Washington Nationals to introduce smart card system for ticket holders


Fans cheer on the night the Nationals clinched the 2012 NL East title. The team will send details of its new “Ultimate Ballpark Access” card to season-ticket holders Friday. (Toni L. Sandys/THE WASHINGTON POST)
February 28, 2013

The Washington Nationals’ vision of a new ballpark experience begins at an unmanned turnstile, where a plan holder waves her card over a reader and makes “contact-less” entry in less than a second. Within a few steps, an e-mail or text message arrives, thanking the fan for attending her 10th straight game and offering a free hot dog.

Before arriving at her seat, the fan stops off at a team store, earning a 15 percent discount for being a plan holder, and debiting the cost from that same access card. She then heads for a concession stand, breezing through an “e-Cash” line, where transactions are processed seven times faster than in traditional cash or credit lines.

The Nationals will send details of their new “Ultimate Ballpark Access” card to season ticket holders Friday, laying out what team chief operating officer Andy Feffer calls “a monumental change” in the plan holder-franchise relationship.

The new cards — which employ the same radio frequency identification (RFID) technology used in Metro’s SmarTrip cards — will eliminate around 10 seconds from each person-to-person interaction with a ticket-taker, according to the team. The same card will, within a few months, serve as an “e-Cash” debit card at Nationals Park retail and concession stands.

It could also give the team access to the ballpark habits of its supporters: Just how many hot dogs did that family in Row S of Section 138 eat last month, anyhow?

The team ran a pilot program last season before instituting the switch for all 20-game, 41- and 81-game plan holders this season. And other sports executives believe the Nats could be leading the way for American sports franchises.

“We think the Nationals are one of the forerunners in this space, which is why we’ve paid a lot of attention to what they’re doing,” said Tim Zue, the vice president of business development for the Boston Red Sox, who are launching a similar pilot program for approximately 700 season ticket account holders this spring and hope to expand the program in 2014. “At some point in the near future, I think many more sports teams will launch programs like this, and we will look back and realize that the Nationals paved the way.”

Elements of the Nationals’ blueprint already have been used at other U.S. sports venues. The NHL’s Tampa Bay Lightning put radio chips in team jerseys given to plan holders, which can be used to receive discounts at retail and concession locations. Baseball’s Tampa Bay Rays introduced ID debit cards that can be reloaded, bringing automatic cash bonuses.

Field access to the Super Bowl this year was controlled with similar RFID cards. And many teams have replaced paper ticketing with plastic cards, including both the Capitals and Wizards this season. Those franchises use a magnetic-strip card that must be manually swiped, with fans then receiving a print-out listing their seat locations.

But the Nationals have gone further by combining every system in a single card, linking ticketing with concessions with retail with loyalty rewards that can be used for seat upgrades as well as such real-time offers as discounted popcorn and jersey specials.

“Strategically, they’re at the front,” said Richard Pinnick, the head of global business development for London-based Fortress GB, which built the team’s technology platform after installing similar systems for more than half of England’s Premier League soccer teams. “Others have thought this way. Very few clubs have said, ‘I’m not just talking about this, I want to do it, and I want to do it meaningfully.’ Financially, operationally, they’re engineering their entire business around it.”

Disney parks, among other American entertainment sites, are introducing RFID wristbands that will similarly facilitate interactions between consumers and their corporate hosts.

Baseball games, though, have a different history than theme parks, and some Nats fans have already expressed displeasure over losing tangible paper records of their fandom. The Nats will allow fans to buy 3-by 7-inch commemorative tickets on premium stock, both at the stadium and online; the cost hasn’t been announced.

“I’m given 81 keepsakes; that’s important to me,” said Sam Rhem, 51, of Springfield, a season ticket holder since 2005 who has contacted the club with this and other concerns. “There was more to this whole process, this event than just flashing a card.”

Team executives, who have been working on this transformation for three years, are familiar with this and other misgivings. Plan holders who share seats can each register and receive their own cards; tickets can be instantly transferred from one card holder to another on the team’s Web site. Plan holders can also print out tickets at home and use the stadium’s bar code scanners, transfer tickets electronically to friends, or forward tickets to their own mobile devices. And fans with concerns about privacy or excessive interruptions can opt out of receiving special offers and refrain from using other features.

“Like anything else, there’s always going to be some resistance,” said Jerry Casselano, the director of corporate hospitality for ProVentures, an Arlington-based sports and entertainment marketing agency. But while Casselano said his corporate clients are often traditionalists about paper tickets, he said the new system — which he called “above and beyond” any other in baseball — would benefit both the Nationals and their followers.

“This is an investment in your fans,” Feffer said. “How do you engage your fans in a way that provides better value for being a season plan holder? How do you get closer to understanding your customers, what they want and what they value? Tickets were a transactional thing; you pay, and you come into the ballpark. Now, you’re engaging with your fans in a much different way that goes far beyond a transaction. That’s why you do it.”

Dan Steinberg writes about all things DC sports at the DC Sports Bog.
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