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About the Nats’ new ‘Ultimate Access’ card

I wrote a story for the paper about the Nats’ new ‘Ultimate Ballpark Access’ smart cards, which will further be introduced to 20-, 41- and 81-game planholders with an e-mail and new micro-site on Friday. Since this is, and will continue to be a hot topic among Nats fans, here are a few of the things I found most interesting.

* The most common complaint I’ve heard — and the first complaint the Nats thought of — was the lack of paper tickets as memorabilia.

“In the U.S. sports world, the strongest traditionalists are in Major League Baseball,” said Jerry Casselano, the director of corporate hospitality for ProVentures, an Arlington-based sports and entertainment marketing agency. “What I find with our customers – the CEO of a corporation or a local manager, it doesn’t matter – I find they all want that tangible, physical experience of having a hard-copy ticket, especially for baseball. Turning them over from having that hard-copy ticket is an obstacle that they’ll have to overcome.”

* The team will sell 3″-by-7″ commemorative tickets on high-quality stock both at the Park and later, online. The cost has not been announced. This year’s season-ticket holder gift will also be a commemorative opening-day ticket, in acrylic. I still expect this souvenir thing to be among the most consistent complaints about the new system.

* Unlike the Caps’ and Wizard’s system, the Nats’ system uses RFID chips — like what’s inside a SmarTrip card — rather than a magnetic stripe. This means there’s no swiping and no wireless readers; you just wave the card over a hard-wired reader. Every card has a seat number, so you also don’t need to wait for a print-out.

“For the fan, it means if it took them 10 minutes before, now it takes them a minute,” said Richard Pinnick, head of global business development for Fortress GB, which developed the Nats’ system and similar systems for more than half of the Premier League’s teams. “That’s why fans have adopted this so readily; they can see it work. Arsenal, one of our major clubs, has a 63,000-seat stadium. The longest wait time to get in for the most difficult matches is 48 seconds at the highest-trafficked point, just before games. Why? Because the technology is designed to process people really fast. What fans understand is I’m getting inside in 48 seconds, and before I had to wait 10 to 15 minutes.”

* Within a few months, the cards will also be able to be used as “e-Cash” debit cards. You could pre-load it with money, or link it with a bank account or credit card so it refills once it reaches a certain point, just like an E-Z Pass device. The team says e-Cash transactions — again, accomplished with a contact-less wave — will be seven times faster than cash or credit. They also hope to have “e-Cash” express lines.

* Within the next year or two, you will also be able to access parking lots and pay for parking with the card.

* Shared “ticket” accounts will be another huge issue for fans. The primary account holder will initially receive one card for every seat. That person can then register other partners, who can activate their account and receive their own card, with their own name and the same seat locations. The primary account holder can then click which games to place onto the partner’s cards. Once there, the primary holder can’t take them back. And obviously the separate cards would have separate debit functions and separate promotional options.

* Fortress GB introduced a similar system for the Manchester City  soccer club eight years ago, and now powers the operations at more than 100 teams in 16 countries, including heavyweights like Arsenal and Liverpool. They’re also working with the Red Sox, Rays and Red Bulls, although they consider the Nats their U.S. “showcase.” Pinnick said the impulse for British soccer teams was the same concern that has occupied many U.S. franchises: how to preserve the value of a season-ticket experience when the home viewing alternative is increasingly attractive.

“The ability to sit at home in your underpants and drink your beer, watching your high definition 52-inch television — THAT is really the competition for sports teams,” he said. “Teams were looking for ways to make the life of a fan simpler, easier, more rewarding, making the whole customer journey a better experience….The great thing about the States is you intuitively understand the benefits this could bring, because in the U.S., sports is much more about entertainment. In the UK, sports is about sports, as it were. Over in the U.S., it IS about that customer journey.”

* And indeed, the Nats’ position is that this brings them closer to their fans, makes season-ticket holders feel more like members of a club than people buying a piece of paper.

“There’s nothing more important than creating the best, most compelling fan experience, because that’s what keeps them coming back,” Andy Feffer, the team’s COO, told me. “That’s why you do it. These are long-term fans who we’ll have a connection with over many years.”

* As mentioned, the Red Sox are doing a pilot program with about 700 season-ticket holders this season, with hopes to expand it in the future. They’ve consulted with the Nats many times, and, despite certain differences, “we 100 percent share their vision and enthusiasm,” said Tim Zue, the team’s VP of business development.

“We wouldn’t be doing this if we didn’t believe it was smart and the right direction to go,” he told me. “As we’ve studied loyalty programs, we’ve noticed many more failed and abandoned programs than successful ones. We believe there is a way to succeed, and we think the Nationals are one of the forerunners in this space.”

* Did I mention that some fans will miss paper tickets? Some fans will miss paper tickets. Dearly.

“It’s a real souvenir issue to me, that’s the first thing that hits me hard,” one unhappy fan, Sam Rhem, told me this week. “I have the ticket when Bryce hit his first home run. That’s important to me. Maybe he could autograph that for me one day, and I could pass that down to my kids.”

The team’s micro-site will answer many more questions.

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