. And in Mexico, Liga MX requires fans to enroll in their fan ID program for entry by facial recognition, provided by Incode Technologies.

NFL to bring biometrics to the gridiron experience

The NFL is the latest major sports league to get on side with biometric ticketing. Wicket will provide league-wide digital credentialing and computer vision for biometric gate systems to be deployed in the upcoming season. The mass deployment follows a three-and-half year trial of biometric identity access management (IAM) systems for what the NFL calls its Express Access authentication platform.

Trials in stadiums for the Cleveland Browns and Atlanta Falcons enabled fans to opt into biometric entry by uploading a selfie and government ID doc into the team’s mobile app. These identifiers are synched with digital ticket purchases, allowing registered users to enter through designated lanes by presenting their face to a scanner.

According to Sports Business Journal, Wicket CEO Sanjay Manandha says the Browns have had 22,000 fans sign up for express access, and that the opt-out rate is zero percent.

The league is expected to set up centralized facial recognition based on Express Access at all 30 active NFL stadiums.

Other leagues may follow suit as fan experience prioritized

A question running quietly below every biometric transaction is, “What do I, the user, get out of this?” Security measures can be a hard sell because few people consider themselves a threat, and the percentage of genuine threats is low.

For fan experience, however, biometrics can be framed as a premium or VIP option, rather than an obligation based on ambient distrust. The long-term vision for many team and venue owners is an end-to-end biometrics-based experience. In comments to SBJ Tech, New York Mets CEO Mark Brubaker lists the potential applications: “Facial recognition purchasing of food and beverage and merchandise. Facial recognition for wayfinding, facial recognition for haptics and updates on your phone in terms of what’s going on.”

Brubaker believes biometric integration into the fan journey is “inevitable”, simply because it will make the stadium experience that much more fun.

The NBA leveraged Clear biometrics for pandemic-era COVID safety protocols with the Health Pass deployment, and currently allows Apple FaceID for user login to the NBA app. (And of course, there is the notorious case of Madison Square Garden owner James Dolan using FRT to ban hostile litigants and their attorneys from the arena.) The NHL, too, has run trials before. As more pro leagues adopt biometric technology for ticketing and fan experience, there will start to be pressure on those that haven’t to catch up.

Data protection remains top concern; no FRT at Olympics – this time

Liga MX’s system, which conforms to National Institute for Transparency and Access to Information (INAI) guidelines around personal data, encrypts user biometrics in a QR code, which they present at the gate to validate their identity. In this system, a fan owns and controls their personal data and biometrics, and they do not have to be directly shared at the gate.

French authorities have said that facial recognition will not be deployed at this summer’s Paris olympics, but AI-assisted body scanners will be in use as part of surveillance efforts to run from July 26 to August 11. Trial runs at large concerts by Depeche Mode and the Black Eyed Peas drew the ire of rights groups, who say the deployments in the name of public security are a hair’s breadth away from invasive mass surveillance.

French politicians have not helped the case, with some referring to the Games as a “playground” in which to experiment with AI-driven video surveillance, according to the Japan Times.

When facial recognition equals fun  

The ecosystem of sports-focused biometrics use cases continues to intensify. From venue parking to gate access to concessions and merch to in-game betting via mobile apps to beer, the live sporting experience is perhaps better primed than any other industry to convince customers that biometric options can be seen as a perk, rather than just a data privacy risk.

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Comments

One Reply to “Biometric ticketing a hit with major sports leagues”

  1. So let me understand this. Most large corporate are being sued by employees for employing biometric credentials because they are worried about their identities being stolen or abused. Law enforcement is being told that they are not allowed to use mass facial recognition in public because it interferes with a person’s reasonable expectation of privacy in public no less. However it’s ok for sports teams and their managing organizations to employ facial rec at massive events where crowds in excess of 85-100k ppl are getting scanned for “entry” and whatever else they want but have the subscript is so small you can’t read it while you perform a 2 sec transaction to get into the venue? The NFL says biometrics are inevitable and the “opt out” ratio is zero. So if it’s zero why not allow law enforcement to employ for real time scanning with proper provision over usage of course?

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