O's to open gates to high-tech era of ticket taking

Fans to hit bar (code) upon entering

data to aid both club and fan

April 03, 1999|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,SUN STAFF

At first glance, the bar codes on the new Orioles tickets seem an inconsequential change.

But for fans, the redesigned tickets could prove a big boost in convenience, both speeding the trip through the stadium gates and the replacement of tickets.

For the Orioles, the debut Monday of a $500,000 network of turnstiles and computers that can read the bar codes will push the team to the forefront of sports franchises in use of ticket technology.

The equipment will, at first, track ticket usage, make life hard on people trying to use bogus tickets, speed replacement of lost tickets and perform other limited tasks.

Possibly as soon as next year, the bar-coded tickets could become a paper version of debit cards, a handy way to purchase beer, hot dogs and Albert Belle jerseys.

"I think this is one of those innovative things where the opportunities and the ultimate benefits aren't even obvious to us yet," said Roger B. Hayden, Orioles director of ballpark operations.

Although the team and its ticket vendor, Ticketmaster of Washington-Baltimore, expect some initial confusion for fans and ticket-takers, the system ultimately should be faster than the old process. Instead of an usher's examining each ticket to be sure it's for the right game, then tearing it and returning the stub, fans will swipe the tickets themselves at the turnstile. Ushers still will be stationed at the turnstiles, but can act as greeters.

"This is certainly a substantial leap forward in ticket technology," said Paul d'Eustachio, president of the local Ticketmaster franchise. His company purchased the computerized turnstile system and hopes to expand the concept to other venues in the area.

As a fan swipes his or her ticket through the turnstile, an electric eye scans the bar code and transmits the data via an internal radio transmitter. A receiver at each gate picks up the data and relays it through wires to a computer inside the Camden warehouse.

The computer will check to be sure the ticket hasn't already been used or reported stolen or lost. When the system signals OK, a green light will go on and the turnstile's barrier will be released. The computer will make a note of who arrived and when.

The whole process should take only seconds, said d'Eustachio.

Computer crash?

If a problem develops, such as a computer crash, the turnstiles can be rapidly converted to mere counters and employees instructed to go back to the old system of ticket tearing.

Hayden said the team is looking forward to using the system initially to study stadium "loading," or the rate and gates by which people enter the park. Knowing this helps the team better deploy its ushers.

Also, later in the year after the system has been broken in, season-ticket holders showing up at the park without their tickets may be able to get the forgotten or lost ones canceled and a new set issued on the spot. They may even be able to call the box office and order a new set printed for will-call pickup by a friend.

This summer, the team will explore enabling each ticket to be used as a debit card. Debit cards work like prepaid credit cards, with the user depositing money into an account that can be tracked by the computers and drawn upon at concession stands.

Sports marketers have predicted for years the coming of debit cards and their potential for increasing fan spending. Credit cards are accepted at Oriole Park and other stadiums. But they require outside authorization, which slows down concession sales.

Debit cards could solve that problem, and eliminate credit-worthiness concerns, by getting fans to put the money up in advance. A number of teams, including the Jacksonville Jaguars and Chicago White Sox, have introduced reusable "smart cards" embedded with magnetic strips or computer chips that fans buy in advance and load with money.

The use of such cards significantly drives up average spending by fans, said James Van Horne, with Van Horne & Associates, an Allentown, Pa.-based consultant active in smart-card technology.

Besides making it easier to spend, Van Horne said: "It's kind of a plastic mentality. `I have this balance, and it's for me to spend.' "

Also lucrative is the corporate market: Companies looking to woo clients or reward employees can hand out tickets preloaded with food and beverage credit. "I think there is great potential," Van Horne said.

Indians success story

The Cleveland Indians have had a similar, bar-coded system in place for three years and are looking at expanding it to include debit capabilities, said Bob DiBiasio, the team's vice president of public relations.

So far, however, the team has been pleased with the extra data and crowd-control capabilities the tickets have provided, he said.

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