The cashless stadium revolution: does it really benefit fans?

Tottenham Hotspur Stadium

Cashless stadiums are coming. The chances are most of us have been to a stadium with a cashless bar or a ‘card payments only’ lane. The technology has been around for a while and most of us will be no strangers to tapping our cards or using our phones to pay for some shopping or dinner out. In football, particularly in the UK, it seems to have taken longer for the cashless trend to catch on. It’s an industry that is notoriously resistant to change, but it looks as though the revolution is finally coming. 

So why is football lagging behind? Is it because tech finds it hard to find a foothold in an arena where fans are desperately trying to keep hold of the few matchday traditions they have left or is it that we just can’t see the benefits for ourselves? Having to queue for food and drink is regularly quoted as a pain point for many fans. A 2015 Brentford survey found that queueing times was the biggest concern for fans – ahead of price and quality. 75% of Brentford’s respondents also said that the prospect of waiting in line put them off venturing onto the concourse.

Clubs and fans have a shared problem. A large group of people is being put-off spending more money at football matches. Cashless technology is now looking to solve that problem. Clubs like Sheffield United, Wolves, Brighton, Leicester and others in the Football League are all moving towards having cashless stadiums and the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium is the first in the UK to be fully cashless. So how is this changing the matchday experience and are fans really feeling the benefits?

‘Tapping’ it with loyalty cards

My personal experiences of cashless stadiums haven’t really offered much encouragement that anything has changed. At the London Stadium, my regular haunt, cashless queues seem to take the same amount of time as the cash friendly lines. I went to both NFL games at the Tottenham Hotspur stadium and found that queuing times were consistently high, whenever I ventured from my seat. This was, however, largely due to staff struggling to deal with another technological advance – the beers that fill from the bottom up. 

Several clubs, however, have gone beyond simply banning cash payments or trialling specific cash-free areas. Birmingham City and QPR in the Championship have both introduced cash-free cards that allow supporters to make a variety of purchases around the stadium without ever having to plunder their pockets for loose change or a transient fiver.  

At St Andrews, fans can now use what’s known as a Fastpay card. It started with season ticket holders but now allows all fans to tap in on entry, buy merch in the club shop and then refuel at the concourse kiosks. After a brief trial, the Blues decided to roll out the scheme instead of allowing fans to use their own contactless methods as it was felt the stadium internet connection wasn’t consistent enough to support this approach. 

West Londoners, Queens Park Rangers have a similar scheme called QPR pay. It’s pitched as a loyalty payment card that can also be used as your Mastercard. It’s available to season ticket holders and members and offers some rewards and discounts for loyal users.    

Schemes like the ones used by the Blues and the Rs have clear benefits for the clubs. It gives them new data on supporters’ spending habits by telling them what they’re buying, when and how often. This means they can stock their shelves by demand and know when to apply special offers. 

For supporters, however, it’s still unclear if waiting times are going down. A quick look at Birmingham fans on Twitter commenting on Fastpay appears to suggest otherwise. Many complained about the speed at which beers were poured and prepared compared to other clubs they’d visited. The payment method counts for nothing if the service is still not up to scratch.

Chelsea concourse
Chelsea fans on the concourse

Going cashless from your own seat

Several clubs are already looking at improving the level of food and drink service either as an alternative to a cashless stadium or potentially as a way of complimenting it. Both Liverpool and Chelsea offer certain sections of the crowd the opportunity to pre-order food and drink and then pick up from an express queue when needed. 

Liverpool’s Seatserve service allows fans to pre-order from an app and pick up whenever they want. Fans five seats in from the end of a row can also have their refreshments delivered to their seat. Staff are apparently ‘trained to wait for a natural break in play’ – lucky we now have VAR then. Chelsea’s CFC express app works in a very similar way albeit without the option to order directly to your seat. 

Chelsea’s app currently has a rating of 3.9 on Android and 2.5 on Apple with a combined 60 reviews indicating take-up hasn’t been huge yet. Most complaints are seemingly themed around the final part of the service with order incorrectly processed or delivered showing again that the technology can fall down if the service isn’t up to par. Liverpool’s app now seems to be browser-based meaning it doesn’t have reviews in the main app stores. 

Bournemouth and Sunderland are other clubs that have also dipped their toes into pre-order technology – both provide specialised stations around their stadiums where fans can order their food and drink rather than using an app that requires users to download and update. 

Further down the leagues, another club that is taking advantage of the cashless revolution is Wycombe Wanderers. The Chairboys have adopted a cashless ticketing system – not unusual even in the Football League. The main difference, however, is that the supporting app for buying tickets also allows the club’s fans to buy food, drink and potentially even merchandise ahead of matchday. Wycombe’s app has seen a noticeable rise in online purchases since it’s launch and even seen the club’s average attendance rise by nearly 600. 

It is clear that cashless technology is starting to breakthrough the robust walls of the UK football market and make inroads into fans’ matchday experiences. There is still a long way to go, however, before we can all safely leave our seats at half time knowing we’ll be back before a ball is kicked in the second half. Technology is advancing all the time, however, and it may just need service and stadium design to follow suit to ensure those beers are ready to be collected and the 2-for-1 pie discounts applied.