Sports teams are using facial recognition to learn more about their fan bases

Key Points
  • South Africa-based Fancam works with sports teams and stadiums to snap high-resolution photos of fans watching the game.
  • By entering the stadium, you surrender control of your image and likeness.
  • The data are used to target ads, music and entertainment to the people who actually attend.
Your face is worth real money to sports teams
Your face is worth real money to sports teams

The next time you go to a sporting event, don't forget to smile.

An increasing number of sports and entertainment venues are using facial recognition technology to learn more about their fans — and it has become big business for teams and advertisers who market in arenas.

Teams and stadiums in nearly every professional sports league are paying high-tech camera and facial recognition companies to install cameras in their facilities. These super high-resolution cameras can snap photos of every single seat in the arena, multiple times per game.

The team can use demographic data from the pictures to enhance the fan experience, improve sponsorship retention, beef up security and even to decide which music gets played.

Fans who are uncomfortable with the idea might want to read the fine print located on the back of each event ticket. There, they'll find a disclaimer saying arenas have the right to use your photo and likeness, and you surrender control of that the minute you enter the arena.

Yet before you freak out, know that the way the information is used is largely at a macro level. Baseball, for example, is stereotyped as having an older crowd, but teams can use the images of fans — and the instant facial recognition data analysis — to show sponsors the true picture.

'Helping teams solve problems'

South Africa-based company Fancam is one of the larger companies selling this technology. Its products are found in venues that host the Cleveland Cavaliers, Atlanta Braves, New York Rangers and New England Patriots.

"We are taking a lot of pictures to help teams solve problems," said Michael Proman, managing director of North America at Fancam. "Some of that is just being able to tell an accurate and credible narrative to their fans and business partners."

Fancam's pictures show that the stereotype of baseball having an older, homogenized crowd doesn't hold true. "The reality is far from that," he said. "Our ability to take super high-resolution images at every game throughout the season showed that their fans were actually 10 years younger, and [has] a very diverse fan base."

This data can then be used to attract sponsors, and plan their ads accordingly.

It's not just sponsors, though. Facial recognition is being used for security purposes by companies like NEC Technologies. They are able to see detailed images of every single fan walking into their stadiums, golf courses, etc.

"Sports leagues and teams gathering data on fan behaviors is nothing new," said Lee Igel, a clinical associate professor at New York University's Tisch Institute for Global Sport.

"What is new, as the Facebook scandal is forcing people to face, is the realization that there is a trade-off between getting the experiences we want and maintaining privacy," he added.

No profiling

Teams like the technology because it can help with fan engagement. One of the features of Fancam is attendees can find their exact seat and see a picture of themselves at the game. They are encouraged to tag themselves in the photo and share it on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter.

"Fans love the content because it's personalized," said Proman.

Teams are also using this information to make decisions ranging from what music to play, to staffing and the ads that appear on the Jumbotron. For example, if a team knows its fanbase skews younger and more female on a Tuesday night home game, they might shift the music and ads to better target that audience.

While the data are being used for such big picture decisions, individual privacy is still a sensitive issue.

"I know data is a very sensitive subject right now," Proman said. "We anonymize all our data. What's most important is being able to identify macro level trends, not profile fans."

"Fans are going to increasingly count on leagues and teams to let them know how data is being used," said NYU's Igel. "What privacy is being sacrificed for it, and is it it in the right hands?"