Fan experience, or weariness? That’s the balance the Carolina Panthers must strike as they embark on another new venture under owner David Tepper:
The Panthers, as part of a larger NFL directive, will move to full mobile ticketing for the 2019 season, beginning in full Friday for the team’s home preseason opener against the Buffalo Bills. The team began moving to mobile last season, Panthers vice president of ticket sales and services Joe LaBue told the Observer, but that only accounted for about 30 percent of overall tickets in 2018.
The goal this year is to get as close to 100 percent of fans as possible using their smartphones to get through the gates.
That goal is ambitious, LaBue recognizes, but the process in itself is simple. Where fans previously would scan their printed tickets at the gate, they’ll instead scan their phone screens. That means the days of print-at-home tickets are gone, as are booklets of paper season tickets. Instead, fans will have to pull up their tickets online through either the Panthers team app or a web browser; because of the new “moving, active bar code” that resets every 15 seconds, fans won’t even be able to use screenshots of their tickets to get into the game.
And if you don’t own a smartphone?
Call the team’s ticket office (704-358-7800) as early in advance of that week’s game as possible, and the Panthers will deal with your individual account on a case-by-case basis.
“If someone’s got a problem or they have questions — and people have found us plenty the past week,” LaBue said, “just give us a call ... We’ll get them in the stadium.”
While there are advantages to mobile ticketing for fans, multiple experts explained to the Observer, there are also significant concerns. Specifically, fans and ticket holders have privacy concerns about how much information the Panthers will get from the mobile ticketing process, not to mention potentially alienating an older, less tech-savvy demographic of fans.
“Tepper and the team can move forward as quickly as they want,” David Carter, executive director of the University of Southern California’s Marshall Business School and principal of The Sports Business Group, told the Observer. “They want to be really progressive in this space. But you can really only be as progressive as your consumers embrace.
“The real issue is, how are they balancing the need for data, capturing information, delivering a better product – how are they balancing that with fan embracing of it or fan pushback? There’s a balance to be struck.”
Several NFL teams, including the Denver Broncos and San Francisco 49ers, have already made the transition to mobile-only ticketing.
But given the demographics of the Panthers fan base — a more rural, predominantly older collection of longtime ticket holders — Carolina was never going to be one of the first teams to initiate that transition, LaBue said.
“We weren’t going to be the trendsetter. We were going to let other teams go through the process,” LaBue said. “I think with the league moving in that direction, it was our time to do it, so we decided to rip the Band-Aid off and go full mobile.”
LaBue said the Panthers spoke with a number of teams around the NFL and found that a full crossover was often more successful than step-by-step conversion.
“If you have a certain segment of the population that has paper tickets and then other people have mobile, there’s the enticement just to give up on mobile right away,” LaBue explained.
He added: “We know this process isn’t going to be smooth sailing. We anticipate issues on game day, but we’ve also prepared. I just hope people understand we’re trying.”
To help ease this process, the Panthers have taken a number of precautionary steps.
Earlier this summer, the team hired six guest relations staffers specifically to help permanent seat license (PSL) owners understand how mobile ticketing works. PSL owners can call and receive a walkthrough on how to do everything from downloading the team app to pulling up their tickets.
Additionally, the team held mobile ticketing education classes for some PSL owners earlier this spring for more hands-on education. Ticket holders had to present a ticket for those classes, which LaBue said was good practice for gameday.
In addition to normal security and guest relations staffers, the Panthers said they will have about 80 additional employees deployed around Bank of America Stadium on Sundays to walk fans through their uncertainties. Those team members will be wearing bright orange shirts that read “Need Help?” on the back.
Why change after 24 years?
Dr. Nels Popp, an assistant sports administration professor at North Carolina who specializes in sports ticket sales, said there are a number of benefits of mobile ticketing for fans. Specifically, that it helps protect fans from fraudulent or lost tickets, and the ease of re-selling seats on a secondary market.
“The No. 1 fear of people buying tickets online is still buying fraudulent tickets, and this really helps cut down on that,” Popp said. “You can’t print out a ticket and make 10 copies of it and sell it to 10 different people with that same bar code – only one person can possess it. That’s one huge advantage.”
LaBue noted that when the team eliminated the print-from-home option for tickets last season, that dropped the average number of fraudulent tickets per game dramatically by about 50-100.
Another extra layer of security fighting fraud is that “active, moving bar code” that resets every 15 seconds. Fans won’t even be at risk for fraudulent screenshots, as tickets will have to be pulled up on your phone in real time.
“Two, in the actual selling process, you used to be able to meet in a McDonald’s parking lot somewhere to sell your tickets to someone else,” Popp said. “Now, it can all be done electronically.”
Electronic tickets also mitigate the risk of fans losing their tickets. With paper tickets, if a fan misplaces their physical copy, they chance not being able to get into the stadium — mobile tickets cut down on that issue.
But the biggest reason the Panthers and teams across the league are doing this have little to do with fan experience, Popp said.
“I think are sincere benefits to the end user, but far and away, the biggest reason teams are going to this is for their own marketing purposes,” Popp said. “They definitely want to track who is using the tickets, and there’s a couple of different pieces to that.”
The bulk of the Panthers’ mobile ticketing will be conducted through the team app, although the Ticketmaster app and a general web browser are also options. But by signing up for an account through the Panthers app, users will be agreeing to give certain information to the Panthers. LaBue said ticket holders will give the team their name and email address, as well as potentially a phone number, and that that information will be used to “enhance gameday experience down the line.”
What that means specifically is the way the Panthers can use fan data is twofold. First, they can track who exactly purchases or sells any ticket, collecting that information for future marketing plans. For example, if you buy someone’s season tickets for a single game, the team will receive your name and email in addition to the original owner’s. They can then take that information and directly target any secondary buyer on their own in the future.
“In the past, we know who bought tickets — that’s not anything new. We know the secondary market, we’ve got that data,” LaBue said. “Obviously, our PSL owners, we’ve had that data. What we’ve been missing is if a season ticket holder handed a paper ticket to somebody and we didn’t know who that is.
“That also plays into more safety in the stadium. We’re going to know who’s in the building.”
The second advantage to the Panthers using mobile-only ticketing is how they can use the data they collect. Carter mentioned how other teams that have gathered similar information have been able to geo-track their fans within stadium grounds, and even send targeted marketing messages to fans.
“I think many consumers that opt into an app when they’re traveling — maybe even in a sports venue — they appreciate the fact that, hey, knowing where you’re located may actually pay dividends,” Carter said. “It may help you find a shorter concession line, it may help you access where a particular piece of merchandise can be purchased, so there are certainly benefits to it.”
But that doesn’t mean certain fans won’t interpret that as an invasion of privacy.
“If you’re a fan who has an issue with that, yeah, I can see your case,” Popp said. “Teams will typically argue, if we know what kind of fan you are, we want to put offers in front of you that make sense for you. If you sit in the upper level and bring your own food, we don’t want to try and talk you into some kind of $500 package that you’re never going to buy.
“But you can also see the other side of the coin, where if I don’t want those kind of offers, I don’t want them pushed on me.”
As the Panthers and their fans undergo this process, there will be clear hurdles that evolve over time. There may be longer lines early in the season, or fewer scalpers standing outside Bank of America on Sunday mornings. Phone batteries will die, and mobile ticketing will present problems of its own.
But its purpose, the Panthers say, is to make NFL game days an easier, safer, more efficient process.
“They might make mistakes, and I think when you venture off into new areas — particularly those that are gray — they often times carry with them some unintended consequences that have to be worked through,” Carter said. “So I applaud them for working on it, and applaud them even more once they refine it and get it right.”