The Athletic- NFL Announces all Digital Ticketing Going Forward
NFL to fans: Say goodbye to paper tickets, mobile ticketing is here to stay
The NFL expects full stadiums in the fall, 30 of 32 teams already communicating they will accept 100 percent of capacity, a far cry from the pandemic-stricken 2020 season. But one thing that is not coming back with the fans is physical tickets.
During the pandemic, all leagues largely shifted to mobile ticketing to reduce person-to-person contact, but the NFL appears to be the first to carry that policy through as mandatory.
“There are so many fan-friendly benefits that come with mobile ticketing,” Peter O’Reilly, the NFL’s executive vice president of events, said this week. “The ability to know who is in that seat, communicate with them in the lead-up, kind of really builds the communication before and after the game. So I think mobile ticketing across the NFL and probably across the entertainment industry is here to stay. And that’s a good thing.”
In 2019, the year before the pandemic, about half the NFL’s on-average 17 million in-stadium attendees used mobile ticketing, a number that had quickly jumped from previous years. Going digital allows teams to track secondary ticket sales, communicate event information, know better who is in the seat and, of course, advertise.
“What COVID has done for them, it has given them the perfect accelerant for mobile ticketing,” said Tony Knopp, co-founder of TicketManager, which helps companies manage tickets. “If the NFL trailblazes here and shows that it’s doable, safe, easy, they don’t get sued for it, then yeah, all the other leagues are going to follow because it’s in their best interest to have mobile ticketing.”
There are, however, privacy concerns with mandating mobile phone use for stadium entry, and even equity issues for low-income fans who might not have phones or have data caps. Susan Grant, director of consumer protection and privacy at the Consumer Federation of America, laughed in response to a question about the COVID-19 rationale for going to mobile ticketing.
COVID-19 spreads not on surfaces like tickets, she said, but through the air. That is more likely to happen in packed stadiums than because of handing over tickets, she said.
The share of Americans that own a smartphone is 85 percent, up from just 35 percent in 2011, according to the Pew Research Center. Teams that in the past went fully mobile on ticketing did offer a will-call pickup choice. But Grant said it’s not just about having a phone but wanting to use it as a ticket.
“The policy is really exclusionary at a time when there’s heightened sensitivity for the need to be inclusive of people of all economic and social backgrounds and at a time when issues like privacy are really coming to the fore,” she said. “This seems a tone-deaf move on the part of the NFL.
“Not only doesn’t everybody have a smartphone, but not everybody who has a smartphone wants to use their phone in that way. There are still lots of people even with smartphones who basically mainly want to use their phones to make and receive calls. They don’t necessarily want somebody like the NFL sharing their information, to have their smartphone numbers (and) email addresses in order to bombard them with advertising.”
Grant recommended the NFL revert to its old policy of voluntary use like airlines employ. That, though, seems unlikely not just for the NFL, but in the future of all entertainment.
Joe Berchtold, president of the LiveNation events/concerts company, told CNBC this week: “I think we are going to see a big shift to digital ticketing. We saw that in the past year where the NFL went from 50 percent or so digital ticketing to 100 percent digital ticketing. We think that unlocks some big advantages for the fans and their experience — how they can manage the tickets, send them to friends and others they are coming with, the ability to order and pick up their food — not having to wait in line. So we think that we will be able to deploy some technology, because of this, that will enhance the fan experience.”
One area NFL is not dictating mobile phone use is ordering concession. Here the league is planning more of a return to normalcy, as guided by local health regulations. The Atlanta Falcons famously went cashless at their stadium, accepting only cards and phone payment apps. The NFL is not mandating that for other teams but notes many may do so.
The move to cashless transactions, which more than 20 teams used last season, “will definitely continue and likely increase further this season,” O’Reilly wrote in an email.
“There is much we learned (last) year that are now best practices that will improve the fan experience for the foreseeable future, whether that is mobile ticketing, cashless concessions, contactless environments, many cleaning protocols, and even more regular communication with fans leading up to and on game day. The return to full stadiums will bring with it all of those advancements and positive changes for fans.”