The Sounders will sport a new look in more ways than one when the soccer club kicks off its 2016 campaign on Tuesday evening in Seattle. For one, star striker Obafemi Martins is no longer on the squad. Two, the team has newly-designed jerseys and a new turf field.
The third change is less about soccer and more about technology — specifically, the way fans pass through the gates at CenturyLink Field.
As GeekWire reported last week, the Sounders replaced plastic “MatchPass” cards that season ticket holders used for the past four years as entry to matches and instead wants their most loyal fans to use the team’s smartphone app as a ticket.
The Sounders will officially adopt the new mobile ticketing strategy starting with tonight’s match against Club América, becoming the first MLS club to do so.
While some fans have embraced the shift, others weren’t as thrilled. Those without smartphones or who prefer to still print paper tickets can do so through their online TicketMaster account, but the team is clearly encouraging folks to use its team app to access their tickets.
Sounders majority owner Adrian Hanauer told GeekWire that the team will have an “army of mobile ambassadors” at the gates tonight and for the first several home matches to solve any tech-related issues. He also noted that rolling out the mobile ticket entry policy “is not quite as dramatic as it appears.”
Hanauer said that last season, about 40 percent of season ticket holders entered matches with their “MatchPass” card, while 60 percent still printed tickets.
During the playoffs, the Sounders did away with the plastic cards and forced season ticket holders to either use the team app or print tickets to gain entry — just like the new policy in place for this season. Hanauer said that of the 40 percent who typically used a “MatchPass” card during the regular season, about half came in through the mobile app for the playoff matches.
That means 20 percent of season ticket holders were already comfortable using their smartphone at the gate.
“Our calculation was that there was 20 percent for whom this was a complete no-brainer, and another 20 percent we are currently working with to make sure this process goes smoothly for them,” Hanauer explained. “The big nut to crack will be slowly moving a big portion of the additional 60 percent to mobile, which will take a few years.”
The Sounders have been ahead of the game when it comes to employing technology, data, and analytics on the pitch. The team is recognized around the globe for its innovative use of sports science to help improve player efficiency and reduce risk of injury.
But that isn’t quite the case inside the front office, Hanuaer said.
“We are just starting to get there on the business side,” he said. “Clearly, we see more and more opportunities to use pretty sophisticated analytics in our business to make better decisions.”
Hanauer pointed to a rapidly growing percentage of fans who engage with the team via mobile, where the team is investing more resources. The redesigned app not only acts as a digital ticket, but also lets fans manage their rewards, read news, contact account reps, see the latest promotions, and get access to exclusive content.
Within a few years, Hanauer hopes that fans will be able to pay for concession items at CenturyLink Field with their app, too. He called the app a “mobile companion” that helps the team better engage with fans.
“We think this is good for our fans for a number of reasons, but it’s also not completely altruistic,” he added. “We can get better data more often and more up to date, which lets use provide something as simple as a digital game-day program that can be updated on the fly. Or maybe we can even provide offers to someone after a big win — if a pub in the area wants to provide an offer, we can do that on the fly. It’s just the flexibility and being able to spontaneously communicate with fans.”
Chris Bryant, VP of Technology for the Sounders, told GeekWire that he and his team did substantial research while re-designing the app and employing the mobile ticketing strategy. They looked at everything from apps used by other soccer clubs like Chelsea and Real Madrid — which has a partnership with Microsoft — to stadium-specific apps like at the high-tech Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara.
But they also looked beyond sports, examining how companies like Starbucks and Delta implemented their own mobile initiatives.
“We wanted to go for something that had the efficiency and ease of use of a Starbucks app,” Bryant said. “We also wanted to make entry as easy as boarding a plane with your mobile boarding pass.”
Bryant noted how the usage of mobile boarding passes at the airport has increased over the past few years, with travelers becoming more comfortable with the idea of relying on their smartphone.
“We will see a sea-change in the use of mobile ticketing, and mobile entry is the first thing,” Bryant said.
While the Sounders are the first MLS team to adopt full-on mobile ticketing for season ticket holders, other professional franchises have already done so. The San Francisco 49ers did away with paper tickets prior to the 2015-16 season, which angered some longtime fans because of a rule that prevents digital tickets from being printed until 72 hours before a game. The Sounders allow season tickets to be printed up to one week before a match. These restrictions can affect how fans re-sell their tickets on the secondary market.
The Chicago Bulls and Chicago White Sox also eliminated paper tickets last year, noting the ability to better track fan habits as one advantage of digital ticketing. The Atlanta Braves also did something similar, even going as far as charging a $250 fee to season ticket holders who still wanted to print traditional paper tickets.
For those that are wary of the team’s shift to mobile ticketing and broader mobile initiatives, Hanauer said it’s inevitable for fans to be apprehensive to change — it happened when the team went from paper season tickets to the “MatchPass” card four years ago, too.
“For sure I’ve heard people say they’d like to have their plastic card, but I’ve heard just as many people say, ‘thank God I don’t have to carry around another plastic card,” he noted. “As I think we’ve learned over eight years of running the Sounders, you will never make everybody happy. So we have to do what we think is right and try to have a good vision for the organization, and certainly do right by most our fans and especially our season ticket holders.”
Editor’s note: This story was updated to reflect the fact that season ticket holders can print tickets up to one week before a given match.