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Is biometric entry coming? Pro teams, colleges and bowls are ditching paper tickets

Marcus Dihlmann was skeptical about buying baseball tickets from a website on his smartphone while vacationing in San Diego in late August, so he went directly to the Petco Park box office.

He bought nine for family and friends to watch the Padres play the Cleveland Guardians, and the employee behind the ticket window promptly texted the tickets to his smartphone.

Dihlmann, visiting from France, said he moved the tickets right into his virtual wallet and shrugged when asked about not having a paper memento for the game.

"I'm used to it," he said.

The Padres, like many professional sports teams, colleges and this Labor Day weekend's Chick-fil-A Kickoff games in Atlanta, only allow fans into their facilities through electronic tickets.

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Marcus Dihlmann, left, and Marco De Tullio look at Dihlmann's smartphone after he purchased electronic tickets from the San Diego Padres ticket office in late August.
Marcus Dihlmann, left, and Marco De Tullio look at Dihlmann's smartphone after he purchased electronic tickets from the San Diego Padres ticket office in late August.

"It really provides protection to the fan who bought the original ticket," said Gary Stokan, chief executive of the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl that runs the games. "The person has the flexibility to transfer them. It's a lot safer for the fan and for us too. We don't have to worry about guys (reselling tickets) outside of the stadium."

Tickets going paperless is a trend sports business executives and analysts said began prior to the pandemic and have become even more common now as sports fans are comfortable using their smartphones to store vaccination records and other items like airline tickets.

"Paper tickets are close to done," said Aron Solomon, head of strategy and chief legal analyst at internet marketer Esquire Digital. "It’s far more difficult to do illegal things with e-tickets. The reason it took this long for us to go digital was ... not enough people were comfortable with the notion of digital wallets on their phone."

The move eliminates counterfeit paper tickets, helps the environment and gives sports organizations more information about purchasing habits, industry analysts say.

It also provides some additional revenue to sports organizations, that get a cut of the sales of secondary tickets that are typically marked up and sold on their websites or apps.

Electronic tickets also cut out scalpers who can make money selling tickets outside stadiums. But also lost is the nostalgia act of saving a souvenir item, said a major collector of ticket stubs.

And even as electronic tickets become the norm, one sports executive says the next "ticket" into games could be biometrics – using your palm to get into event.

Is biometric entry next?

Jacque Holowaty is vice president of employee and guest experience at Climate Pledge Arena in Seattle, home to the NHL's Seattle Kraken and WNBA's Seattle Storm.

Holowaty said when the arena opened last October, it only sold electronic tickets, like most of the NHL. But fans who had Amazon One could use their palm to pay for concessions.

Jacque Holowaty is vice president of employee and guest experience of Climate Pledge Arena in Seattle, home to the NHL's Seattle Kraken. She believes it's only a short matter of time before biometrics - the swipe of a palm - are used to enter sporting events and concerts.
Jacque Holowaty is vice president of employee and guest experience of Climate Pledge Arena in Seattle, home to the NHL's Seattle Kraken. She believes it's only a short matter of time before biometrics - the swipe of a palm - are used to enter sporting events and concerts.

"Normally, you insert a credit card and grab something and leave…You can go in and grab a popcorn or beer, and you are charged," she said. "You can walk up and never have to pull out your wallet."

Holowaty said using biometrics to buy tickets for sporting events may sound "frightening" to some fans, but they likely had the same reservations about electronic tickets.

Gathering data

All NBA, NFL and MLB teams only use electronic tickets as do the six major college bowl games around New Year's , according to the leagues and a key bowl executive. The NHL did not respond to questions.

One sports business analyst said teams, bowls and most colleges have gone to electronic tickets to monitor the spending habits of fans.

"It's really about gathering data to sell additional stuff, and they want to know where you are going in their buildings," said David Carter, a sports business consultant in Los Angeles and adjunct professor at the Marshall School of Business at the University of Southern California.

Carter said that information helps teams know how to staff events or where to sell additional concessions or souvenirs. He added that some teams add gift cards to their e-tickets, especially to season ticket holders, to monitor purchasing habits.

"The sports industry will tell you it's a way to improve customer service and provide a better game day experience, but they also gather a lot of consumer research that they can use," Carter said.

Ray Artigue, former senior vice president of marketing for the NBA's Phoenix Suns, said electronic tickets give teams opportunities to sell tickets to other fans who may have tickets transferred to them by the original ticket buyer.

"It's all about data and having more intelligence about your customer," Artigue said.

Artigue added that e-tickets allow teams to see if season ticket holders are selling their tickets to brokers or online for a profit. He said many teams limit the number of tickets those customers can resell since they pay discounted prices for buying large numbers of seats in some markets.

Artigue noted that most sports organization have their own resale sites on their websites or apps, which allows those organizations to get a portion of the resale.

Chick-fil-A Kickoff games go paperless

In Atlanta, both Labor Day weekend college football matchups at Mercedes-Benz Stadium have been sold out since July, but fans can buy e-tickets on the "official" Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game resale website. Some tickets were selling for more than triple their face value on Tuesday.

Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl Chief Executive Gary Stokan says electronic tickets protect fans from counterfeit tickets. His bowl was one of the first to go away from paper tickets.
Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl Chief Executive Gary Stokan says electronic tickets protect fans from counterfeit tickets. His bowl was one of the first to go away from paper tickets.

Having a resale site guarantees that fans have authentic tickets for high-demand games, says Stokan, the CEO of the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl,  a separate game sponsored by the same restaurant chain..

"We had a lot of people buy from us and put tickets on the secondary market and make the markup," he said. "What we wanted to do was clean that up."

The bowl has fans download the Peach Bowl app to manage their tickets, and the app gives them information about social media and events related to the game, Stokan said.

Peach Bowl began experimenting with e-tickets in 2018, he said, and was among the first major college bowls to sell only virtual tickets.

He said it was difficult personally to abandon paper tickets because of the nostalgia, and he recognizes some fans like having stubs – especially for big events –  as souvenirs. He said fans attending the Labor Day weekend games can get a printed souvenir ticket by contacting the bowl.

'Tragedy' of paperless tickets

Those souvenir tickets are essentially worthless for collectors, said Darren Rovell, a sports business journalist who said he has a collection of valuable stubs from major sporting events.

Sports business journalist Darren Rovell has become an ardent collector of historical tickets, including this 1970 Stanley Cup Final ticket between Boston and St. Louis.
Sports business journalist Darren Rovell has become an ardent collector of historical tickets, including this 1970 Stanley Cup Final ticket between Boston and St. Louis.

Several years ago PSA, an authentication and grading service that places a monetary value on trading cards, began putting a price on ticket stubs, Rovell said.

At least 10,000 "bona fide" ticket stub collectors exist, he said, and "there are people going nuts not having physical tickets."

His collection includes the game where NBA star Michael Jordan wore Air Jordan shoes for the first time, and the final college game at Michigan for Gerald Ford, who would become president, he said.

He added that souvenir tickets are worthless to collectors because they are facsimiles and typically do not have the seat location or other unique markings.

Rovell said authentic historical ticket stubs can be worth tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars because they are rare and only a limited amount of tickets were issued for a specific event.

Ticket stub collector Darren Rovell said this University of Michigan ticket was the last game played by Gerald Ford, who would become president of the United States.
Ticket stub collector Darren Rovell said this University of Michigan ticket was the last game played by Gerald Ford, who would become president of the United States.

"I do think it’s a tragedy that tickets are not printed," Rovell said. "Obviously, teams want to be paperless…but they need to have ticket printing stations so you can scan your phone and get a real ticket."

Have a tip on business or investigative stories? Reach the reporter at craig.harris@usatoday.com or 602-509-3613 or on Twitter @CraigHarrisUSAT or linkedin.com/in/craig-harris-70024030/

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Is biometric entry coming? Pro teams, bowls ditch paper tickets.