PYMNTS Summer Series: Stadiums Build a Field of Digital Dreams for Connected Fans

Fans and superfans are an enthusiastic bunch. They’re already connected through team apps, video games and other forms of digital engagement, but we’re only at the beginning of what these experiences can deliver at ballparks and other venues as sports teams and their payments tech providers dream up new ways to foster engagement.

Nearly every facet of the spectator experience is getting a digital reboot aimed at amping up enjoyment and creating a smoother experience from ticketing until it’s time to go home, Pete Balsavias, senior vice president, global commerce innovation at Mastercard, told PYMNTS’ Karen Webster recently.

He told Webster that it’s “about the fan and the consumer. Sometimes actually, the tech can get in the way. We take a lot of effort to make sure that the tech is improving experience.”

What fans don’t want is the old experience: waiting in lines and missing inspiring moments on the stage or field because concessions had a 20-minute wait, without touchless pay options.

Noting that the pandemic did some of the education and awareness work, plenty remains to be done to get stadium and venue infrastructure to the point where it can handle the digital demands of every device in a crowd of 20,000 fans checking scores, ordering food and more.

Most of all, it means not breaking the spell.

“When I’m at the stadium, I want to be watching the event,” he said. “I want to be watching, whether it’s the artist that I’m a fan of, or the team. I want things to be seamless. Anything you can do to enable the tech to allow that to happen on the back end where you don’t have to think about it” is ideal.

See also: Boston Red Sox Go Cashless

That means going beyond contactless entry and payments and into more experiences. Next up in the rotation: scoreboards. Soon after that, directly to your seat in the bleachers.

“There’s some really interesting things we’re working on in terms of sending personalized offers and promotions during an experience, [like when] one of your favorite players does something amazing, to be able to engage in that, remember that point in the game and that experience,” Balsavias said. “There’s really a unique way that you can do that now that you are connected, where in the past it was difficult.”

Adapt and Improve for Game Day

However, many entertainment venues and sports arenas have infrastructure issues, and before setting off down a digitization path, stakeholders need the right playbook.

Alignment comes first, “making sure all parties are aligned on the vision around the consumer experience,” he said. “We know that the concession providers, the merchandisers, the ball clubs all want to drive this experience. It starts with alignment. The biggest challenge is that these aren’t new stadiums for the most part,” which means overcoming legacy systems.

Taking the path of least resistance for starters, Mastercard’s test-and-learn ethos is valuable here, as waiting until everything is perfect before a rollout robs fans of what’s possible now.

“We look for opportunities to drop something in quickly, learn from it, adapt and improve,” he said. “We’ve got some great partners that are of the same mindset around innovation and driving that forward. The tech is hard. Sometimes that gets lost in creating the beautiful experience, but it’s the effort to take some risk or at least alignment to take some risk.”

Related: GoTab, Mastercard Partner to Enhance Digital Checkout

Balsavias said touchless ordering and payments via apps and QR codes are “table stakes” at stadiums and venues now, adding that more facilities are taking a shine to Mastercard’s Shop Anywhere autonomous store concept, a small footprint, grab-and-go, walk-in retail popup.

He said, “We’re seeing more and more interest in our autonomous store vision in terms of a completely frictionless experience without contact. That’s still growing. But at a minimum, you need to be doing something in your app or on the ticket to engage in some way, and probably some campaign ahead of that to educate or engage. Then it really depends on the site.”

This has already been done at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, and the Shop Anywhere store at Petco Park in San Diego “has seen really good adoption,” he said. “We’re seeing the capability to actually get through the line three times faster than in a traditional way.”

Connected Venue Wish List

Mastercard has learned a good deal from the initial rollout of Shop Anywhere in sports stadiums — especially the fact that options matter, as there are fans of every kind.

There are contactless consumers and those that still prefer the card chip, as well as season ticket holders and regulars who don’t want anything getting between themselves and the action.

“We’ve learned what we knew, which is that all consumers are a bit different, and the things they value are different,” Balsavias said. “We want to be able to provide those options on their terms versus trying to kind of get them to go down one particular path. I have this conversation with our team a lot. At the end, it’s a store,” he said, referring to the Shop Anywhere concept.

He added that, as with any store, “You’ve got to have a great location and you’ve got to have the right merchandise. If you have those, the store’s going to work. If you don’t, the store’s going to struggle. Tech is just another way to remove the friction. The better experience, the more education the consumers are willing to accept to get through that experience.”

With the solutions available, what remains is the work of retrofitting hundreds of major sports and entertainment venues with the connectivity to make all these experiences work as one. His simple advice to venue managers: “Assess what is needed to get the minimum working. What do we need to get from a minimal experience and then improve it, versus trying to have this great, complete solution? As long as we can get a network in, there’s a way to get it done.”

Mastercard’s acquisitions give a glimpse into its thinking — Dynamic Yield from McDonald’s for personalization, SessionM for loyalty and engagement features — all to build fan experience.

He said, “These are things that we feel make sense in these environments and unlock additional ways to engage with the consumers and improve that experience, but also revenue opportunities for our partners. Once you can connect with them, it opens up a lot of different ways to do this for sure.”

“We have a roadmap of four or five years,” Balsavias added. “The wish list is to make things easier and faster. We want to continue to drive the digital experience and enable that. The more we can make it where it is just natural and you don’t have to think about it, the better.”