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Cashless Stadiums Are The Next Frontier In Fan Exploitation

Photo: Duane Prokop (Getty)

The Tampa Bay Rays announced today that they would become the first major American sports team to stop accepting cash at their stadium, forcing fans to either pay via credit card or something called a “Rays card.” This shift is roughly coterminous with their recent decision to eliminate 5,000 of their cheapest seats. Like the reduction in stadium size, the move to ban cash serves the same purpose: making it more expensive to go to a ballgame.

The Rays are not alone here. Several stadiums in Europe, including Borussia Dortmund’s enormous park, are cashless, and it is not hard to see where the industry winds are blowing. An ever-increasing number of American stadiums and arenas are banning paper tickets in favor of their digital counterparts, which, like going cashless, is a way to funnel you towards using official team apps and buy more crap. I went to a Kings game around Christmas with a large group, and wrangling eight third-party tickets onto the official Kings app was a nightmare, but at least we had the chance to get pretzels delivered to our seats!

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To their credit, the Rays will at least allow fans to exchange cash for “Rays card” credit at the stadium, but that still fails to address one of the baked-in problems here. Buying a hot dog and a beer on your “Rays card” is not materially different from spending the same amount of money in cash, though the point is not necessarily to charge more, it is to trick you into disassociating from the fact that you are still spending money. This is not dissimilar to how casinos do everything in their power to turn some your money into vouchers, chips, and proprietary cards in an obvious effort to make you forget about how much money you’re actually spending.

Once you are separated from your money by one layer of abstraction, it becomes significantly easier to justify spending more. You don’t need to take my word for it; Sports Venue Business reports that attendees spend up to 25 percent more when they don’t have to deal with cash. Stadium Business Summit found similar results. Convenience is the selling point, and, yeah, sure, using a card can often be faster, though stadiums would not be pushing so hard for cashless transactions if they were not also profitable.

There’s also this: cashless stadiums are inherently exclusionary. If you don’t have a smartphone or a credit card, but would still like to go to a ballgame and have a hot dog, you’re shit out of luck. 7.5 percent of the population is unbanked, and there are millions more who prefer to pay with cash for budgeting reasons. For these people, a cashless stadium represents something of a hostile environment. The benefits of streamlining always come with a cost.

As more businesses around the country stop accepting cash, the undemocratic nature of card-only has become increasingly clear. New York city council member Ritchie J. Torres introduced legislation that would ban businesses from going cashless last year, telling Grub Street:

There are hundreds and thousands of New Yorkers who may have no permanent address or home, and many New Yorkers who are underbanked, either because of poverty or because they lack documentation. Requiring a card is erecting a barrier for low-income New Yorkers—period.

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Attending an NBA or MLB game is lower on the hierarchy of needs than, say, eating dinner, though that doesn’t mean that poor people shouldn’t get the chance to see their favorite team play in person. Unfortunately, it would be naive to hope that concern for a small slice of a team’s customer base would keep them from pursuing enhanced revenue opportunities. In the years to come, even more stadiums will become cashless and less equitable for no other reason than it’s good business.

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