Season ticket holders of the Washington Nationals professional baseball team will soon pay for concessions and souvenirs with the same smart card they use to enter Nationals Park.
The Nationals, one of the first major sports franchises to initiate a ticketless-entry system as its season pass, will add payment capabilities to its Ultimate Ballpark Access card after the All-Star break in mid-July, says Andrew Feffer, the Nationals' chief operating officer.
The ball club introduced the card this season, giving fans the option to skip long ticket lines by waving their card over a reader at an unmanned turnstile.
The Nationals long envisioned that fans would use the card for every experience at the ballpark, including payments. The Nationals' smart card uses the same radio frequency identification technology used in the Washington D.C. Metro SmarTrip transportation card.
In the near future, fans will also have the option to use their smartphones for the same functions the smart cards perform.
"We are in the process of developing a smartphone application, which will enable cross-platform functionality," Feffer says.
The mobile app would create "a simple solution to manage the entire Nationals experience" in one place, Feffer says. "There may be something as soon as the end of this season."
The Nationals are also receiving feedback from single-game ticket buyers that they want to use smart cards as well, he says.
Other organizations are watching the Nationals closely to see how the smart-card concept takes hold with fans and vendors.
"We are in close contact with multiple Major League baseball teams who are interested in learning more about what we're doing, including the Boston Red Sox and the Tampa Bay Rays," Feffer says. The Red Sox and the Rays launched pilot programs this year for a segment of fans, Feffer adds.
"Those teams seem to be monitoring the value that this technology delivers, not only to the fan but also to the organization," Feffer says.
Other professional sports franchises also consider entry and payment options for season ticket holders and special events.
The San Francisco 49ers football team plans a "cashless and ticketless" Super Bowl L when hosting the NFL championship's 50th anniversary game in 2016 in the city's new Levi's Stadium.
The Tampa Bay Lightning professional hockey team provides season ticketholders with a team jersey that has an embedded chip for entry into the arena and discounts at concession and souvenir stands.
When the Nationals add the payments function to the card, fans will be able to load money online by linking the card to an existing credit card, debit card or bank account, Feffer says.
Cardholders can also "establish an auto top-up threshold similar to EZ-Pass [highway tolls pass]," Feffer says.
Stadium and university settings have been "great test kitchens" for contactless and mobile payment technology, says Richard Oglesby, senior analyst and mobile pay expert with Boston-based Aite Group.
"You have a large, captive audience in one place at one time," Oglesby says.
However, such initiatives for a professional sports franchise or one-time event like the Super Bowl don't always translate to adoption in the real world,
However, even if the technology has its fans at the stadium, it might fumble in the real world, Oglesby says.
"The consumer might say, 'I did this great thing at the Super Bowl,' but he doesn't expect to pay for things the same way outside of the Super Bowl," Oglesby says.
Card networks and merchants can generate a lot of publicity and brand awareness in stadium settings. "They are hoping to do something unique that stands out, something that would allow them to get more out of it" in other mobile commerce settings, he says.
But not all publicity is good publicity.
After months of promoting contactless and mobile payments at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, Visa Inc. and Visa Europe absorbed some negative press during soccer matches at Wembley Stadium when contactless payment terminals malfunctioned, even though Visa had nothing to do with the breakdown.
Sports fans may appreciate paying for concessions with a card or mobile phone because they can pay exact amounts, says Brian Riley, senior research director and analyst with Needham, Mass.-based CEB TowerGroup.
"It's tough enough to pay $8.50 for a glass of beer at a ball game, but when you hand your $10 bill down the row to pay for it, you tell them to keep the change because you don't want to hassle everyone to pass back the change," Riley says.
Mobile payments may seem to solve this problem, but "I don't think I'd want to hand my phone or card down the row to make a payment," he adds.
Nevertheless, mobile payments and smart cards "are well-suited" for fans in the professional sports world, making stadiums a "terrific proving ground" for payment schemes, Riley says.