The CLEAR program, a fixture at the airport, now has come to the ballpark. It’ll get you in faster if you surrender your biometric data. But is that a good idea?
Inside sports business
My first experience with a metal detector while covering sports was on Oct. 30, 2001, roughly seven weeks after the 9/11 terror attacks. It was Game 3 of the World Series between the New York Yankees and Arizona Diamondbacks at Yankee Stadium and President George W. Bush was throwing out the ceremonial first pitch.
Most of us that day were frightened out of our minds, given anthrax scares in Manhattan’s subway system and the unknowns about what could happen next after the World Trade Center’s collapse. So, we generally didn’t mind spending two hours in a media line being guided through a security gauntlet, which was preferable to what some fans went through later that night in being prevented from entering the stadium until the fourth inning because of the long lines.
Seventeen years later, metal detectors and ballpark security lines are commonplace and, for many fans, a tad overdone. The bag searches, electronic wanding and interminably long lineups are such an inconvenience to some that a biometric screening program best known for airport usage is making its way into ballparks.
It was probably inevitable the CLEAR program — a SeaTac Airport fixture the past few years — would find its way to Safeco Field, which it did starting with the Mariners’ home opener. Users of the program register by submitting biometric data — like fingerprints and a retina scan — and once approved, merely have to be scanned through a much quicker security line.
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“We know that sometimes security lines do get bogged down at baseball games,’’ Lauren Stangel, vice president of CLEAR’s sports and events division, told me last week. “It’s really fascinating. We’re at a point in time where there’s this convergence of increasing event security while not wanting to compromise the event experience.’’
I’ve used the CLEAR program at SeaTac for two years and find it beneficial. It costs $179 annually at the airport, but it’s free for anyone at the ballpark.
Safeco Field, SunTrust Park in Atlanta and the Coliseum in Oakland were new CLEAR additions this year, making it 11 professional teams in MLB, NBA and MLS using the program.
But as much as I enjoy CLEAR at the airport, the ballpark version gives me pause.
Part of it is the commercialization of the security industry in public places since 9/11. A lot of it seems inconsistent and unnecessary at times — more for show than anything else.
But there’s always profit in it.
Somebody makes money off those full-body scanners in airports. And somebody’s going to profit off making it easier to get through security lines at ballparks.
CLEAR operates on a licensing arrangement with teams. Stangel declined to say how much her company is paid to set up shop. Still, whether it’s the licensing fee or ability to attract new customers to its airport business, you know CLEAR is getting something out of this.
And what about teams? Sure, they benefit by keeping their paying customers happy in bypassing security lines. But there are plenty of other ways teams can benefit from biometric data.
Stangel insists CLEAR does not share personal biometric details with corporate clients. And that’s a good thing, considering how data from Facebook was used to manipulate voters in the last presidential election.
Sports teams getting hold of such data could track spending habits and the movement of fans inside stadiums. Want to sell your tickets on the online secondary market? Teams with your biometric data would know whether you entered the building and actually used your seats and could store that information for future decisions on renewing your season tickets.
This isn’t some far-fetched science-fiction fantasy.
When the Golden 1 Center was being built in Sacramento, the Kings explored the use of facial recognition technology to identify season-ticket holders as they approached the venue. The idea was to identify who was entering the building and tailoring a more immediate and customized user experience for them — i.e. getting them to spend more money — once inside.
That idea hasn’t been implemented yet. But it isn’t that big a stretch between facial recognition software and a biometric scan of your retinas.
Stangel told me CLEAR is looking at ways to use biometric screening at its Washington partner venues for things such as alcohol sales. She added there could be future ways to share the personalized data if fans were to give their permission first.
Look, this doesn’t have to be bad.
There’s a lot to like about using biometrics for quick screening to prevent alcohol sales to minors at ballgames or limit the over-serving of unruly customers. Fans already pay a small fortune for parking and marked-up concessions at games, so who’s to say they’d oppose a more tailored marketing approach once inside?
And the threat of terrorism at sporting events is real. We saw it at the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings and also the deadly Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, England, last year — which took place at an arena.
The sports security experts I’ve spoken with say the new big fear is the possibility of a drone delivering an explosive device or a toxic substance to large crowds gathered outside a stadium or arena. So, if CLEAR moves crowds along and inside a stadium quicker that can certainly be good.
Just know that the security aspect of biometrics isn’t the only thing of interest to teams.
Allowing the collection of more detailed, personal information on fans than ever before would tempt teams to seek it out just as political groups trying to manipulate elections.
And that’s a subject sports fans should simply be aware of before submitting their biometrics, or responding to any future requests asking their permission to share such data.