Like many other sectors of the economy, the sports and entertainment industries have made adjustments to their events as a response to COVID-19. NBA and MLB fans, for example, have been able to purchase “virtual seats” to games (Fortune). The NFL has similarly allowed fans to purchase an appearance on a screen set (“cheer screens”) in their team’s end zone (CNBC). Yet, we all await the day when we will be able to return to these events in-person (Foreign Policy).

A few professional sports leagues have resumed in-person attendance by reducing attendance capacity, requiring temperature checks, setting up barriers, and testing fans before entry. However, these are generally not-so-popular sports leagues like the Professional Bull Riders (PBR), World Team Tennis (WTT), and National Hot Rod Association with smaller fan followings and occupying a smaller part of the commercial sports market (CBS Sports).

However, the professional sports leagues that dominate the market, such as the NBA MLB, and NFL have either not allowed any in-person attendance or only allowed attendance at extremely limited capacity. The MLB recently approved limited attendance for the NLCS and the World Series games (CBS News). Most NFL teams except for a handful (specifically, the Buffalo Bills, Chicago Bears, Los Angeles Rams, Los Angeles Chargers, San Francisco 49ers, New England Patriots, New York Giants, Seattle Seahawks, and the Washington Football Team) have announced plans to allow limited fan attendance this season (ESPN). This difference in fan attendance policy largely stems from the more cautious public health approach states like California have taken in response to COVID-19: all 3 of California’s professional football teams have not received state and local approval to reopen even in a limited capacity (OC Register). Given that a transition back to “normal” will be phased out, what will this return to in-person sporting and entertainment events look like?

This return will resemble many rituals we may have already normalized in our lives. Whether it’s clearing customs with a photographic scan after a return from an international trip or simply using the iPhone’s face recognition feature to unlock it, facial recognition technology is commonplace in our lives.

Fans, then, may not be so surprised that facial recognition technology may be utilized in the transition back to what we deem “normal” in-person events. A few professional teams such as the New York Mets and the Los Angeles Football Club (LAFC) have already been testing this facial recognition technology to initially allow for a limited number of guests at events. The Wall Street Journal has provided a picture of how one such system could work. Under the LAFC’s plan, fans would need to use an app to take pictures of their face and link their profile to the ticket they have purchased. Once they reach the stadium, guests would then present themselves in front of a machine with two cameras that would check their temperature, verify that they are wearing a mask, and conduct an identity match. Once a guest got clearance to enter, a sensor would trigger the turnstile to open for entry into the venue. There are additional potential uses of this facial recognition software once a guest enters as well, such as purchasing food at the concession stands. This, as a business executive at LAFC said, would allow orders to be placed more efficiently (Wall Street Journal). Most recently, the NFL required contactless payment methods at Super Bowl LV between the Chiefs and the Buccaneers as a COVID-19 precaution for attendees (NBC)

Similar biometric technology has been used before the COVID-19 pandemic, and there are plans to accelerate the use of this technology to transition fans back into sports arenas sooner rather than later. I.S. Partners, for example, have developed a contactless thermometer to temperature check guests entering venues. The thermometer is mounted on a turnstile, which would flash red for rejection if a guest is above the temperature thresholds or green for entry if a guest is below the temperature thresholds (Sports Travel Magazine).

Other technology companies offering a contactless solution have been able to offer one without the need for facial recognition. Alvarado Manufacturing Company, for example, sells self-scanning pedestals and turnstiles without cameras or facial recognition technology. COVID has led them to shift their marketing efforts to emphasize that their technology products can be a practical solution to helping sports return to an in-person format. They note that companies like Ticketmaster and Tickets.com have already bought in and have integrated their systems to be compatible with Alvarado’s technology products for contactless entry (Alvarado Manufacturing). In 2019, a few college football teams began allowing use of Google Pay to allow for a contactless scan entry into games (The Ticketing Business).

Despite these exciting prospects however, privacy concerns about these technology systems can be expected to arise as these changes become widely implemented. Prior to COVID, sports teams had already been piloting the use of this facial recognition technology in their operations. However, lawmakers in the U.S. have not stepped in to regulate these technologies at sports venues as compared to European enforcement of privacy regulations in a similar situation. In the Netherlands, for example, the operators of Johan Cruijff Arena (the home of the AFC Ajax soccer team) removed facial recognition technology when the government issued a demand for them to do so because of privacy violations (Wall Street Journal). One tech company in the contactless tech product market, IDEMIA, has assured fearful consumers that they can retract their stored data when they do not have plans to do it for entry into a venue (Sports Travel Magazine).

Racial biases in facial recognition technology is another concern when considering consumers’ equitable access to sports events. Research has indicated that facial recognition technologies are significantly worse at correctly recognizing Black, Asian, and Native American people than at correctly recognizing white people (Washington Post). There is a greater risk then, that a person from those racial groups who has purchased a ticket to the game may be denied entry based on the technology’s failure as compared to white people who are more accurately recognized by existing facial recognition technologies (New York Times).               Ultimately, given the practical challenges caused by COVID-19 as a public health issue, are these technologies merely a practical remedy to bring us some joy and normalcy during a challenging time, or are they a symptom of a wider privacy problem in contemporary times?