Why social distancing in stadiums will outlast the coronavirus pandemic

Cashless transactions and digital tickets were coming before COVID-19 and will be here after the pandemic ends.
Parts of the fan experience that have been changed because of the pandemic are here to stay.
Parts of the fan experience that have been changed because of the pandemic are here to stay. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]
Published Aug. 12, 2021

A year before the pandemic, Tropicana Field became North America’s first cashless sports venue. The Rays, as usual, were ahead of the curve.

Stadiums and arenas across the country followed as the coronavirus spread. Credit cards replaced cash to reduce contact between spectators and vendors. Ticket stubs fizzled out, too, in place of digital tickets that can be scanned quickly.

Both trends likely will continue as fans are set to return to full stadiums this football season.

“We’re not going to all of a sudden go back to the old ways, given the significant investment that teams and athletic departments and others have invested in this shift to digital,” said Christopher Lee, who teaches fan behavior and sports marketing classes at Arizona State University.

There’s another reason we aren’t going back to the old ways: The new ways are better.

The Rays estimated that going cashless would cut transaction times in half. The Gators were moving toward mobile-only tickets before the pandemic to reduce fraud and increase efficiency.

Ticket stubs are becoming a relic of the past in sports.
Ticket stubs are becoming a relic of the past in sports. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]

“The idea of the frictionless fan experience was having people avoid lines and having people avoid getting close to each other,” said David Pierce, director of the Sports Innovation Institute at Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis.

“We’re doing that for COVID and for safety, but at some point that’s not going to really be the reason. Ultimately if all of the frictionless things that are done create less lines, that’s a good thing, right? Why would we want to go back to a more inefficient process and more inefficient experience?”

Teams don’t want that, either, because digital tickets and transactions give them more information about every spectator.

“We’re effectively being tracked all over the venue,” said Lee, a clinical assistant professor.

That, in turn, can help teams provide us with a better level of service — something that might encourage us to go to more games after staying home last year.

If a team knows your purchase history, it can send a promotion to your phone to get you craving a soft pretzel. If it knows you always buy a beer in the second quarter, it can direct you to the stand with the shortest line. Pierce expects the stadium experience to improve to the detailed customization you’d expect at a theme park.

“You don’t want to go back into a time capsule when you go into a sporting event,” Pierce said.

Continuing paper-free transactions will make sure you don’t have to.

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