Facial Recognition’s Next Big Play: the Sports Stadium

Facial Recognition’s Next Big Play: the Sports Stadium

When sports fans return to watch their teams play live again, many of them may not need a ticket.

Several pro sports teams, including the New York Mets and the Los Angeles Football Club, are testing facial-recognition technology in stadiums. The idea is to admit fans for entry by authenticating their faces, to make the process as touchless as possible during the coronavirus pandemic.

Big, live sporting events—including a soccer match in Italy blamed for accelerating that country’s large outbreak—have been contagion points for the virus’s spread. That is because of the proximity of fans and the likelihood of close contact, such as shuffling down aisles or jostling for a beer at the concession stand. All the shouting doesn’t help, either.

Any return to stadiums is expected to happen only after a virus-instigated overhaul of the fan experience, not unlike efforts to remake factories, offices, restaurants and airports. For now, most big professional leagues are only considering games in nearly empty stadiums or arenas.

Facilities managers at some of these venues, though, are looking at using facial-recognition scanners to start bringing small numbers of high-value fans such as VIP guests or season-ticket holders back for games, said Shaun Moore, chief executive of facial-recognition supplier Trueface.

Face in a Crowd

Stadiums are trialing face-recognition systems to enter games touchless. Here’s one system being tested:

Temperature screening camera

Second camera for recognizing a mask and a face linked to a ticket

Barcode or QR code reader for fans who have not linked their ticket to their face

Motion sensor triggers the turnstile to open.

Discussions with vendors such as his have been focused on “how to reduce touch points and [avoid] people having to hand over credentials,” Mr. Moore said. Even scanning ticket bar codes could pose a risk of spreading the virus, he said.

Facial-recognition technology, now routinely used at many big airports, also is at the point that it has proven to be reliable. Some, however, say the technology raises privacy issues, and at least one European regulator has scrutinized its use in sports stadiums.

Fans of Los Angeles FC, a Major League Soccer club with a 22,000-seat stadium, will next year be able to use an app called Clear, made by Alclear and used by some airline passengers to speed through security checks by presenting their fingerprints or showing their faces.

“Our plan is to move everything to face,” says Christian Lau, chief technology officer of LAFC and Banc of California Stadium.

LAFC fans will be able to take and download a selfie and link their Clear accounts with their existing Ticketmaster profiles. At the stadium turnstile, a camera will measure the fan’s temperature. A second camera determines whether the spectator is wearing a mask. Fans would then pull down their masks to let that same camera recognize their faces and admit them based on their ticket purchase. If a face isn’t recognized, a red frame will show around the face on the screen and the person will be denied entry.

Mr. Lau said that the club started doing trials of Clear’s older face-and-fingerprint kiosks just before the lockdown and that 600 fans had used them to get in over the course of two games. Mr. Lau said less than 1% of customers had to adjust or rescan their faces. Still, considering California’s new virus surge, he isn’t expecting any fans back until 2021.

Alclear and LAFC haven’t disclosed costs, but an access-control kiosk like the one LAFC is buying typically costs several thousand dollars. Buyers usually pay a recurring license fee for the software, too. James Stickland, chief executive of British facial-recognition firm Veridium IP Ltd., said such software could cost between $200,000 and $250,000 a year for a stadium.

Mr. Lau described the investment as an efficiency play. The more cameras it can eventually install, the quicker and easier it will be for fans to buy things inside the stadium. “At some point in the not-too-distant future, you can walk up and use your face to buy pizza,” Mr. Lau said.

Understanding Coronavirus

Major League Baseball’s Mets also are using Alclear’s facial-recognition system to authenticate players as they enter the stadium and take their temperatures. The team is considering rolling the system out in a much larger way to admit fans, too, though “right now it’s just players and staff,” a spokesman said.

The Netherlands’ Johan Cruijff Arena, home to one of Europe’s most-successful soccer clubs, AFC Ajax, installed facial-recognition cameras at its stadium entrance two years ago as part of a pilot for ticketless fan entry. Hundreds had their faces scanned as part of the project. Dutch data-protection regulators warned the stadium was violating privacy rules, and the cameras were taken down six months after they came online.

Now stadium managers are asking regulators if they can reinstall the cameras and software. Around 10,000 fans will be allowed back into the 55,000-capacity stadium for a practice game with RKC Waalwijk on Aug. 8.

“Hopefully we use this coronavirus pandemic to change rules,” said Henk van Raan, chief innovation officer at the arena. “The coronavirus is a bigger enemy than [any threat to] privacy.”

A spokesman for the Dutch privacy agency declined to comment on the arena but said facial recognition should only be deployed with a legal basis and under strict circumstances.

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Philip Jones, who owns the Annan Athletic, a professional soccer team in Scotland, is installing a facial-recognition system at his 600-seat stadium. The system isn’t for admitting ticketless fans, but to provide information for the stadium’s own contact-tracing app. He says fans, once they understand the reason for the cameras, won’t mind.

“It’s the same old story, it’s Big Brother,” Mr. Moore said. “But if you sit and tell them, and they understand [how it works], that takes a lot of the mystery away.”

A ramp-up in using biometric screening for Covid-19 presages the same sort of seismic shift in the fan experience that followed the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Stadiums bulked up security, adding metal detectors and security checks that at the time were reserved for airport security.

“These organizations can be slow movers, but once something takes hold, it very quickly can become an industry standard,” said Thomas Alomes, a director for Austin, Texas-based Sports Tech World Series, which does research and consulting work for professional sports organizations.

—Ben Cohen contributed to this article.

Write to Parmy Olson at parmy.olson@wsj.com

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