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Big Idea

Biometrics will get sports fans back in stadiums

Facial recognition and fingerprint scans could become as common as hot dogs and beer.

By Kade Krichko

As the world pushes closer to curbing the COVID-19 pandemic, many professional sports teams are awaiting the return of sold-out crowds. But the threat of the virus may linger for years. So how can organizations ensure that fans will be safe? The answer could lie in biometrics — and the touch-free fan experience.

The Problem

One of Europe’s first coronavirus superspreader events happened in a soccer stadium. In February 2020, Italian club Atalanta met Spain’s Valencia CF in Milan’s San Siro Stadium, where 40,000 home fans and 2,500 Valencia faithful crammed into the stands for the first leg of a Champions League fixture, which Atalanta won, 4-1.

A month after the game, 7,000 people in Atalanta’s home region of Bergamo had contracted the virus, and 1,000 had died. Valencia players also fell ill, and health officials traced the game in Italy to some of Spain’s first confirmed COVID-19 cases.

Now, the professional sports world — which continued during the pandemic with either sparse, spread-out crowds or no fans at all — hopes to get more spectators into seats. That means not only avoiding future superspreader events, but also assuring an anxious public that in-person spectating is safe. A March 2021 Washington Post/University of Maryland poll indicated that only 42% of those surveyed said they would be comfortable attending a live sporting event.

The Solution

Biometrics, the digital analysis of fingerprints, human faces, or other physical characteristics, is familiar to anyone who has unlocked an iPhone with a stare or the touch of a thumb. Sports teams were already deploying biometrics for frictionless ticketing and alcohol purchases before COVID-19 struck.

“What 9/11 did for metal detectors, we are now seeing COVID doing for health screening.”

Shawn Tilstra, managing partner, IS Partners

Now, technology designed for contact-free food-ordering systems is being used to help stop the virus from spreading in stadiums. For instance, facial recognition software that links fans’ faces with their tickets, originally deployed to reduce bottlenecks at stadium entrances, can help maintain distancing and aid in contact tracing.

Before 2020, “there were things in the works that were cool,” says Shawn Tilstra, managing partner of IS Partners, which has developed the iR37, a contactless thermometer, for quick forehead scans of stadium entrants. “Now [biometrics] aren’t just cool, they’re compliant.”

More and more sports leagues across the world are now piloting biometric technology. Japanese pro soccer teams are using IDEMIA’s MorphoWave Compact system, which allows fans to purchase food or enter a stadium by waving their hands in front of computer terminals. (The terminals can collect four contactless fingerprints in less than a second.) In the U.S., the San Francisco 49ers, the New York Jets, and the Boston Red Sox are using the company’s IdentoGo technology, which operates similarly to TSA PreCheck to get fans through the gates quickly and with little to no human contact. This April, the NBA announced a partnership with biometric-screening company CLEAR to provide all 30 of its teams with technology that could help bring fans back for the 2021-2022 season.

“What 9/11 did for metal detectors, we are now seeing COVID doing for health screening,” Tilstra says.

The Challenge

Biometric technology collects and stores personal data and our bodies are involved, which has raised concerns from digital privacy advocates. The European Union’s privacy watchdog has even called for a total ban of biometric technology like facial recognition in the EU, citing a “deep and non-democratic intrusion” into citizens’ lives.

In the U.S., Texas, Washington, Arkansas, New York, and California have passed restrictive biometric legislation, and Illinois requires notice and obtain written consent — such as a digital signature with a ticket purchase — before collecting or storing any personal content. Without consent, organizations face fines up to $5,000 a person.

Donnie Scott, IDEMIA’s vice president of public safety, says his company allows fans to opt out of the use of their biometric data during a game — and automatically purges that data from its servers after the game is over.

“Society is still grappling with what we’re comfortable with,” he says. “But [biometric companies] are not building central databases. It’s about consent.”

The Bigger Picture

In Japan, biometric technology has helped teams hold in-person sporting events since July 2020 — months before other countries brought any fans back to stadiums. This summer, the Tokyo Olympics may be the largest test case yet for widespread use of safety biometrics. The Tokyo Games had committed to biometrics in 2018, planning to implement facial recognition software for stadium entry and athlete security. Now, the Olympic organizing committee has announced a robust biometric network for monitoring spectator flow and reducing risk. And according to The Japan Times, facial recognition software will be the centerpiece of a contact tracing program at the event.

Officially, there’s still no word on whether fans will be allowed at the Games, which begin on July 23. But as the Olympic flame heads to Tokyo, the stage is set for biometrics to establish its place in the future of sports spectating.

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Kade Krichko’s writing has appeared in The New York Times, Outside, Conde Nast Traveler, and ESPN Magazine.

Illustration by Yukiko Noritake