Contactless Tech Comes to Colleges for Game Day Sales at Just The Right Time

    • Learfield IMG College subsidiary signs mobile commerce deal to bring touchless payments and technologies to colleges.
    • Nebraska among the first schools to sign on for the suite of mobile options. Florida started in the mobile POS space in 2019.

Contactless payments and mobile point-of-sale offerings are coming to college sports venues just as institutions and athletic departments attempt to reconfigure operations and plan for new venue safety protocols in the wake of coronavirus.

Sidearm Sports, a Learfield IMG College company, has signed a five-year partnership with mobile commerce company VenueNext to provide the technology to partner schools. Sidearm Sports powers collegiate websites and mobile applications and works with more than 300 NCAA DI programs – or 94% of DI schools. Fifty-seven of those are Power Five programs, 42 of which use Sidearm for their app, which will enable them to integrate the VenueNext additions directly into their existing mobile apps.

“Whether it’s this fall or later, at some point in time, fans will be back in the stadiums,” Jeff Rubin, president and CEO of Sidearm Sports and chief digital officer for Learfield IMG College, said. “I think contactless changes are the most important and most innovative change that we’ll be implementing for the upcoming fiscal year for fans that are choosing to go to [games]. For the last few years, everything was about ‘How do we engage our fans throughout a game?’ It included things with the video boards or ribbon boards, push notifications, trivia. But that pales in comparison to the contactless opportunities – now necessities – for the fans.”

The partnership provides college fans access to contactless payment through the VenueNext mobile wallet and ordering through VenueNext’s point-of-sale solution, OrderNext, which allows guests to shop, order, and pay for food, beverages, and merchandise using their device without the need for additional investments in hardware or infrastructure on the part of fans or institutions. An experiential marketplace where fans can purchase VIP experiences is also embedded in the VenueNext offering.

Adapting live sports to a post-COVID-19 environment has given the partnership new meaning, both parties said. While early discussions centered around a way to enhance the fan experience, it has now become a critical part of the conversation around getting fans back into stadiums for live sporting events when it is safe to do so.

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The offering will cost schools an additional license fee that will be integrated into their contract with Sidearm, which uses a SaaS software licensing model with a subscription plan. But the extra cost, Rubin said, should not deter schools from “flipping the switch” to add the VenueNext capabilities into their mobile apps.

“As everybody’s thinking about what they need to change to make sure that guests feel safe [and] are confident in continuing to come there, we now fall into that category of critical services that are needed to adapt the live experience,” VenueNext CEO Anthony Perez added. “Colleges, especially, can leverage this across multiple venues to help ensure that new normal that everyone’s going to need and expect.”

VenueNext does not take a transaction fee on food and beverage, allowing schools to maximize revenue in that area. It also creates additional opportunities for monetization through the company’s experience marketplace. Whether it’s pregame field passes, a tour of the facility, or a meet and greet with a coach, the experiences are delivered directly within the app and drive revenue back to the school.

“A lot of times, those experiences that are being offered are very valuable to the fans, but they don’t have any real hard costs for the schools to be able to offer it,” Perez said. “So there is a lot of opportunity to monetize through the platform in addition to being able to provide people with a safe and contactless game experience.”

Sidearm Sports apps are also fully integrated with ticketing, where VenueNext hopes to provide additional opportunities for sponsors and partners. VenueNext can transition sponsor activations that were tied to physical tickets to mobile, providing a digital solution that fits with the contactless approach. The revenue potential, both in terms of selling experiences to fans and driving sponsored value, allows the partnership to offer a “broader set of solutions,” beyond increased safety, Perez said.

“The way we were able to package this up at a price that hits the spot for colleges was critical,” Rubin said. “We’ve seen these partnerships in the past where folks work well in the professional leagues, and then they try to bring it into college, and they miss the mark because the economics are entirely different. We were able to find a price point that is not going to break anybody’s bank.”

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VenueNext’s mobile commerce technology debuted in 2014 at Levi’s Stadium, home of the San Francisco 49ers. The company today is in arenas, stadiums, theaters, amusement parks, and corporate campuses – including Amazon – across the country. VenueNext’s first foray into college venues came in 2019 at the University of Florida.

The Gators’ football stadium uses both VenueNext’s point-of-sale solutions and their experience marketplace to sell what they call ‘Swamp Moments.’

The school engaged with VenueNext to provide a personalized experience for fans, particularly on mobile, and generate revenue, James Slagle, Florida’s assistant athletics director for revenue generation, said. Just one year into the partnership, Florida has already started to find success in both areas after working through a few kinks – which were to be expected as with any new arrangement.

“Swamp Moments have been a wonderful revenue generator and a great experience for the fans that have engaged with that,” Slagle said. “And our fans have given us a [point of sale] thumbs up in their actions. They were getting through lines faster and spending more money. In regards to mobile payments, our mobile app, and the ease of commerce within the app and stuff like that, the uses were a lot bigger than I thought we were going to be as well.”

Despite the inroads at Florida, VenueNext’s presence in the college area overall is still what Perez described as “minimal.” This new partnership will allow them to expand at a much quicker pace, at the same time that demand for touchless technology is peaking.

“We felt like Florida gave us some really good experience with colleges and understanding how that may be different from our experiences with professional teams and leagues,” Perez said. “And then we engaged heavily with [Sidearm Sports] to figure out how we scale this across a much more significant set of colleges and universities. The timing just couldn’t be better for being able to bring the right products to bear for these colleges and universities when they need it the most.”

Nebraska is the first school to sign on to the partnership with the expectation of more to come.

The announcement follows Learfield IMG College’s launch of another tech-focused entity, Fanbase. Fanbase is a comprehensive, fan-centric data and analytics platform focused on helping its school partners build more in-depth fan profiles and brand sponsors to connect with college fans digitally. The platform will combine behavioral data sets from official athletics sites with other sources, including ticketing, digital media, social media, and third-party appends to function as the engine for university-specific databases for Learfield IMG College school partners.