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Payments firms see slam dunk opportunity with sports venues

By Caitlin Mullen

Payments firms see slam dunk opportunity with sports venues

Sports fans are encountering a new crop of grab-and-go concessions and other changes for purchases at stadiums and arenas, after COVID-19 concerns expanded interest in not just cashless but speedier, contactless transactions.

The pandemic spurred innovation, and as more professional sports organizations link up with payments companies, technology being rolled out "is driven a lot by what fans have come to expect," said Geoff Johnson, general manager of Bypass at Brookfield, Wisconsin-based Fiserv. When waiting in line for a hot dog could mean missing a crucial play, fans want self-service options, and the ability to order and pay without interacting with an operator.

"For years, a lot of the concessions companies and the teams have been trying to find ways to implement those types of technologies" through kiosks or through mobile, Johnson said.

An increasingly crowded field

Big names in payments as well as startups are climbing into the ring. Last fall, San Francisco-based digital payment tools company Square inked a 10-year deal with SoFi Stadium, where the NFL’s Los Angeles Rams and Chargers play. Square will handle payment and merchant services, making the NFL’s largest venue a cashless one.

UBS Arena and its home team, the NHL’s New York Islanders, are the most recent to partner with Fiserv. That location is one of a couple dozen venues using the company's point-of-sale hardware and software that have also begun employing contactless commerce, including grab-and-go kiosks, digital or mobile ordering and contactless pickup, Johnson said.

Fiserv Forum, home of the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks, has a custom mobile ordering solution developed by the global payments processor. Early pandemic surveys revealed fans had concerns about how food would be ordered, handled and picked up once live events returned, said Matt Pazaras, chief business development and strategy officer for the team and venue.

"We said 'OK, how can we not only improve our operations, which we were already looking to do, but how can we dovetail that with alleviating some of these concerns?'" Pazaras said.

Generally in these experiences, a worker scans a printed ticket to let the fan know the order is ready to be picked up and when the fan shows up, a worker scans the ticket again to confirm it's been picked up.

The changes have not only sped up transactions but also resulted in fans spending more, Johnson said.

During the NBA Finals last year, at the Bucks' Forum and Phoenix Suns' Footprint Center, 8% to 10% of all food orders were made through mobile at each game; up to 12% were made through kiosks, according to Fiserv Spokesman Chase Wallace. The average mobile order total was 28% higher than orders taken by cashiers, according to Fiserv.

Adding check-out free options

As these partnerships proliferate, some have taken a different tack with check-out free options at concession shops. Amazon’s Just Walk Out cashierless concept has debuted at Climate Pledge Arena in Seattle and TD Garden in Boston. San Francisco startup Zippin, which has raised $45 million in venture funding, offers a checkout-free experience at stadiums in Sacramento and Denver. Purchase, New York-based Mastercard opened its MRKT last fall at TIAA Bank Field, the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars stadium.

Another, the Ford Field Express Shop at the home of the Detroit Lions, was piloted recently and will be open to fans during the last home game of the season. That "checkout-free market," offered by Verizon 5G and automated retail technology company AiFi, lets customers swipe or tap their credit card as they walk in, choose their food or drinks and leave.

"Checkout-free markets like these significantly increase speed of service by essentially eliminating lines," providing fans quicker access to food and drinks, Sandeep Satish, vice president at the restaurant and foodservice company Levy's E15 analytics affiliate, said in an email.

In partnering with Amalie Arena, home of the NHL’s Tampa Bay Lightning, checkout startup Fast put QR codes on cupholders that allow fans to scan and purchase promoted items like team gear during a game.

"We are just looking at more channels and more places that we can take this,” said Kali Myrick, head of communications at San Francisco-based Fast, which touts its "checkout anywhere" one-click purchase ability. In 2022, the company — which has raised more than $124 million in funding — expects to roll out "more in the sports space for sure," she added.

Also competing in the burgeoning stadium and sport payments arena is Shift4 Payments, which acquired VenueNext in 2021; Shift4 is headquartered in Allentown, Pennsylvania. And there is Appetize Technologies, which brings cashless POS ability to MLB ballparks like Dodger Stadium. It was purchased by the global software and payments company SpotOn last year,

Some companies are moving into college sports venues, too, as San Francisco-based SpotOn has done with the University of Arizona and the University of Miami.

Diving into the data

For venue operators, these changes can unlock a valuable trove of data on fans and their purchases. Tickets tend to be bought in groups, so teams and venues don’t always know who’s in their stadium, Johnson said, but when fans purchase through an app or share their email or phone number, "it opens up opportunities for the teams to potentially reach out, to create experiences."

"There’s a much higher fidelity of data that we get, and the teams are starting to use that," he added.

Tappit, a mobile payment provider that partners with Fiserv, integrates its mobile pay technology into existing team apps or provides a standalone web wallet, and powers wearable devices such as wristbands with purchasing capabilities, according to the company’s CEO, Jason Thomas. The Leeds, England-based firm works with the NFL’s Kansas City Chiefs and Jacksonville Jaguars as well as the MLB's Cincinnati Reds, among others.

Linked to those cashless payment solutions "is this data analytics platform that allows our partners to understand the fans, improve the fan experience and increase profits," Thomas said in a recent intervew. Organizations "are realizing for the first time they do not want to give the data away, and they need to understand their attendees’ behavior better."

Teams might take note of concessions commonly purchased together that could be packaged as a combo, or the times when concessions bottlenecks occur, Johnson said. Depending on whether the venue is hosting a sporting event, a concert or a family show, data can vary widely, Pazaras noted.

"The power of the data here is in the ability to understand how fans prefer to access the space," and optimize offerings accordingly, Satish said of the Ford Field Express Shop.

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