Pro Sports Venues Continue Push For Cash-Free Fan Experience

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  • The Utah Jazz's Vivint Smart Home Arena is the latest pro sports venue to implement cash-free features.
  • It joins Mercedes-Benz Stadium and Tropicana Field as three of the growing number of cash-free arenas in North America.
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Photo Credit: Utah Jazz

The Wu-Tang Clan once rapped that cash ruled everything. At an increasing number of professional sports venues across the country, that statement no longer rings true.

Before the start of the 2019-2020 NBA season, the Utah Jazz’s Vivint Smart Home Arena became the latest venue to transition to a cash-free environment for food and beverage purchases. Certain areas around the arena’s main and upper concourses will only accept credit, debit, and prepaid cards and mobile payments during events. 

The Jazz’s experimentation with cash-free events at Vivint Smart Home Arena began during the summer, said Senior Vice President of Communications Frank Zang. When the venue held its first basketball game – an October 5 preseason game between the Jazz and Adelaide 36ers – Zang saw better efficiency between fans and customer service representatives.

The process was so smooth that people were switching lines and visiting the cash-free ones, said Zang. With 70% of transactions already taking place either by phone or card, all food and beverage transactions at Vivint Smart Home Arena will be cash-free by the spring of 2020. Other local businesses in the city like the Megaplex movie theaters and the Salt Lake Bees, the Triple-A affiliate of the Los Angeles Angels, are joining the Jazz in the cashless movement.

“The cash-free transactions we foresee are a way to conduct business – for the benefit of all – at a variety of our venues in the future,” Zang said. “We have a phased approach to it. We’ll get feedback from our guests and be able to fine-tune our system, to improve our service and to enhance our fan experience.”

When the Mercedes-Benz Stadium – home of the Atlanta Falcons and Atlanta United – opened in September 2017, it aimed to update and enhance what fans typically experienced from a stadium’s food and beverage services, said Greg Beadles, the chief administrative and financial officer of AMB Sports and Entertainment.

Outside of just value through the industry first “fan-first” pricing, that also included everything from the speed of service, friendliness of staff, and concessions quality, said Beadles. All of those things together – helped the Falcons and Atlanta United rank No. 1 in each league’s “Voice of the Fan”  rankings in 2017. 

Despite the positive customer reaction, AMBSE wasn’t interested in letting rankings influence its business operations, said Beadles. At the time it opened, cash transactions at Falcons and Atlanta United contests made up roughly 51% and 40% of purchases, respectively. Seeing that made him realize that there were chances at speeding up lines and limiting wait times so fans could quickly return to their seats – where the real experience is supposed to be.

Over time, Mercedes-Benz Stadium slowly began rolling back its cash dealings in 2018, said Beadles. By the end of the year, those transactions dropped approximately 10% across both football and soccer events. Then in March 2019, AMBSE decided to go 100% cashless.

Despite the switch, it has not negatively affected how the more than one million annual visitors attend games, Beadles said. Since going 100% cash-free in March, less than 1% of spectators are using the venue’s cash-to-card kiosks. This has contributed to a slight decline in total transactions – but also a rise in the number of items per transaction.

To gauge how fans are responding to this cashless transition, AMBSE workers conduct surveys after every event, said Beadles. At least 25% of the event attendees receive them, with 95% of them saying that concession lines are as fast or faster than they were previously. About 60% of them say the lines have gotten noticeably faster – even though Mercedes-Benz Stadium was ranked No. 1 in the speed of service in 2017.

“It seems like the fans have been really happy with it,” Beadles said. “We were kind of looking around over our shoulders after the first few soccer matches cause we were anticipating or just wondering if there’s going to be any pushback or problems. And we didn’t have very many at all to speak of.”

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For Bill Walsh, the Tampa Bay Rays’ senior vice president of strategy and development, he didn’t need to travel far to find an easy, efficient way to improve the fan experience at Tropicana Field.

Walsh wanted to seek out the voice of the team’s most important customer: the fans. They led him outside – to a place all too familiar to them.

“We transformed all of our parking operations into cash-free,” Walsh said. “It had a little less risk just cause you’re coming to a game, you don’t want to park in our lots – there are other places for you to park. But it started us down the path and it started putting this idea and notion out in front of our fans.”

When the Rays brought cash-free into the confines of Tropicana Field in 2018, they were selective in where to install it, said Walsh. They first implemented it in a section of a center field called “The Porch,” a long bar often operated by as many as seven bartenders.

More areas around The Porch started going cash-free and, by season end, so did entire sections of Tropicana Field, Walsh said. Heading into the 2018 offseason, there was a 95% customer satisfaction rate with the stadium’s cash-free features. Of the 5% who wanted cash, they were offered a Rays Gift Card that enabled them to exchange cash for it. 

Improvements made heading into the 2019 season helped cash-free become more convenient for Rays fans. By the postseason, less than 2% of transactions at Tropicana Field involved the Rays Gift Card – signaling a reduction in friction points like the speed of service and line management, said Walsh. 

“I think the expectation now for most people – certainly if they live in the market and they’ve been to a game before – is that they know the rules,” Walsh said. “They know what to expect and then when fans know what to expect and you can communicate that to them, typically things go pretty well – and truthfully, it’s gone better than we’d hoped.”

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Whenever a team embraces the unorthodox, early pushback is inevitable. As the senior vice president of food and hospitality at Spectra, an arena management company, Jay Satenspiel has helped organizations – from the Chicago Cubs to Texas Tech – incorporate cash-free concessions into its venues.

Similar to the automation taking place at retail chains like Target and Walmart, sports arenas are increasing their cashless practices, said Satenspiel. But given its initial success across professional sports, what was seen as a rarity is now becoming so commonplace that he expects every business will eventually adopt cash-free operations.

“It’s part of society now and it’s becoming more and more rich,” Satenspiel said. “Is there pushback? Absolutely. But, as a whole, the simplicity behind the transaction has become so easy that it’s becoming accepted and it’s starting to become the norm of what you expect.”