Fans’ faces could become future tickets to Falcons, Atlanta United games

Mercedes-Benz Stadium, home of the Falcons, Atlanta United and many other events. (Sept. 17, 2021, file photo by Ben Gray/AP)

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

Mercedes-Benz Stadium, home of the Falcons, Atlanta United and many other events. (Sept. 17, 2021, file photo by Ben Gray/AP)

Mercedes-Benz Stadium will test technology that eventually could give Falcons and Atlanta United fans the option to enter the gates and shop the concession stands based on facial recognition.

A trial will begin with 50 to 100 club-seat season ticket holders at Saturday’s Atlanta United game, and testing gradually will expand through the Falcons season this fall and well into next year, stadium officials said.

As volunteer participants in the pilot program arrive at their stadium entrance, facial-recognition software “is going to pick up their faces and tell us how many tickets they have,” said Karl Pierburg, chief technology officer of Falcons and Atlanta United parent company AMB Sports & Entertainment (AMBSE). “We’ll be able to (greet them by name) and say, ‘Welcome, go on in.’”

Eventually, tens of thousands of Falcons and Atlanta United fans may opt to enter the stadium via facial recognition or another form of biometrical authentication, rather than by pulling up mobile tickets on their phones. The same technology someday may allow fans to be recognized and automatically billed for purchases at the stadium’s bars, restaurants and concession stands.

But whether, or when, such technology becomes a widespread voluntary offering on game days depends on how fans respond during the trial. Mercedes-Benz Stadium officials plan to survey participants for their feedback after each round of testing.

The first step is, by the end of the year, to “have something that works, is convenient for fans and gets the real true answer to the question: Do fans like it or not?” said Dietmar Exler, chief operating officer of AMBSE and the stadium. “I want something where you can say, ‘Hey, it works, do you want to use it?’”

Stadium officials aren’t necessarily committed to fans’ faces as a future admission ticket. They mentioned other biometric options, such as palm prints. They also mentioned the possibility of identifiers on cellphones via a Bluetooth signal. But the initial testing is limited to facial recognition.

“What biometrical (identification) we use … will evolve with the market,” said Mat Adams, AMBSE’s director of emerging technology. “This market is going to change. We can’t predict what’s going to happen. We don’t want to try to predict what’s going to happen. We want the market to decide it and to be flexible and capable in how we build it out.”

Facial-recognition technology is being used increasingly in airports in lieu of showing identification or boarding passes and in personal applications such as unlocking phones. Some sports venues across the U.S. and around the world are in the early stages of adoption.

The NFL’s Cleveland Browns are promoting the technology as “faster and easier than scanning your mobile ticket.” MLB’s New York Mets added voluntary “facial-ticketing lanes” at all main entry gates and premium-seating club areas this season after a smaller pilot program last year.

Mercedes-Benz Stadium isn’t in a race to join the early adopters, officials said.

“We are moving at the speed that we are convinced we can deliver the fan experience,” Exler said. “We’re not compromising to hit an artificial deadline by any means, which is hard for me because I’m pretty impatient in general. But it is more important to get it right than to be fast.

“Getting it 90% right doesn’t work on these things. It annoys people too much. It’s not worth it. We will test it with people who volunteer … but we’re not going to roll out things in this area before they’re ready for it.”

Facial-recognition technology has drawn controversy and criticism over privacy and reliability issues, especially when used without consent. Mercedes-Benz Stadium officials said that, if they eventually offer the technology widely, ticket holders will have the choice of whether to use it.

“Any time we do anything with tech, data and our fans, we need to make sure that we’re providing a good experience for them and that we’re collecting data for a purpose that gives them something they want and need,” Pierburg said.

The small group of Atlanta United season ticket holders participating in the stadium’s early trial opted in by connecting a selfie photo to their ticket account, Adams said.

“The computer behind the scenes looks at 30 different points around your face and essentially measures the distances, and that becomes your biometric fingerprint,” Adams said. “Your photo isn’t what we’re looking at (upon entry) at all; it’s measurements across your face, taken from the photo.”

However the technology evolves, stadium operators across the country generally expect big changes in the years ahead in how venues are entered and navigated by many fans.

Exler said “there is zero chance” that every visitor to Mercedes-Benz Stadium someday would choose to enter via facial recognition or another biometric, citing fans who won’t find it practical to register if, for example, they’re going to visit the stadium only once a year for an international soccer match or a concert. But he sees such technology as a potential “convenience channel” for more frequent stadium visitors.

“The vision is that we want (a fan) to be able to come to the game and to walk straight in, grab what they want to eat and sit down at a seat … without friction points,” Pierburg said. “The concept of a frictionless (experience) is going to become the next broad trend you’re going to see. It allows us to put in place a knowledge of our fans with an understanding of how our building works and bring those together to provide an experience aided by technology and data.”