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Bucking the trend? Tropicana Field to become North America’s first cashless venue

Rays' move to eliminate cash sales is local mark of increasing wave of cash-free purchasing points.
Fans will find Tropicana Field operating as a cashless venue when it opens for baseball this year, including the Feb. 9 Fan Fest. MONICA HERNDON   |   Times
Fans will find Tropicana Field operating as a cashless venue when it opens for baseball this year, including the Feb. 9 Fan Fest. MONICA HERNDON | Times
Published Jan. 25, 2019
Updated Jan. 25, 2019

ST. PETERSBURG — Leave your dollar bills at home when attending a Rays home game, because from the box office to the team store to the concession stands, Tropicana Field will no longer accept cash transactions.

The Trop is becoming the first entirely cash-free sports venue in North America, the Rays and their hospitality partner, Levy, announced jointly on Friday.

Several different forms of electronic payment will be accepted: major credit cards, Rays gift cards, Apple Pay and Samsung Pay methods, and season ticket holder cards. The club says the move will make stadium lines shorter and more efficient.

Fans with cash aren’t completely shut out. They can purchase gift cards of any amount at all retail locations and in $10 or $20 increments through gift card vendors who will roam throughout the stadium. The Trop’s stadium parking lots, which began exclusively accepting electronic transactions last season, will continue to do so.

“It’s something we’ve been looking at for a number of years, and the whole industry has been moving towards paperless transactions, the whole digital ticketing revolution that began five or six years ago," said Rays Vice President of Strategy & Development William Walsh. “We actually in 2012 gave all of our season ticket holders the RFID cards — the Rays cards — where they could load digital currency onto them. That was a small first step in this direction.”

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From airline purchases to ride-share apps, purchases are being made with cash less often. A study done by Levy’s analytics and emerging tech firm, E15, at Tropicana Field and other sports venues to gauge the effectiveness of electronic transactions found that it can cut concession waiting times up to half.

“Over the course of the past season we experimented with cash-free stands and express ordering through touch screen kiosks and mobile order taker technology," said E15 CEO Jaime Faulkner. “Fans readily adopted the technology, with the vast majority of fans rating their ordering experience as positive and over half of the respondents rating their ordering experience a 10/10.”

The Rays signed Levy as their new concessionaire before last season and overhauled Tropicana Field’s retail and food items, and Walsh said after bringing in Levy and E15, the timing seemed right for 2019.

The team’s Fan Fest event on Feb. 9 will be Tropicana Field’s first cash-free event. Admission to the event is free, but concessions and merchandise will be sold exclusively through electronic payments.

Some customers prefer to use cash for their purchases, and the move raises the question whether it might alienate some potential customers. And according to a 2017 FDIC survey, 6.5 percent of households don’t have bank accounts.

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Faulkner said that E15′s study focused on finding whether fans would be inconvenienced by moving to a cash-free system.

“By monitoring the number of transactions and fan interactions in our cash-free stands, we concluded that only a very small percentage of fans do not have a readily available cash-free payment method,” Faulkner said. "By introducing the ability to easily exchange cash for gift cards, we can ensure that every single guest will be able to make purchases at the ballpark.”

Fans will be able transfer cash into gift cards of any denomination at the stadium retail locations. And vendors in the seating bowl will send a hand-held device down the aisle so customers' credit cards don’t have to leave their hands. The hand-held devices will allow fans to leave a tip for their vendor as well.

The Rays' move is unprecedented in the U.S., but it wasn’t that long ago that sporting venues only accepted cash transactions, especially at concession stands and among vendors selling through the seating bowl. But stadiums and arenas are steadily moving towards an area where the exchange of dollar bills will be replaced by a card swipe.

The cashless trend started in restaurants but is on the rise among most retailers, said Florida Retail Federation spokesman James Miller.

Miller said, logistically, card or mobile payments are more efficient — lines move quicker when a cashier doesn’t have to break big bills or count change.

“From a safety standpoint, not having to carry potentially hundreds of dollars or more for food and drinks in and around a stadium or arena would probably relieve consumers of a little anxiety and definitely reduces the chances of theft,” Miller said.

Walsh said that in 2018, a self-service kiosk at Tropicana Field’s highest grossing food stand, Bird & Batter, reduced the average wait time from getting in line to getting food from seven to eight minutes to three minutes because it allowed all the servers to concentrate solely on fulfilling orders rather than also taking them. He said the kiosks will not lead to a reduction in staffing.

Throughout Europe, sporting venues have already long gone cashless. At Allainz Arena, the home of German soccer team FC Bayern Munich, fans need an Arena Card to make all purchases inside the stadium. The Johan Cruyff Arena in Amsterdam also has a cashless card system for all in-stadium purchases.

“I think that we always try to look within our industry for innovation and best practice, but we also look outside it as well," Walsh said. “We’re not first-movers in this space by any means. The airlines have been doing this for a number of years, and in a way they’ve been the trailblazers who have kind of helped develop the tools and the technology that we’re using now.

“I think everyone is contemplating it. I think, first, there’s a natural move. Every year, there’s just more people that are using cashless payments. So things are heading in that direction anyway, and everything in the industry — and this is debated even outside of sports, even in the retail industry — about the benefits and the efficiencies of it and the faster transaction times.”

Other local sports venues are encouraging more electronic payments, and giving customers incentives to pay using cards while hoping to streamline long lines.

The Lighting offers the ability to use Apple Pay at Amalie Arena and has programs in place that give fans advance access to season tickets and renewals, discounts on food and souvenirs for making purchases using their Chase credit card. Chase is a Lightning sponsor and runs similar promotions at Madison Square Garden in New York, The Forum outside Los Angeles and Chase Field in Phoenix.

The Bucs recently went to entirely cashless parking-lot-space purchases at Raymond James Stadium. While that is currently the only completely electronic purchase point, the team is steadily considering more cash-free opportunities. Some premium season-plan holders do receive cards with cash value to use at the stadium for concessions or at the team store.

Neither team, however, is close to going entirely cash-free.

Rivka Gewirtz Little, a research director with analyst group IDC Financial Insights, studies mobile payments.

“Cash managing itself is a difficult task,” Little said. “It’s a physical resource you have to manage, it takes up space, it’s dirty ... there’s all sort of challenges around that.”

Little lives in New York, where lawmakers and politicians have pushed back on retailers going completely cashless. Those against it say the tech-focused move can marginalize people without access to credit cards or cellphones. Little understands that sentiment, but there are ways to address that — such as prepaid cards, similar to how the Rays will put cash onto gift cards at the stadium.

At the same time, Little said, going completely cashless can cause problems should the network ever go down.

During a recent trip to a cashless store in New York, she witnessed the consequences first hand. “People were just storming out,” she said. "At a stadium, you don’t want to be locked in one place without a way to pay. You’ll have really financially disabled yourself.”

Miller said he wouldn’t be surprised to see 50 percent of retailers accepting only electronic payments in the next decade. Other parts of the world, like China, are already there.

“ATMs may quickly go the way of the pay phone,” Miller said. “In the ’80s, there was a pay phone on every street corner, but 30 years later they’re extremely hard to find.”

Times staff writer Sara DiNatale contributed to this report.