Several sports teams and sports arenas are using facial recognition systems to support a frictionless fan experience as well as for security purposes.Drew Hallowell/MLB Photos via Getty Images
Apple’s launch of Face ID on iPhones starting in 2017 brought facial recognition out of society’s shadows and into our pockets, giving the controversial technology an everyday role in the lives of many people. A study from facial recognition company CyberLink claims 57% of 18–34-year-old people use some sort of facial recognition at least once a day, with the most common usages being to unlock their phone or computer and log in to an app, followed by safety roles at airports, banks, and medical offices.
The sports industry is no different. A sports fan can use Apple’s Face ID to login to the NBA App on their iPhone, use their face for ticket entry or buying concessions at a sporting event, while the technology lurks as a watchful eye for stadium security. SBJ Tech explores how this form of biometrics technology is impacting several key areas in the sports industry and breaks down the current deployments of facial recognition technology in the business today.
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“I think we were all wowed and appreciated the upgrade that Apple introduced there,” Wicket’s EVP Glenn Borgmann said of Face ID.
Wicket has been among the leaders to deploy facial recognition ticketing through partnerships with MLB’s New York Mets, the NFL’s Cleveland Browns and Atlanta Falcons, and the Columbus Crew in MLS. The opt-in process lets fans upload a selfie and government-issued ID to their team’s mobile app, which also syncs with their digital ticket to the game. Fans who sign up can then enter stadiums via designated lanes that have screen-facing kiosks with Wicket’s computer vision sensors, enabling them to present their face to the screen for entry without taking out their phone to show their ticket.
The Browns were the first to deploy Wicket’s facial ticketing in 2020 and have since had more than 22,000 fans sign up for Browns Entry Express access. The Crew have thus far had about 20% (roughly 4,000 fans) sign up for facial ticketing at Lower.com Field. Among all four of Wicket’s facial ticketing deals with pro sports teams, the company says its system has never falsely identified a person entering a stadium.
“The Browns are going to into its third season [with Wicket] and the opt-out rate is zero percent,” Wicket CEO Sanjay Manandha said in September. “The reason is the traditional lanes are 45 minutes to an hour and a half, and [with Wicket] you go in 300 milliseconds.”
The Mets branded its facial ticketing program as Mets Entry Express, which debuted in Aug. 2021 at Citi Field and expanded last season to include Wicket lanes at all main Citi Field entry gates, as well as at entrances to premium seating club areas. The club sent periodic emails to fans last season that encouraged them to register for Mets Entry Express to “skip the line every time,” and held a sweepstakes that gave away signed and game-used Mets memorabilia to fans who enrolled in the program. The Mets see ticketing as the beginning of an “inevitable” facial recognition presence at its ballpark.
The New York Mets partnered with Wicket to bring their facial ticking system to all entry gates at Citi Field.Courtesy of the New York Mets/Wicket
“It’s more about what does that technology open you up towards in the future,” Mets CTO Mark Brubaker told SBJ Tech. “So facial recognition purchasing of food and beverage and merchandise. Facial recognition for wayfinding, facial recognition for haptics and updates on your phone in terms of what’s going on. There’s lots it opens things up for that goes beyond just ticketing. It’s the beginning of the journey that is inevitable to be beneficial as a result of having facial recognition technology.”
Wicket is far from the only provider of facial ticketing, as MLS club LAFC previously piloted facial ticketing with biometrics company Clear and Ticketmaster. Perhaps the biggest deployment of facial ticketing to date will come from Liga MX, the top Mexican soccer league that is requiring fans to enroll in facial recognition as part of its FanID program to enter stadiums starting for all matches starting in January 2023. The league has partnered with San Francisco-based Incode Technologies to facilitate the facial mobile ticketing system, which Liga MX’s commissioner called for after a violent brawl occurred amongst fans at a March 2022 match between Querétaro and Atlas FC.
“A key concept to understand is that to follow The National Institute for Transparency, Access to Information (INAI) guidelines, the biometrics must be in possession of the owner,” Ricardo Amper, Founder, and CEO of Incode, wrote in an emailed statement to SBJ Tech. “That is, a fan is the sole owner of their personal data and biometrics. What the FAN ID solution does is validate the fan´s identity at the gate of the venue using their biometrics, which are securely encrypted in a QR code that was generated upon registration and is presented by the fan. With this, the solution complies with the guidelines of ownership and possession of personal data as well as only performing a 1 to 1 validation at the point of entrance. Surveillance systems, such as facial recognition cameras in or around the stadium are not part of the FAN ID solution presented by Liga MX.”
Liga MX partnered with Incode to require fans to enroll in facial recognition as part of its FanID program to enter stadiums.Courtesy of Incode Technologies
La Liga soccer club Osasuna also debuted facial ticketing with Spain-based dasGate while Brazilian soccer club Atlético Mineiro is working to do the same with Brazil-based Imply. The New York Mets surveyed 194 Mets Entry Express members in 2022 and found that 90% would like to see Wicket’s facial recognition expand beyond ticketing at Citi Field next season to areas such as payments for concessions.
Wicket and the Browns have already begun this expansion by offering digital age verification for ordering alcohol at FirstEnergy Stadium. Fans place mobile orders through the Browns app to pick-up beer and snacks at 14 locations throughout the stadium. Since they’ve already uploaded their selfie and government ID to the Browns app, a fan scan their face via Wicket’s sensor at the pick-up locations that confirms they’re at least 21 years old before a server hands them their order.
Biometrics security company IDmission is working with Wicket to match a person’s driver’s license or government ID with their selfie submitted to the Browns app. IDmission also works with TendedBar, the automated cocktail maker that uses facial recognition from Pangiam TrueFace to process cocktail orders. TendedBar’s locations normally have QR codes for fans to scan with the mobile phone to upload a selfie, photo of their driver’s license, and their credit card information. They then walk up to a TendedBar unit that scans their face to confirm their identity before using the machine’s screen to customize their drink order as their mixed drink then gets automatically poured.
Stadiums for the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars, Denver Broncos, Las Vegas Raiders, Carolina Panthers, and Atlanta Falcons have deployed TendedBar, as well as the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs, and the PGA Tour’s AT&T Byron Nelson and Farmers Insurance Open. TendedBar has also begun trialing grab-and-go food items for users to purchase at their stations in venues. Sestra Systems is a similar touchscreen-operated smart beverage-dispensing system that is being deployed by MLB’s Washington Nationals at Nationals Park. Sestra’s self-service bars have partnered with Clear to offer facial recognition for digital age verification when purchasing alcohol.
ASM Global, owner of more than 300 stadiums and arenas, partnered with facial recognition company PopID to offer facial ticketing and facial payments for concessions at Pechanga Arena in San Diego this past American Hockey League season. PopID is also offering facial payments in partnership with Visa at this past FIFA World Cup in Qatar.
Mobile payments provider Tappit, which operates cashless solutions for the Jaguars, Spurs, Kansas City Chiefs, Cincinatti Reds, Padres, and Dubai Sevens rugby, signed a deal with Clear in Sept. 2021. That partnership will see Tappit begin offering facial recognition payments to its sports stadium partners by the beginning of 2023.
“Literally your face is going to be the credential to do a transaction in a venue. And that can be for food and beverage, it could be for merch, and potentially even other type of payments in venue,” said former Tappit CCO Laurens Eckelboom. At the time of interview, Eckleboom was Tappit’s CCO, but has since left the company.
“People have been using biometrics-enabled connections, transactions already for a couple of years. You unluck your smartphone with your face. I believe that about 55% of consumers that have an Apple or Google smartphone are using biometric authentication. So that’s one of the things that is ingrained in their daily life.”
Mobile ordering startup CHEQ is also exploring the possibility of integrating facial payments through testing being done with several companies. “We are continuing to see an increased adoption in Apple Pay use at stadiums, which obviously comes with the ability to easily pay for items using facial recognition from a mobile ordering perspective,” said Jake Stone, CRO and co-founder at CHEQ, whose clients include the Miami Marlins, Tennessee Titans, Washington Commanders, Miami Dolphins, and University of Washington.
Amazon’s cashierless Just Walk Out stores do not use facial recognition, but locations at Climate Pledge Arena, Texas A&M’s Kyle Field, and NASCAR’s Phoenix Raceway offer Amazon One palm recognition for fast in-store payments. Amazon does offer facial recognition through Rekognition, a cloud service from Amazon Web Services to automatically tag people, logos, and other details in videos. Leagues to use AWS Rekognition include the NFL, PGA Tour, and NASCAR. In June 2020, Amazon decided to suspend offering Rekognition to police amid social justice protests in the U.S. Amazon’s palm-recognition seems less intuitive than a face for in-stadium purchases, according to TendedBar’s co-founder Justin Honeysuckle.
“I saw a lot of use cases in the palm where I saw a lot of problems in the high-volume environment,” Honeysuckle said. “You’re coming up to the bar with a plate of nachos and you want to get a drink, what are you gonna do with those nachos? Are you gonna set them down on the reader, you can have them fall. It’s a lot of hands touching and things I didn’t want our customers to experience since you can walk up with your face pretty easily.”
Zippin, a Just Walk Out retail competitor that has checkout-free stores across NFL, NHL, and NBA venues, also does not use facial recognition in its U.S stores. However, Zippin does offer facial and palm recognition shopping at a hotel in Japan.
“Really it was a decision on the privacy because people bring that up all the time,” Gary Jacobus, Zippin’s former SVP of business development, told SBJ Tech in June 2022. “If people eventually want to opt into that, we can do it. I think there’ll be a time where it’s all facial.”
Before being used for ticketing and payments, facial recognition’s biggest use case in sports was for security. At Super Bowl XXXV in Tampa in Feb. 2001, seven months before the 9/11 attacks forever changed security operations in the U.S., local police used facial recognition cameras from a company called Viisage Technology to detect 19 “petty criminals” who attended fan festivities around the Big Game, according to ABC.
Some 22 years later, Madison Square Garden owner James Dolan uses facial recognition to identify lawyers who represent people suing him from entering MSG and has them apprehended by security so they can’t attend games for the NBA’s Knicks and NHL’s Rangers. MSG has used facial recognition since 2018 and the system extends to Dolan’s other New York City venues such as Radio City Music Hall and the Beacon Theatre.
Japan-based NEC Corporation has been a leader on this front, supplying facial recognition-enabled cameras to stadiums in Brazil during the 2014 World Cup. Russian company NtechLab provided facial recognition security at the 2018 World Cup in Moscow, which police used to identify and arrest a seated fan suspected of theft during a match between Russia and Spain.
City streets and soccer stadiums in Doha were equipped with facial recognition cameras for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. France’s Ministry of Sports has already said facial recognition surveillance will not be used at the Paris 2024 Summer Olympics. NEC deployed its facial recognition cameras in Rio de Janeiro airports around the 2016 Olympics to identify travelers entering the country, while Olympic press conferences also saw local media use their face to check in instead of press passes.
In 2020, the Yokohama DeNA BayStars baseball team in Tokyo installed 13 NEC facial recognition cameras in its stadium to monitor crowd spacing and mask compliance amid the pandemic.
“We wanted to check how the fans acted and also whether it will be congested or dense. And then second was to check what the percentage was for wearing masks at the games,” Yota Kimura, EVP of the BayStars, told SBJ Tech in 2020. “Inside the stadium, are the percentage of people wearing masks the same? Or were there stages during the game where people un-mask themselves? And the fourth point we checked on was how crowded the concourse was.”
NEC, which has sponsorships with the NBA’s Washington Wizards and MLB’s Los Angeles Angels, began supplying its facial recognition at LPGA Tour golf events in 2017, including implementations for security in which faces from the crowd were analyzed and compared to criminal databases so that on-site security would receive an alert if a match was found. “While NEC is still an LPGA partner, facial recognition is not currently part of that activation,” LPGA spokesperson Christina Lance told SBJ Tech in November.
Top Italian soccer league Serie A has also reportedly been using facial recognition cameras to ID fans as part of the league’s efforts to catch spectators who partake in racist chants inside stadiums. Danish soccer club Brøndby IF has similarly used Panasonic’s facial recognition software to ID banned fans.
“The old way of doing things was, you give that picture to the security staff and say, ‘Don’t let this person back in.’ It’s not really realistic,” former TrueFace CEO Shaun Moore told Sports Illustrated in 2021. “So the new way of doing it is, if we do have entry-level cameras, we can run that person against everyone that’s coming in. And if there’s a hit, you know then; then there’s a notification to engage with that person.”
Fans are not the only ones having their faces scanned in sports venues. MLS club LAFC is working with the California-based biometrics company Alacatraz AI to offer facial recognition entry for players and staff at the team’s stadium and training facilities. “We will be implementing the touch-less building/space access solutions for our personnel to automate contact tracing and real-time mitigation all in one device,” LAFC’s CTO Christian Lau said in the team’s July 2021 announcement with Alacatraz AI.
The Mets are also using Wicket’s facial recognition for staff entry points at Citi Field. “We now use it for access to the administrative buildings,” Brubaker told SBJ Tech. “So, when I come into the stadium, all the access points, I just look into it. The turnstile opens up for me. We’re trying to integrate it with the elevator systems, so the elevators automatically come and so forth.”
The NFL’s Atlanta Falcons are in its first season offering Wicket’s facial ticketing for fans at Mercedes-Benz Stadium with plans to expand into concession payments. The team envisions a future where facial recognition is also used to expedite the parking process for fans arriving at its stadium.
“Can I make it part of parking? When you drive up, I’m parking in the red lot, they got my license plate, and when I drive up the gate arm goes up,” Joe Coomer, VP of security for Mercedes Benz Stadium, told SBJ Tech. “So taking all those little choke points out of the way to be like man, it is cool to go to a game. They know when I pulled up, I walked up to the gate, I walked right in. I was able to go in the club, I got my drink and I never had to pull my wallet out.”
Facial recognition can also provide stadiums with new ways to engage spectators through apps such as 15 Seconds of Fame, which leverages facial recognition software to ensure fans at sporting events can save the moments in which they appear on in-stadium jumbotrons or game broadcasts. Fans can download the 15SOF mobile app to upload their selfie and will later receive a “You’ve Got Fame” notification alongside a video clip of their on-screen moment if in-stadium cameras show their face on videoboards or TV broadcasts.
Sports teams have partnered with 15SOF as far back as 2016, with the company signing four-year extensions with both the NBA and MLB in 2021. NFL teams such as the New York Giants and Kansas City Chiefs have also partnered with 15SOF, as well as Monumental Sports & Entertainment, the Australian Open tennis Grand Slam, as well as college teams at the University of Michigan and Michigan State. NBA legend Kobe Bryant invested in 15 Seconds of Fame in 2017 while the NBA acquired a minority stake in the company in June 2022.
TVU Networks, which is based in California with operations across the world, is a cloud-based sports broadcast production company that works with the NFL, NCAA teams, the UEFA Champions League, Rugby World Cup, and broadcasters such as ESPN, FOX, NBC, Sky Sports, and Flo Sports. The company has developed a facial recognition software that helped a Chinese media company identify specific runners for its broadcast and social media coverage of a marathon held in China.
“With facial recognition identifying runners as they cover the 26.2-mile course, broadcasters have the opportunity to produce custom race coverage,” TVU Networks CEO Paul Shen wrote on the company’s website. “Viewers who have connections to specific runners –co-workers, friends or relatives—could track their personal favorites as they progress through the race watching shots from cameras trained on the route shooting runners as they pass and the MediaMind AI engine identifying them in real time. The same facial recognition algorithm can be used to identify celebrities and other high-profile individuals lining the race route, opening up one or more other special-interest channels for distribution via social media and online.”
“Privacy control is much more stringent in the U.S., even more stringent in Europe,” Shen told SBJ Tech. “We’ve put a lot to guard against the technology to make sure people don’t abuse this power. What we tried to create is not for anything other than making the production process much more efficient.”
Fans can also interact with their favorite sportsbooks to experience facial recognition. Apps for FanDuel, PointsBet, WynnBET, BetRivers, BetMGM, and Bet365 all support Apple’s Face ID so that iPhone users can quickly login without typing in their password before placing bets.
Casinos have used facial recognition cameras for security purposes for roughly the past decade. Willy Allison, managing director of the World Game Protection Conference in Las Vegas, told CDC Gaming Reports in 2022 that at least one-third of casinos deploy facial recognition. The River Spirit Casino and Resort in Tulsa, Oklahoma, recently partnered with artificial intelligence company Oosto to install a facial recognition camera system for identifying problem gamblers in real-time.
In October, the Australian government announced a new program to roll out facial recognition across gambling venues in New South Wales. Patrons who enter the casino will have their face scanned by security cameras that have an existing database of photos of problem gamblers who opted into the state’s Multi-Venue Self-Exclusion scheme. If a match is found, security can approach the problem gambler to refer them to support services.
Florida-based Kairos is another facial recognition company that markets its services to casinos. BetMGM, one of the leading online sportsbooks in the U.S., has an entire web page explaining facial recognition’s use in casinos, including the potential for offering customer rewards through tracking their gaming preferences. Some slot machines in Las Vegas have opt-in facial recognition to identify players as they sit to play the games.
Beyond the casino floor, ESPN reported in 2018 that the U.S. Tennis Association has considered using facial recognition to identify “courtsiders” — people who attend sporting events for the purpose of transmitting data to their betting clients faster than what is gathered by official data sources such as a Sportradar or IMG Arena. Meanwhile, state representatives from Rhode Island introduced legislation earlier this year that seeks to ban sports betting apps from using facial recognition out of fears that the technology could be used to “condition a gaming consumer or attempt to promote increased play.”
Lastly, Facial recognition is creeping its way into performance technologies used by athletes to work on their crafts. A leading example is Noah Basketball, the AI camera system installed in practice gyms for 26 NBA teams to track shooting metrics such as shot arc, the ball’s left-right position, depth within the hoop, release time, position on the court, makes and misses, and shot type.
Noah’s system, which uses facial recognition to identify each player taking a shot, tags the athletes in the system as their shot data is uploaded to Noah’s app for real-time feedback.Courtesy of Noah Basketball
Noah’s system saw rapid adoption by NBA teams in 2018 when it upgraded its product with facial recognition cameras to identify players as they enter gyms to automatically track shots from each individual player. About 10 top NCAA basketball programs, including the University of Virginia and University of Kentucky, also track shots using Noah’s facial recognition system.
“Once we introduced facial feature recognition and teams gained confidence that it was really working well, suddenly we were picking up teams pretty regularly,” said Noah Basketball CEO John Carter.