Shift4 buys VenueNext for $72 million

Shift4, a provider of integrated payment processing for a wide range of industries including retail, hospitality and lodging, has purchased stadium app provider VenueNext for $72 million to jump-start a bigger move into the large public venue marketplace.

According to press materials released by Shift4, the acquisition “significantly expands Shift4’s presence in large and growing verticals, adding to recent wins in the sports market, and expanding TAM with entry into entertainment, universities, theme parks, airports, and other verticals.”

Claiming it had more than $200 billion in payments processed for 200,000 businesses in 2019, Shift4 becomes the biggest player in the stadium app and concessions technology marketplace, where VenueNext previously competed with firms like Venuetize and YinzCam. Recently, Venuetize had made inroads on some team deals previously held by VenueNext, including with the San Jose Sharks.

As venues move toward more comprehensive digital solutions for services like ticketing, concessions and retail, it makes sense that payment-processing firms like Shift4 might want to target the space. Last year Shift4 signed a partnership deal with the Las Vegas Raiders to be the credit-card processing partner at the team’s new Allegiant Stadium. Shift4 is no stranger to Las Vegas, since the company’s systems are used in many of the city’s casinos.

VenueNext, a company started in part to provide the stadium app for the opening of the San Francisco 49ers’ Levi’s Stadium in 2014, had recently pivoted to provide more back-end POS services and a more open app platform, a move that netted the company the University of Florida as its first big-school college customer. As far as we know VenueNext had raised $24 million in venture funding over its private existence; it’s not yet known how its investors made out in the Shift4 deal.

We are setting up interviews with the companies involved, so stay tuned for more updates on this story.

Super Bowl LV Wi-Fi: Low total, but per-fan usage remains steady

Fans at Super Bowl LV in Tampa used 13.97 TB of Wi-Fi data during the game. Credit: Preston Mack/Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Thanks to the reduced crowd size due to the Covid pandemic, the total Wi-Fi data used at Super Bowl LV was well below previous years’ numbers — but the data used per device was nearly equal to last year’s number, showing that fans are still using their devices at the “big game” with gusto.

Because of needs to socially distance, this year’s Super Bowl LV at Tampa’s Raymond James Stadium only saw 24,835 fans in attendance, much lower than the sellout crowds usually seen at the NFL’s championship game. According to numbers compiled by Extreme Networks, fans who connected to the stadium’s Wi-Fi network used a total of 13.97 terabytes of data, far below last year’s total of 26.42 TB used at Super Bowl LIV at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami, when 62,417 fans were at the game.

The fans watching Tampa Bay’s 31-9 victory over the Kansas City Chiefs live, however, used almost as much data per device as last year. According to Extreme 23,766 devices were seen on the stadium’s Wi-Fi network before and during the game. That works out to a per-user bandwidth usage rate of 587.8 MB per device, comparable to the 595.6 MB per user mark seen at last year’s big game.

Only 24,835 fans were in attendance at Super Bowl LV due to safety restrictions. Credit: Preston Mack/Tampa Bay Buccaneers

According to Extreme the 23,766 total-devices number includes 3,891 devices that connected to the network before the gates were open, utilizing an expanded Wi-Fi network in and around the stadium entry areas and the parking lots. Once the gates opened, Extreme said it saw 19,875 devices connect inside the venue, for an approximate “take rate” of 80 percent. At last year’s game Extreme saw a take rate of 71 percent, with 44,358 unique devices connected to the network.

Some more interesting nuggets from the Extreme numbers:
— Peak bandwidth usage was 7.9 Gbps, and peak concurrent users on the network was 12,288.
— The fans used 2.58 TB of Wi-Fi data before kickoff, and 11.39 TB afterwards.
— Top app used by fans was Facebook, accounting for 1.6 TB of all data used.

In part because of the pandemic safety measures, this was the first Super Bowl ever to go completely cashless for concessions and all-digital for ticketing. According to Extreme the company added some temporary Wi-Fi infrastructure to handle the increased needs for connectivity in areas like entry gates and other places outside the stadium.

Zippin checkout-free system debuts at stadiums in Sacramento, Denver

A Zippin-powered checkout-free concessions stand at Golden 1 Center in Sacramento in 2019. Credit: Zippin/Sacramento Kings (click on any photo for a larger image)

Checkout-free shopping payment systems, where customers simply take items off shelves and are charged automatically as they leave the store, are now arriving in sports stadiums, with startup Zippin leading the way with active installations in Sacramento and Denver.

At the Sacramento Kings’ Golden 1 Center and at Empower Field at Mile High in Denver, trial concession stands powered by Zippin have already opened and been used by fans, both before the pandemic (in Sacramento) and during the past season at Empower Field, where the Denver Broncos had some games this fall with limited fan attendance.

The checkout-free store idea, pioneered by Amazon a few years ago, uses pre-visit payment information (collected either via an app or a credit-card swipe before entry) and a combination of in-store recognition technology — usually a mix of cameras, weight sensors and artificial intelligence software — to “see” what customers are taking off the shelves, and to charge the customers for those items as they leave the store.

While many customers are amazed the system actually works even after they leave a store, the potential checkout-free systems have to solve one of the biggest pain points of stadium visits — waiting in line for concessions — has generated considerable interest among venue owners and operators. And with transaction times in both Sacramento and Denver averaging less than a minute — and some in Sacramento as quick as 10 seconds — it’s a also good bet that fans will quickly embrace more checkout-free operations so that they can get back to their seats to watch the event they paid to attend.

Fans can’t believe it works

“It’s so intriguing to watch a fan go through the [checkout-free] process, and see how they react,” said Jay Morrison, district manager for Aramark, the concessionaire at Empower Field. At one of the Broncos games this fall Morrison was watching fans exit the Zippin-powered concession stand “and they would look around, sort of stand there and say that they can’t believe it,” Morrison said. And then, of course, the fans would share the experience on social media.

“In all my years of being in F&B, I’ve never seen somebody taking a picture of somebody buying a soda,” Morrison said.

Overhead cameras track customers as they select items. Credit: Zippin

While Amazon may have pioneered the checkout-free idea when it opened its first Amazon Go store in 2018, the market now has a growing number of startups seeking to become the back-end suppliers. But Zippin, a San Francisco-based startup with 50+ employees and $15 million in venture funding, is the first to crack into the stadium concessions market, an area that seems ripe for such innovation, especially given the new reality of supporting concession operations during a pandemic.

In Denver, Aramark had already decided to trial the Zippin technology at Mile High well before the pandemic put a premium on less human contact for transactions.

“The unintended benefit is that [checkout-free] fits perfectly with Covid and beyond,” said Aramark’s Morrison.

John Rinehart, president for business operations with the Sacramento Kings, noted that the Zippin system’s entry gate inherently delivers a way to enforce social distancing by limiting capacity inside the store as necessary.

Getting fans back to their seats

Like in Denver, Sacramento had decided to try the Zippin system well before the pandemic hit — at Golden 1 Center a Zippin-powered store was opened in September in 2019, as part of what Rinehart said is a continued desire to use technology to improve the fan experience.

“It’s kind of in our DNA to look out for these things,” said Rinehart of the arena that opened in 2016 with some of the most advanced wireless networking and display technologies, as well as one of the most innovative stadium apps.

Entry gate at Zippin stand at Empower Field. Credit: Zippin

At Golden 1 Center, the Zippin store was an open area on the main concourse, and in addition to coolers with drinks it also had an assortment of snacks, as well as a way to use Zippin to pay for hot food items like popcorn or pizza. According to Rinehart a customer would purchase a ticket for the hot items inside the Zippin store, and then go next door to a hot-food stand where their order would be fulfilled.

In Denver, Aramark added the Zippin technology to one the “Drink Market” stands it had opened at the stadium the year before, which were basically walk-through stands with self-serve glass-door drink coolers. In 2019, those stands used a unique visual-scanner system from Mashgin where fans would place items to be scanned and priced. The only staffing needed was one person at the end of the line to check IDs and to open cans and bottles before fans left.

With the Zippin technology, fans can either download an app or use their credit cards at the entry gate. Once they are authorized, they enter the store, select their items and simply walk out through the exit gate (again, where they would encounter one staffer for ID check and bottle/can opening).

According to Aramark’s Morrison, having support both for an app as well as walk-up credit card access was a key selling point for Zippin, since many fans have historically proven “resistant” to downloading and registering through an app.

While education on how the store works is necessary — in Denver and Sacramento both stadiums had signage as well as email instructions for the systems — Morrison also said that fans seem to learn the system quickly and are happy to tell others how it works.

And in both stadiums, operators saw fans coming back for repeated visits during a single game, since they knew they wouldn’t have to wait long.

“If you know what you want, you can get in and out in less than 10 seconds,” said the Kings’ Rinehart. Both Denver and Sacramento operators said they saw average visit times of around 45 seconds, an unthinkable speed for anyone who’s ever spent an entire baseball inning or half a football quarter waiting for a hot dog and a beer.

Minimal reconfiguration needed

According to Zippin CEO Krishna Motukuri, the Zippin-powered stands don’t need a lot of technology or networking support. The camera systems, he said, only use about 15-to-20 Mbps of network bandwidth, and the AI computations are done on the edge modules Zippin installs on the site.

Ceiling cameras seen in Zippin Denver stand. Credit: Zippin

Motukuri said Zippin operates under a software-as-a-service module, charging venue owners and operators a monthly fee and a per-transaction fee. According to Aramark’s Morrison the cost of a Zippin deployment is far cheaper than buying similar technology from Amazon, which Aramark had initially considered.

At Golden 1 Center Rinehart said the Zippin system was fairly easy to deploy, since the open-concourse setting allowed them to bring cameras down from above. In Denver, Aramark and the Broncos actually had to raise the ceiling on the area used, so that the Zippin cameras could have a better range of focus.

And according to Aramark’s Morrison the Zippin system reduced the needed real estate for checkout, using less than a third of the space required by the Mashgin systems. “That let us put four more beverage coolers into the space,” Morrison said. In addition to the cameras, a Zippin system also requires entry and exit gates, as well as sensors for all shelves holding items.

Using the pandemic to ‘leapfrog’ to the future

Zippin’s Motukuri, who founded the company in 2015, said that the Covid pandemic has exposed some of the issues that still plague other concession systems, the fact that there still may be a wait to purchase items.

“Self-checkout doesn’t get rid of lines,” Motukuri said. “Our system is not just frictionless, it’s contactless. It offers venues an opportunity to leapfrog ahead.” According to Zippin, a new Zippin-powered concession stand is set to open at the San Antonio Spurs’ AT&T Center when fans are allowed back in that building.

In Denver, Aramark’s Morrison said that the speed enabled by the Zippin system was part of the process that allowed the venue to re-open with limited attendance.

“The state of Colorado [regulators] observed us, and we had to deliver on the commitment [to safer operations],” Morrison said. “Having the self-order system was part of what enabled us to get back to having fans.”

(Zippin promotional video below)

Pandemic planning puts focus on venue entry, concessions

Hard Rock Stadium in Miami is using signage messages to help fans stay socially distanced. Credit: Miami Dolphins

As some venues take baby steps forward in allowing limited fan attendance at events, for most venues the ongoing effects of the Covid-19 pandemic are forcing owners and operators to take a longer look at the technologies and procedures that can help provide safer situations for large crowds inside public spaces for the foreseeable future.

And if keeping fans farther apart from each other is one of the simplest and best methods of enabling safer gatherings, it makes sense that many venues and technology and service providers are currently concentrating on venue entry and concession operations, with an eye toward using technology and procedures to cut down or eliminate the long lines that have long been a part of a game-day experience.

Before the pandemic changed events forever, many venues and fans were stuck in the systems and practices that had been the same for decades. While some forward-looking venues were experimenting with innovative digital technologies for entry and concessions operations, most were still caught somewhere in between the past and the future, with a mix of digital ticketing, paper tickets, cash transactions for parking and concessions, and bottleneck walkway traffic situations often caused by the random geography of stadiums, some built as long as 100 years ago. Fan behavior often contributed to these crowded situations, with the last-minute crush of entries from people who stayed at tailgate gatherings until just before kickoff a somewhat unwanted tradition at many stadiums across the country. But now, all that has changed.

The forced changes of Covid

In a wide series of interviews with venue owners and operators, team representatives, and technology manufacturers and service providers, we’ve seen general agreement with the idea that many of the “old ways of doing things” at events will no longer be possible as the pandemic continues, and most likely even after it subsides from its current critical state. Going forward, events in large public venues will need to adopt technologies and procedures aimed at not just keeping fans safe, but also to make them feel safe, and confident that the stadium operation is doing all it can in those regards.

The two areas of operations we are focusing on with this story are the two that easily account for the high- est potential of long lines: Stadium entry, and concessions. While historically these two operations have been fan-experience pain points in almost every venue, the good news is that mature technologies already exist to help solve for problems in both areas – and some best practices have already emerged from forward-looking venues and providers who embraced these ideas prior to the pandemic. What follows is a look at some of the technologies and services available for entry and concessions operations, with insights from early adopters and from the companies involved in the deployments.

Digital tickets and faster scanning

Editor’s note: This story is from our recent STADIUM TECH REPORT Fall 2020 issue, which you can read right now, no email or registration required! Also in this issue are profiles of the technology behind two of the most innovative venues to ever open, SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles and Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas! START READING NOW!

Just like when airline ticketing went from printed paper to mostly mobile-device systems, so has the stadium and event entry business been changing. Prior to the pandemic, most venues of any size had at least some kind of digital ticketing system in place, with many moving to digital-only processes over the past few years. While there were still some holdouts, most of the people we interviewed agreed that the desire to make activities like parking lot and stadium entry faster and contact-free is now driving venues to adopt digital ticketing at a rapid pace.

“The tone has completely changed,” said Karri Zaremba, who until recently was chief operating officer at stadium app developer Venuetize (Zaremba is now a senior vice president with Major League Baseball, for ballpark experience and ticketing). According to Zaremba, this past summer teams and venues were showing “an eagerness and hunger” for digital ticketing systems that Venuetize hadn’t seen before.

“Everyone is scrambling to figure out a plan to reform venues and remove humans from the [interaction] equation,” Zaremba said.

George Baker, founder and CEO of parking technology provider ParkHub, agreed that the need to reduce hand-to-hand or face-to-face transactions is driving more technology in venue entry, beginning at the gate to the parking lot. ParkHub, which recently signed a deal with venue management firm Spectra to provide parking-lot technology to Spectra-managed properties, also raised an additional $15 million in venture funding this spring to help accelerate its business.

Parking attendants can scan digital tickets, a safer and faster alternative than cash. Credit: ParkHub

According to Baker, while fans may have long resisted any changes to the way things have always been done, he is confident that the safety of digital transactions, plus the expanding features available via digital platforms – such as premium lot differentiation and the ability to reserve spots ahead of time – will accelerate the use of technology in parking lot entry as well as many other game-day transactions. And as more fans use digital payment methods for parking, teams and venues can also better manage their inventory, with real-time updates.

“For venues, it’s no longer a nicety, it’s a necessity,” said Baker of digital transactions.

One venue that has made a name for itself by its use of innovative fan-facing technology is the Los Angeles Football Club’s Banc of California Stadium, which opened in 2018. Christian Lau, chief technology officer for Major League Soccer’s LAFC, said contact-free entry and transactions have always been a part of the venue’s plan.

In fact, before the pandemic started the club was working with security technology provider Patriot One to help develop a new entry-gate system that would include innovations including eliminating the need for the single-person metal detectors as well as future support for entry via facial recognition technology. LAFC is using entry gate technology from Axess, a Salzburg, Austria- based provider.

“It is all part of redefining our great fan experience, and redefining the security stack,” said Lau. “We want to let you walk into the stadium like you’re walking into a Target store.”

Other venues, including the University of Oklahoma, are already borrowing from the airline playbook, by putting in more self-scanning ticket kiosks. The NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars, one of the first pro football teams allowing fans to attend in limited numbers, said they have installed new metal detectors that allow fans to keep things like keys and cell phones in their pockets when entering. Kim Rometo, vice president and CIO for the Miami Dolphins, said that Miami’s Hard Rock Stadium now has “walk-through, multi-zone metal detectors” that let fans keep items in their pockets to speed up entry.

Temperature scans are a costly addition

One technology that got a lot of attention this summer was thermal detection devices, usually cameras that could scan people to detect a high body temperature, one of the signs of a possible Covid-19 infection. While such cameras are already in use in some places like airports, we have yet to find a major U.S. sports venue that has committed to installing thermal cameras for fan entry. The reason why? A combination of high costs (each scanner device can cost $10,000 or more) and unclear results, especially when used in large-scale operations like fans coming in to an event.

While many sports teams are using thermal detection devices to help keep staff and players safe as they enter team buildings and the stadiums, the prospect of trying to extend those operations to thousands of fans is a problem that requires an extra level of operational procedures. Chip Swisher, director in the smart solutions practice at CenturyLink, said venues looking to install thermal detection systems need to consider placement (since the cameras do not work as well in bright sunlight) and other mitigating factors, like fans just getting hot from being in the sun at a tailgate party. Teams will also need to develop procedures on how to handle fans who do show a high temperature, either with cooling tents (where they can be re-tested after a short time period) or with further testing or ways to refuse entry.

At some venues temperature checks are being performed, by staff members with handheld devices, a process that may possibly introduce more safety issues than it solves by forcing the person-to-person proximity. For most venues, the temperature-check process is currently a “wait and see” item, as they monitor what other venues are doing and what, if any, requirements for temperature checks are made by local governent or health officials.

Spacing and timed entry and departure

If television views of some of the first games with fans allowed in the stands are any proof, the idea of keeping fans spaced far apart in the stands seems to be working, except at some college games where students apparently violated safety precautions by massing together once inside the venue, often without masks.

For most teams that are starting to allow fans into stadiums, the digital ticket and the team or stadium application is the primary vehicle for keeping fans at safe distances when they enter and stay at the venue.

“We stretched existing solutions to meeting the need [for distancing],” said the Dolphins’ Rometo. “Ticketmaster introduced the ability to define seating pods for social distance and space them six feet from one another. We [also] program the digital tickets to display the preferred gate for social distancing along with a specific entry time. All social distancing signage will be displayed on Cisco Vision throughout the concourses and we augmented eight LED boards at entrances to communicate entrance times.”

While some venues have floated the idea of having set departure times, Rometo said that at Hard Rock Stadium fans can leave at any time they choose. If they stay until the end, she said, ushers will try to dismiss rows in an order to keep social distancing – but added that the space available inside the venue should keep crowds from forming.

“Hard Rock Stadium can hold more than 65,000 so we fully expect dismissing 13,000 will still occur in a timely fashion,” said Rometo of the team’s expected early attendance allowance.

And while some teams are eliminating tailgating completely, others like the Kansas City Chiefs are implementing spacing protocols in the parking lots, with every other space blocked off so that fans can’t park side by side.

Concessions: Lessons learned from retail, fast food

If there was one place in many stadiums that needed an overhaul even before the pandemic, it was concessions. According to Moon Javaid, chief strategy officer for the San Francisco 49ers, customer experience surveys have consistently shown concessions to be “the lowest-rated aspect” across all sports.

Anothy Perez, CEO of stadium app developer VenueNext, explained why that experience has been poor at so many venues for so long.

New kiosks from Appetize will be used in the Green Bay Packers’ Lambeau Field when it allows fans back in. Credit: Appetize

“Deviating from the normal is a risk,” Perez said. “If you stick to the old wisdom and something goes wrong, it’s not your fault.”

But the advent of the Covid-19 pandemic, Perez said, “gives you cover to try something new. It’s a paradigm shift.”

With her Venuetize hat on, Zaremba said that many venues might not have moved forward faster with innovative concessions strategies in part to avoid alienating older customers.

“All that is now out the window,” Zaremba said. New methods of contact-free or lower-contact transactions, she said, are “going to be demanded” by fans who have gotten used to such interactions in the daily life of the pandemic, where most restaurant meals are now primarily consumed by to-go pickup or via delivery, with payments made electronically or via phone by credit card.

According to our interviews, many venues are quickly moving to change as much of their concessions operations as they can to more contact-free or even contactless transactions, where fans don’t have to talk face to face with concessions staff. Last year, the Denver Broncos had several new options along these lines at Empower Field at Mile High, including grab-and-go beverage stores that were basically rows of coolers where fans could take whatever canned or bottled beverages they wanted, and pay for them using an optical scanner (manufactured by Mashgin).

Other options in Denver included kiosk ordering for a chicken stand and several grab-and-go formats where prepackaged food was available to fans to take and pay for, again at a Mashgin scanner.

Fans at Empower Field at Mile High Stadium in 2019 use Appetize-powered kiosks to order and pay for food. Credit: Paul Kapustka, MSR

Kevin Anderson, chief strategy officer for stadium point-of-sale systems developer Appetize, said venues are realizing that if they didn’t have contact-free concessions systems in place, they need to rapidly do so, “because it’s the future.” Appetize, which powered the systems at the Broncos’ stadium, is currently in the process of bringing more than 50 self-service kiosks to the Green Bay Packers’ Lambeau Field, which hopes to be able to host fans sometime later this season.

Though kiosks do involve the process of touching a screen, Anderson said most people have confidence that a finger touch is a low-risk possibility of virus transmittal.

“The highest likelihood of transmittal is person to person,” Anderson said, voting for kiosks as a safer alternative. To help keep the process even safer, Anderson said Appetize’s new screens have a “hospital grade” screen protector that resists contamination. The kiosks, he said, will also have hand sanitizer bottles attached for fans to use.

The Niners’ Javaid said the team had already made a decision to bring in more kiosk stations for some of its regular concessions areas, because it not only reduces lines, but it also reduces the staffing requirements of a regular concession stand.

“Staffing is expensive, and for us [in Silicon Valley] it’s hard to get people,” said Javaid of the part-time work that maybe involves 10 events a year. For regular concession stands, Javaid said, the Niners would use four cashiers and four food expediters. But with a kiosk system, he said, one person can handle the same number of orders, allowing the team to repurpose the staff to other positions.

“And with kiosks, people can stand wherever [to wait for their orders],” Javaid noted. “You don’t have to stand in line.”

Team and stadium apps get a new life with concessions

Appetize, like other POS developers, also supports mobile ordering and payment for their concessions customers, another area where many venues are stepping up current order-by-phone operations or adding them if they didn’t previously support them. At LAFC’s Banc of California Stadium fans have been able to use several methods to order concessions digitally, including via the team’s Venuetize-built app, or by using Apple Business Chat, or by simply scanning a QR code on a sign near a stand, which brings up a web page with menus, ordering and payment instructions, making such transactions available on the fly.

When VenueNext was born as the provider of the stadium app for the Niners’ Levi’s Stadium in 2014, the company was an all-or-nothing proposition for doing everything inside the app, including the venue’s since-discontinued feature of having in-seat delivery available to every seat in the house. Perez, who took over the CEO spot in 2018, has shifted the company’s strategy to embrace other mobile-ordering options like web-based QR-code menus, and added a POS back-end system to support more mobile-ordering options. VenueNext debuted its new mobile systems last season at the University of Florida’s Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, aka “The Swamp.”

VenueNext powers a new app at the University of Florida’s Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, where it also debuted new products like a POS system and a web-based app in 2019. Credit: Paul Kapustka, MSR

Venues going all-mobile or mostly mobile for concessions may allow teams and venues to rethink their concourse real estate and possibly innovate by adding space for fan engagement or sponsor activation, Perez said.

“What really gets interesting is how you can open up spaces” in the venue by streamlining concessions operations, Perez said. “The beauty of mobile is that you can completely decouple shopping, ordering, paying and fulfillment.”

LAFC’s Lau noted that there is still an operational component to the contact-free experience, namely designing systems that have necessary nuances, like scheduling pickup times so that fans aren’t all in the same area at the same time.

“You don’t want the pickup lines to back up,” Lau said. “You need to eliminate lines, eliminate the friction of lines.”

One more concessions trend that some stadiums (like Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium) had experimented with, having completely cashless transactions, will now likely be the norm going forward given the safety concerns associated with exchanging paper money.

“Venues were dipping their toes in the water before, on cashless, but now they’re leapfrogging ahead,” said Zaremba, whose former company Venuetize is exploring options that include biometrics that would allow fans to “order with their face.” At Seattle’s CenturyLink Field, the venue has partnered with security provider Clear for a few concession stands that let fans pay for concessions with a fingerprint reader, after first signing up to the Clear system.

If there is one other cutting-edge idea emerging, it’s the Niners’ plan to make concessions all-inclusive for season ticket holders, a plan that was developed before the pandemic as part of the team’s overall overhaul of its concessions operations.

When the Niners have fans present to roll out their all-inclusive concessions operations – where all season-ticket holders will have a menu of the most popular food and non-alcoholic beverages available as part of their ticket prices – they will use technology to assist the deployment, including using the Cisco Vision display management system to provide menu and directional information via TV screens, and to also incorporate the camera-based fan movement technology system developed by WaitTime to gather information on how fans move about in the concourse and concession areas.

WaitTime, which originally developed a mobile app to help fans find out where concession and restroom lines were shortest – and then added a version teams could broadcast on digital displays – is now pivoting to add more granular data from its camera-based systems for Covid safety and contact-free concession deployments.

Zachary Klima, WaitTime CEO, said that teams are going to need better information on where fans are moving inside venues to build reliable, safe procedures for the new normal.

“Tape on the floor can only go so far,” Klima said. “It’s better for teams to know where people are, and where they aren’t.”

The Niners’ Javaid agreed with the data-driven approach.

“How are people queueing? I need to understand that,” Javaid said. “We’ve never done this before, so I need data.”

What’s Next: The uncertain path forward in the ‘Return to Venues’

When will venues like Ohio State’s ‘Horseshoe’ be full of fans again? Credit all photos: Paul Kapustka, STR (click on any picture for a larger image)

As the world endures the summer of the global coronavirus pandemic, there is only one thing certain in the world of large public venues and mass-attendance events: Nobody, anywhere, has any complete idea what is going on right now, or exactly what the future holds for live audiences at sporting events or concerts.

To be sure, sports of all kinds are starting to test the waters on how they might return to action after the initial coronavirus shutdowns, and eventually how they might start welcoming fans back into their venues. But without any coherent top-down direction from the federal government, and what looks like an even bigger surge of new virus infections, the current state of how fans will return to venues in the U.S. is an uncoordinated chaos, with teams, leagues, schools, governments and fans all trying to find a way forward on their own that balances the need for safety with the desire to see live events in person.

After conducting a wide-ranging series of interviews with subject matter experts, industry thought leaders and representatives from teams, schools, leagues and venues earlier this year, Stadium Tech Report has come to some early conclusions about what the remainder of 2020 and beyond might look like for the world of professional and big-school sports. While all of these are still only best guesses as to what might happen, there are some trends that seem to be the way most operations will proceed as the search for a vaccine or some other type of coronavirus cure or treatment goes on.

1. Get ready for more events without any fans, maybe until next year.

Editor’s note: This profile is from our latest STADIUM TECH REPORT, which is available to read instantly online or as a free PDF download! Inside the issue is a look at a new Wi-Fi 6 network for Dodger Stadium, plus a profile of Globe Life Field! Start reading the issue now online or download a free copy!

In our research partnership with AmpThink (see Bill Anderson column) Stadium Tech Report agrees that the AmpThink-developed theory of a “stages of return” process is what we think most venues will need to go through in order to safely start allowing fans to attend events again. The first two parts of that process, getting government approval to open the doors to crowds and satisfying liability issues surrounding the safety of people in any building, are a combination that we see likely to push many venues into hosting events without fans – or in some cases, with severely restricted numbers of fans – since having only competitors and necessary staff, and perhaps a small number of fans inside the venues is likely an order of magnitude easier (and cheaper) to accomplish.

Granted, there are many sports and concert operations that may not have any incentive to hold events without fans, since their revenue models may lean heavily on game-day spending for food and beverage. However, the bigger sports with big TV deals would at least be able to earn some percentage of their incomes by holding empty-stadium events that would still be broadcast. Some sports, like NASCAR, bull riding and some independent minor-league baseball teams, have had limited-attendance events already. The PGA had proposed letting some fans in to the Memorial Tournament this week, but those plans were scrubbed in the face of the recent virus surges.

Right now the NBA and the MLS are in motion with plans to finish their seasons in a “bubble” type atmosphere in Orlando, where teams would be sequestered and would play at close-by facilities. The NHL and Major League Baseball are also in motion with plans for similar shortened seasons, with NHL teams playing in two cities in Canada (Edmonton and Toronto) while MLB teams will play 60 regular-season games in regional circuits.

College sports, with larger rosters and no ability to enact a pro league-type “bubble,” may not see any sports this fall. Already, the Ivy League has canceled sports for the rest of the year while two Power 5 conferences, the Big Ten and the Pac-12, have eliminated non-conference games in order to provide more flexibility in scheduling. Even then, representatives in those conferences admit that the end result may be fully canceled seasons.

And in the NFL, teams are already publicly planning for reduced-capacity seating if games take place at all, and if so if they are allowed to have fans in the stands.

The key thing similar to all the ideas? Even with contract agreements in place, some of those plans still face huge hurdles when it comes to testing, quarantines and overall health concerns for both participants and guests, factors that may eventually end any or all of the experiments before seasons can be finished. There is also a new growing social concern over pro leagues having instant access to Covid-19 testing while the rest of the nation is starting to struggle again with getting tests and results.

A crowded concourse at Ohio Stadium in 2019. Venues will be challenged to keep fans apart during the pandemic.

Since President Trump’s administration has made no effort to provide any type of national guidance for Covid-19 responses — especially for the re-opening of businesses — the result in sports is an ever-changing overlap of directions, with some governors proclaiming that their states are ready to host big events with fans in stands, while other state and international leaders are saying that they won’t allow big public events like sports and concerts to have fans in attendance until perhaps 2021.

No matter what the state or local governments decide, satisfying the combination of the second stage of the “return to venues” model – addressing the legal liability of the venues – and the third stage, which is gaining confidence of the fans – will likely push many venues to hold fan-free events first, while they work on plans and technology deployments to help get them to a place where they can earn government approval to open, to feel legally confident that they can keep fans safe, and then convince fans of that feeling.

While there will always likely be some fans willing to attend events no matter what the risk is, with national polls showing that a majority of people in the country are still in favor of restricting business activity to keep everyone safe from the virus, it might not make business sense for venues to try to open widely if big crowds don’t want to show up just yet. And events with less than full-house attendance may also not be economically feasible for many venues, given the large costs associated with just opening the doors of a stadium-sized facility; if you can’t make enough money to cover costs with a smaller audience, does it make sense to hold the event at all?

So just from a baseline measure of costs, safety and operational complexity, the feedback we’ve received from our interviews leads us to guess that most “big” events for the rest of the year will have no fans or strictly limited, small amounts of fans in attendance, if the events happen at all.

2. When fans do return to venues, new technologies and processes will be required, especially for venue entry and for concessions.

When it comes to social distancing to keep the virus from spreading, at large public venues it’s all about the lines.

With the prospect of an all-clear vaccine a year away at best, after some time the economic pressures of the current closures may become untenable if teams and venues want to survive as businesses. So, opening venues to some number of fans before a vaccine is available seems extremely likely; and in all discussions we’ve had so far, it’s apparent that venues believe they will need to enforce social distancing among guests, much like we are all doing in various phases of public activity today.

In seating areas, social distancing will be an easier task, given that venues can more easily keep seats unsold or erect barriers to keep unrelated groups apart from each other. The real problem with social distancing in stadiums comes from lines, a historical commonplace occurrence at entryways, on concourses and at places like concession stands and restrooms. To eliminate lines and to keep guests from inadvertently getting too close to one another, venues are likely going to need to deploy some kind of combination of technology and procedures to streamline the logjams we all used to just tolerate as part of the game-day experience.

Venues may require cashless transactions during the pandemic, like this stand at Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium did in 2018.

Since the terrorist attacks of 9/11, entry to almost all stadiums in the U.S. has become a more lengthy procedure than it was before thanks to the use of metal detectors. Physical checks of handbags or large coats have further slowed entry procedures in general, as have newer forms of identification for digital ticketing that required a live network connection at the point of ticket scanning.

Even in the face of all those barriers, many fans at big events still waited until near start time at tailgate parties or other outside-the-venue events, leading to large traffic jams of fans at the entry doors near the starting times. To allow fans to attend large events during a pandemic, however, fans may be asked to arrive even earlier to go through more thorough security checks that may include new procedures for temperature scans and perhaps even blood oxygen-level scanning; some venues may even choose to implement on-the-spot testing for Covid-19, new procedures that will likely force many venues to expand the geographic area needed to support all the new entry procedures.

New technologies, some of which have already been put in use in limited deployments, may offer some help in entryway procedures. The use of near-field communications (NFC) systems to allow personal devices to be scanned for valid tickets without having to present the devices could theoretically significantly speed up entry lines, with the caveat being that fans would have to adopt such payment or ticketing systems before arriving. Other venues are also looking at newer forms of threat-detection devices like metal detectors that can scan groups of people at a single pass instead of the airport-style one-person gate that is currently the de facto standard.

A no-tech additional solution being considered by other venues is the idea of reserved or staggered entry times, which could streamline the process if fans are able to or forced to comply. Similar methods have already been proposed for departure, with fans being instructed by section or row by row when it’s safe to leave.

The idea of entering at any gate and being able to wander around the entire stadium may also be something eliminated during a social-distancing audience phase. Some venues are considering highly regulated “zones” inside venues to keep fans apart. What is true of all plans, technology-aided or not, is that any new measures will require huge amounts of communication outreach to fans, a large amount of training and even new staffing for stadium workforces, and a new level of compliance, regulation and policing, all extra-cost measures during a time of significantly reduced revenues.

The contact-free concessions experience

Over the past year or so, many large public venues have already tested or had small deployments of so- called “contact-free” concessions technologies, where fans could order and pay for concessions via their mobile device, then either picking up orders at a specified window or having orders delivered to their seats. Other stadiums have already experimented with various forms of “grab and go” concessions stands, where pre-made items are offered for fans to take, with some deployments also featuring self-scan payment options.

The general idea of having fewer or no human interactions at all for concessions transactions will likely be the most widespread technology and process change for venues opening up during the pandemic. For most of the venue representatives we spoke to, plans that were already in place for some move to contact-free concessions operations will likely just be accelerated since such deployments will probably remain popular even after concerns about virus transmissions subside.

Grab-and-go concession stands, like this one at Denver’s Empower Field at Mile High in 2019, may be more prevalent in the near future.

Another trend that had already started in some venues and will likely only accelerate due to pandemic concerns is the move to “cash free” operations, where only digital payment methods are allowed. Though some states have laws prohibiting the complete elimination of cash payments inside venues, it will be interesting to see whether security and health concerns about the virus-spreading possibility of exchanging cash will force changes to those regulations. Some stadiums that have started cash-free operations have provided reverse-ATM type machines where cash can be deposited and stored on a machine-produced debit card for use in that venue. But those machines are costly to operate, and may not be necessary if opposition to cash-free operations declines.

One area of food service where there isn’t much consensus yet on what is to come is the area of club and other premium spaces, which in the past few years have mainly trended toward buffet-style offerings, sometimes as part of an all-inclusive cost system. While safety concerns have some observers predicting an early demise for the large-venue buffet, others see possibilities of having more closely staffed buffet operations, like the cafeterias of the past where a server (most likely behind a glass shield) can prepare individual plates. Premium suite services are also seen as an area heading for massive changes, with more prepackaged food and beverage options likely instead of the traditional steam-tray or open-serve catered offerings previously found in most venues.

3. Critical networks will be needed to support everything new and old

If there ever really was a question about whether or not wireless networks were needed inside venues, the advent of the coronavirus pandemic has removed all doubt. According to several sources we’ve talked to, some networking deployments or upgrade plans that had been “on the fence” prior to the outbreak have now been quickly green-lighted, as venues everywhere realize that critical networks will be even more important going forward, as new technologies and new procedures demand increased levels of connectivity.

On the technology side, it is clear that if venues are looking to add new layers of devices like sensors and threat detectors, there is going to be a need for greater wireless connectivity, sometimes in new areas of the venue that may not have previously had a priority for bandwidth. Entry areas in particular, and perhaps also spaces just outside venues, will likely need more carrier-class connectivity going forward, as venues seek to automate more transactions like ticket-taking and parking payments.

Installation of more mobile concessions technology, like kiosks and even vending machines, will also increase the need for overall connectivity, as will a shift to more fans using mobile devices for concessions ordering and payments as described previously. Venues are also likely going to want to increase the amount of digital displays in their buildings, to assist with crowd control, wayfinding and social-distancing policing – again leading to more demand for both wired and wireless connectivity.

Layer in more increases in communication demands just from a fan-education standpoint as well as any growth in demand for public safety and other operational needs and it’s clear that providing or upgrading existing networks to a much more robust state is probably the first to-do item on many venues’ work lists as they seek to support the return to venues. The good news is, from a technology and market perspective, there may not be a better time to be seeking new horsepower and capacity on a wireless-networking front.

On the Wi-Fi side, the advent of Wi-Fi 6 networking gear – now available from most top vendors – should provide a large boost in performance and capacity for venue networks, at costs only slightly higher than the past generation of equipment.

On the cellular side, 4G DAS networks remain a key tool in bringing a multi-carrier solution to providing basic access to most devices, while the arrival of nascent 5G services will enable carriers and venues to bring new kinds of services to guests, including applications with low-latency needs like virtual reality and other high- bandwidth broadcasts. Also, the emergence of networks using the CBRS bandwidth for potential “private” LTE networks may provide venues with an additional method of adding secure, standards-based communications for things like back-of-house operations, in-venue gaming, and Wi-Fi like services or Wi-Fi backhaul to areas where Wi-Fi signals can’t reach.

While budgetary concerns, venue aesthetics and demand for levels of services will still likely make overall networking choices a very local decision, the idea of trying to move forward in a pandemic age without a high level of basic wireless connectivity seems to be a non-starter.

A situation that changes day to day

As we said at the start — right now, the only thing everyone knows for sure is that nobody knows anything for sure. From our interviews, however, it is very apparent that for almost all the people we have talked to, few see standing still as a viable alternative. There are almost assuredly going to be some missteps, some money and time spent on technologies or procedures that don’t pan out, some anger and frustration on all sides, as we all adjust to new ways of doing things we’d long taken for granted. There will also be successful moves, victories small and big, which we hope to share to help accelerate the “Return to Venues” as much as possible.

Here at Stadium Tech Report, nothing has changed in our core directive — trying to help bring the best information possible to our readers so that they can be successful in operating their venues.

Appetize sees more contact-free concessions for venues going forward

Fans at Empower Field at Mile High Stadium use Appetize-powered kiosks to order and pay for food. Credit: Paul Kapustka, MSR

While the timeline for fans returning to large public venues for sports and events is still uncertain, one thing that does seem inevitable is that the future of stadium concessions will see more ways for fans to get food and beverages without human interactions.

That’s certainly the view from Appetize, one of the top players in the venue point-of-sale technology business. In a recent call with Appetize chief strategy officer Kevin Anderson, he said the last few weeks have been among the busiest in company history, as teams, schools and venues seek ways to make concessions operations more touch-free going forward. Though there are no government mandates yet making such technologies a necessity to open venues, it makes sense that when events come back fans might be feel safer using technology-aided methods like ordering and paying online, or paying with touchless device systems (like Apple Pay), as opposed to traditional human-based counter interactions.

“Most of our customers, including venues and managed-service food companies, are realizing that if their venues are not able to accept [contactless] payments today they will have to — and if they don’t have mobile or online ordering, they will need to do that as well,” Anderson said.

App- or web-based ordering should increase

Appetize, which sells a wide range of software and hardware for stadium and other point-of-sale systems, has also recently added support for web-based ordering in venues, something that other vendors like VenueNext have also rolled out. While stadium and team apps with support for in-venue food ordering (with either delivery or pick-up options) have been around in various forms for several years, the idea of a web-based “app” with similar functionality is a newer and growing idea, one that could gain even more traction whenever venues open again.

An Appetize screenshot of what a mobile payment screen could look like.

What web-based systems have in their favor is that they can be used by fans almost instantly, without having to go through the process of downloading an app.

A web-ordering system, Anderson said, “is very well positioned for a post-Covid world” since it could give venues the flexibility of a walk-up encounter without the human interaction. In one scenario Anderson said fans could use their device’s camera to scan a sign or display with a QR code, which would bring up a menu for the concession stand close to the sign. Fans can then order and pay without having to stand in a line, and get an alert to pick up their order when it is ready.

“Venues are not going to bulldoze concession stands, but they will have to figure out how to space out people in lines and how to incentivize people to pay with contactless systems,” Anderson said. “It’s going to be the future.”

Still bullish on touch-screen kiosks

Anderson also thinks that touch-screen kiosks will still be popular going forward, even if some people feel less safe touching a payment or ordering screen.

“We’re still bullish on kiosks,” said Anderson, who said 90 percent of Appetize’s venue deployments included some kind of touch-screen system. For many of its systems, Anderson said Appetize uses antimicrobial screen protectors, and going forward they foresee having sanitization stations near any touch-screen device.

“If you just use one finger to touch the screen and then you sanitize it after you’re done, that’s still better than being two feet away from someone speaking to you,” Anderson said.

Other less-human-contact ideas for venue concessions include more vending machines and grab-and-go type windows, where prepared, boxed items will help keep fans safer. Appetize is also already working on systems where food and beverages can be placed inside lockers that fans can access with a mobile device.

“I think you’ll see more concession stands flipped inside out, where you can just grab a sandwich in a package with a bar code and go,” Anderson said.