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Technology firms and entrepreneurs position themselves for the return of fans to stadiums

An attendee has their temperature checked by Nascar security prior to the Nascar Cup Series at Darlington Raceway in May. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

  • TSA Group pivots from rights brokerage to health equipment supply
  • Ticketing companies working to develop health certificates
  • Automated temperature scanners expensive and not infallible

As countries across the globe begin to ease Covid-19 lockdown restrictions and slowly move through the phases towards the ‘new norm’, the time is gradually starting to arrive when spectators are allowed back into sports stadiums.

But even in regions which have registered a relatively small number of deaths during the pandemic, the early signs are that the experience of watching live sport will be a long way removed from anything that went before.

When Hungary’s top-tier football league, the Nemzeti Bajnokság, returned last weekend, strict government social distancing regulations allowed for no more than one seat in four to be occupied in venues. In the example of the World Team Tennis mixed tennis tournament, scheduled for July in West Virginia, health guidelines will allow for the host arena to be filled to just 20 per cent capacity.

The job of encouraging fans back into stadiums in countries with a higher incidence of the virus may well take more than just the green light from governments. A Reuters/IPSOS opinion poll of 4,429 American adults in April found only 17 per cent said they would consider attending a professional sporting event once they re-open to the public. Of those to have attended a sports event in the preceding year, 42 per cent said they would return to stadiums whenever sport reopens, while 39 per cent said they would rather wait until a vaccine is found – even if that meant waiting a year.

An April survey of 2,200 American adults by Morning Consult painted a more optimistic picture, suggesting fans would be more comfortable returning to arenas if event organisers installed safety measures and implemented rigorous venue cleaning practices.

For a serial entrepreneur like Marcus Luer, founder and group chief executive of Malaysia-based TSA Group, the need to reassure fans combined with the commercial imperatives of sport have created a rich opportunity for traditional and non-traditional technology suppliers to the sector.

Normally a sponsorship and media rights broker, Luer has switched to sourcing scanning and hygiene equipment for rights-holders to prepare them for the resumption of spectator sport. Having witnessed the start of the pandemic in Asia, and the measures implemented in public spaces in the region, he says he was able to develop relationships with Asian suppliers early enough in the crisis to meet western demand for safety products.

“Nobody will go back into sports stadiums or these types of public places if you don’t have correct screening in place,” he tells SportBusiness. “Let’s give people the sense that you’ve done the basics right: that you’re checking fans, your staff are well-trained, well-protected and they have all the right things in place.”

Although no technology exists to completely prevent the possibility of a fan contracting Covid-19 at an event, Luer argues there is plenty of equipment and measures that organisers can invest in now to reassure spectators that risks are within acceptable limits.

Rights-holders will have to carry out cost-benefit analysis to determine whether the outlay for some of the more expensive equipment is justified when government guidance for the resumption of sport continues to be scarce and the chance of a Covid-19 vaccine could render some equipment obsolete.

In this extended feature SportBusiness looks at the way technology suppliers are positioning themselves for the return of spectator sport and examines the pros and cons of some of the equipment available.

TIXnGo’s health certification tool Health-n-Go.

Health certificates traceable by blockchain

What if technology developed to prevent sports tickets from falling into the hands of touts could also be used to prove the health of fans visiting sports stadiums?

Several ticket providers have already announced ideas for certification tools that could combine proof of identity, an event ticket and a government-approved health certificate in a blockchain-protected wallet.

One such provider, SecuTix, helped Uefa replace its standard distribution of printed tickets for last year’s Nations League finals in Portugal with a blockchain-protected ticketing system, to gain a greater degree of control over ticket transfers and to eliminate forgeries. Following the success of the initiative, the ticketing company was contracted to provide the same solution for Euro 2020, before the tournament was postponed to next year.

Blockchains can be configured to require each transaction to comply with a digital ‘smart contract’, which sets out the conditions that must be met for a new block to be validated and added to the chain. This could be particularly relevant to sports venues and rights-holders looking to ensure that only those people with valid health certification are granted access into stadiums. The smart contract could prohibit the transfer of a ticket to anyone else or require that secondary purchasers or recipients of tickets also provide a health certificate.

David Hornby, UK and Ireland managing director at SecuTix, says sister company TIXnGO has now adapted the technology so that it could distribute certificates from a doctor or health organisation at scale. But for anything like this to be implemented, the firm would need governments and the medical community to develop an accredited Covid-19 certificate.

Each time a health certificate is issued in the platform, a unique, encrypted and completely traceable identity is attached to it. Individuals could keep their health certificates on a specific wallet on their smartphone, which can be shown on request and the QR code read by a scanner.

“If a club – let’s say ‘ABC United’ – has got a 40,000-seat stadium and 30,000 season-ticket holders and wants to put a situation in place where it can track who has been issued a clear certificate, then technically, yes, we could do that,” he says.

“But where are those certificates coming from? Our system would enforce them, wouldn’t allow you to copy them – it’s quite secure in that sense – but fundamentally unless it’s issued by a bona fide party like the NHS, or via an accredited process, it’s not worth the money it’s printed on.”

Fan engagement platform Socios has announced plans for a health certification tool along similar lines, while UK cybersecurity firm VST Enterprises is also developing a digital ‘sports health passport’ for rights-holders. But, as with the SecuTix solution, they are dependent on the creation of a reliable and trustworthy health certification system.

David Hornby, UK and Ireland managing director, SecuTix

Reconfigured seating algorithms to observe social distancing

Hornby says some of SecuTix’s rights-holder clients, which also include Everton FC, the R&A, Saracens Rugby and Lancashire Cricket Club, are asking his company to explore ways to safely allow smaller crowds back into stadiums and arenas while minimising the amount of contact between fans.

“From speaking to clients, it’s clear that the social distancing and new behaviour shifts we are seeing today will partially or totally persist after the crisis. The sports sector is looking at ways to sell tickets for live games whilst managing the social distancing rules to ensure the safety of fans,” he says.

He suggests the same algorithms typically used by ticketing platforms to identify the best-available seats in a venue at a particular price point could be reconfigured to allow fans to observe mandated social distancing requirements of the kind seen in Hungary.

“We could put a situation in place where we can block out rows or individual seats around a group, so if you’re coming with your family group, or a known group, or someone within your network that you have been living with, you can identify that network and you can all sit together,” he says.

Once again, however, the challenge isn’t to get the technology to perform this function, but that there is still no official guidance in most markets – aside from Hungary – about what would represent a safe degree of stadium occupancy. Hornby says any technical solution would also have to consider the commercial realities for most clubs or rights-holders.

“We’re looking at solutions for distancing and spacing. But again, for some clubs that might be very relevant, for other clubs, they might decide that the cost of opening the stadium and putting all the stewards on prevents them from operating at 50 per cent capacity – or it might even be 25 per cent if you look at proper distancing rules.”

A further challenge will be to make sure fans sit in designated areas. For this, venue operators could learn from the low-tech approach adopted by a theatre in Germany, which recently re-opened having removed 500 of 700 seats in its main auditorium to allow audiences to adhere to government requirements of a 1.5m safety distance.

Bath Rugby club uses the Preoday pre-odering app its Bath Recreation Ground stadium.

Staggered queues, pre-paid food and beverage and cashless payment facilities

Even with lower levels of stadium occupancy, clubs and event organisers will need to prevent fans from coming into closer contact in the constrained entrances to seating blocks and stadium concourses.

Hornby suggests staggered entry times to avoid bottle necks at entrances. He says SecuTix provides a timeslot solution whereby fans are required to select an entry time so stadiums can have strict control of the entrance flow to limit the proximity of fans.

Queuing for concessions could also prove problematic – provided government guidance allows for fans to eat food at sports venues at all once restrictions are eased. Pre-ordering drink and food apps like Preoday, Seatserve and FanFood could help to limit fan numbers, manage congestion in stadium concourses and minimise contact between catering staff and spectators.

The cashless mobile ordering provided by these apps combined with staggered collection times and non-contact pickup and delivery could help rights-holders to argue that they should be allowed to keep important food and beverage revenue streams open.

Pre-ordering facilities and the ability to process cashless transactions will also be important in allowing club stores to re-open at a time of the year when there is usually an uplift from next season’s shirt sales.

For a retail experience totally free of any interaction with shop staff, sports teams could look to the example set by Amazon and its chain of self-checkout Amazon Go retail stores, where payment is automated thanks to the big tech firm’s proprietary Just Walk Out technology. Last year, San Francisco 49ers president Al Guido told SportBusiness he was looking at introducing a similar concept in the NFL’s team’s Levi’s Stadium in Silicon Valley.

But even in those cases where interactions are minimised, retail outlets will have to observe official guidance. UK government guidance for shops advises storing returned items 72 hours before putting them back on sale and frequent cleaning of surfaces that are touched regularly such as self-checkouts, trolleys and shopping baskets, which will necessitate further investment in cleaning equipment.

In Morning Consult’s April survey of US fans, 77 per cent of those polled said the inclusion of hand-sanitisers would make them more comfortable attending live sports events. And 74 per cent of those surveyed said they would also be more or somewhat reassured if a venue operator clearly communicated that a facility was being sanitised.

Automated cameras from Pixellot have helped the International Hockey Federation to streamline production (picture courtesy of Pixellot).

Robotic cameras and automated production

As part of Project Restart, the Premier League’s broadcast partners have been asked to work out the minimum numbers of staff required at the closed-door matches to lower the number of interactions between people and reduce the risk of spreading the virus. For the resumption of Hungary’s Nemzeti Bajnokság last weekend, no cameras were allowed alongside the field of play for similar reasons.

One solution would be to use a combination of robotic and static cameras and automated production techniques for less staff-intensive coverage of matches.

Robotic cameras enabled a skeleton production crew to provide coverage of the Professional Bull Riders’ successful return to competition on the CBS Sports Network and streaming service RidePass in late April. Similarly, Sportradar and Israeli company PlaySight Interactive used a combination of robotic and static cameras to provide coverage of the German Tennis Point Exhibition Series from May 1-4.

In the latter example, just two production operators worked in separate rooms and communicated via intercom to provide the coverage, while automated graphics and officiating also reduced the number of people required on site.

Should other rights-holders take a similar approach, they will have to accept that there will be a drop-off in production quality. Automated production techniques were originally conceived to help lower-tier rights-holders to monetise long-tail content and less important secondary rights. Given the dearth of sport available, this might be a compromise fans of some sports would be willing to accept.

Non-contact temperature scanners, like this one at an airport in Indonesia, became a common sight in Asia during the Sars outbreak. (Photo credit: BAY ISMOYO/AFP via Getty Images)

Handheld and non-contact temperature scanners

Covid-19 has caused shares in companies that develop fever detection systems to soar. In late February, Bloomberg reported that Wuhan Guide Infrared Co., a firm that produces temperature screening equipment, was the best performer on the Shenzhen stock exchange, its price having surged by 128 per cent since the beginning of the year.

The sort of equipment produced by the company first became a familiar sight in airports, shopping malls and other large public spaces in Asia during the 2003 Sars epidemic and comes in one of two forms.

The less expensive option is a handheld temperature scanner that an operator can point at a member of public to determine if they have elevated temperature levels consistent with carrying the virus.

The disadvantages are an inability to process large numbers of people at once and the fact it requires close contact between the operator and fan. “Number one, you don’t know this guy who is waving this thing in your face,” says Luer. “Number two, how many people has he waved this thing at, and what if someone has contaminated the device?” he says.

The second – more advanced and more expensive – option is mass terminal screeners that are fully automated and can detect temperature differences on moving people, removing the need for an operator and reducing staff training requirements.

But with an automated solution from Singapore-based manufacturer Omnisense retailing at between $20,000 (£15,940 /€17,900) and $25,000, most rights-holders might struggle to source and pay for enough machines to screen large numbers of fans.

Health experts have also pointed out that some over-the-counter medications can suppress a fever while the incubation period for Covid-19 means temperature screening equipment might not detect all sufferers.

Luer says there also occasions when the equipment can give a false positive, which creates a negative customer experience.

“Here in Asia we have the problem that because it is hot, your body temperature could be naturally high and the scanner stops you,” he says.

Should western event organisers and teams decide to install similar equipment, they will have to create protocols for stopping fans and develop guidelines for dealing sensitively with people who generate a positive reading.

When the Ironman Group recently issued guidelines for the safe resumption of races, it said it would follow World Health Organization guidelines which say individuals with a body temperature of greater than 100.4ºF/38ºC should not be allowed to race, volunteer or work at its events.

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