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The consequences of going “cashless” at Tropicana Field (updated)

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The Rays need to consider how they will make every member of the Tampa Bay community feel welcome at Tropicana Field.

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Among the various stadium updates being made in 2019 to improve the fan and player experience, the Rays have announced their intention to go completely “cashless” at Tropicana Field, a first in the United States.

Cashless transactions are becoming more commonplace in the US, thanks to the recent growth in mobile payments, and Americans making fewer cash transactions than ever before.

But there are real concerns that such an extreme move is premature, and will create barriers to attendance for some already underprivileged members of the community.

The Pros: Convenience and Efficiency

The Rays’ plan to go cashless should be a net gain for the majority of fans. Removing the use of cash will speed transactions at concession stands and improve sanitation overall, while also reducing the need to have exact amounts on hand while ordering food from your seat. For those of you who rarely carry cash, buying food and drink at your seat will now be a lot easier.

As for in-seat transactions, Levy confirmed that all hawkers will be equipped with hand-held devices in order to accept the various cash-free payment methods. The order will be entered by the hawker into the device, which will then be passed to the fan. The fan will then be able to swipe his or her card, enter a tip amount (if desired), and complete the transaction.

This allows the fans to transact without ever having to pass their card. The same arrangement will be available at other locations where tips are common, such as the various bars throughout Tropicana Field.

Efficiencies will extend to the Rays as well, as cashless environments result in fewer opportunities for fraud and the elimination of costs related to carrying cash at all vendors, while adding to the team’s analysis capabilities around serving fan needs.

As for the cards required, for fans without electronic forms of payment, cash can be exchanged for gift cards in any amount at any Rays retail location in the Stadium, and in $10 or $20 increments through roaming gift card vendors.

The Con: Accessibility

But there is a problem with going completely cashless.

It’s not just that there are still people in the United States who use cash exclusively — although it is a pretty significant percentage. According to the most recent Gallup Poll on the subject, 25% of Americans make all of their purchases in cash. That’s down from the previous average of one-third, but one-quarter is still a good portion of the population.

The problem is that the Americans who lack a credit or a debit card come disproportionately from marginalized groups.

The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) performs a biannual survey of people’s access to banks, with the latest one having been completed in 2017. In that survey, the FDIC found that 6.0% of the households are “unbanked” in the state of Florida (about in line with the national average), meaning that no member has a savings or checking account in an FDIC insured institution, and that 18.3% of households are “underbanked,” where someone in the household has an account, but has also recently used a non-FDIC service, such as a payday loan, or a money order.

Specifically, these statistics all relate to marginalized groups of people in our society, and for context, here is the breakdown of marginalized and unbanked/underbanked groups for the state of Florida

  • 18.5% of black households in Florida are unbanked, and 27.6% are underbanked.
  • 25.6% of the households where no one has a high school diploma are unbanked, and 16.5% are underbanked.
  • 22.0% of the households with an annual income under $15K are unbanked, and 21.6% are underbanked.
  • 11.2% of households with an annual income between $15K and $30K are unbanked, and 20.9% are underbanked.
  • 12.1% of households with a disabled person of working age are unbanked, while 26.1% are underbanked.
  • The nonprofit Prosperity Now calculates bank access rates by city, county and metropolitan area. From their scorecard we can see that the Tampa Bay metro area has an unbanked rate of 4.6% of households, and underbanked rate of 16.6% of households, slightly better than Florida as a whole. As is true elsewhere, limited access to banking is uneven across the population: 15.7% of all households of color (African-American; Latino; Asian and other races) are unbanked, and 25% are underbanked. (H/T to bullcityyakker who pointed us to the Prosperity Now data).

Data on banking isn’t a perfect analog for data on credit/debit card possession, but it comes close. Together, this means that a decision to go cashless has an outsized impact on poor, black, uneducated, and disabled Floridians who might call themselves Rays fans.

Just because a “household” has a bank account, moreover, that doesn’t mean that all members of that household do. The impact of removing cash payment options most likely affects even more individuals than the household-level data suggests.

Open Questions for the Rays Front Office

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1. Does the data support this move for everyone?

According to the joint press release from the Rays — in collaboration with hospitality partner Levy and analytics/emerging tech firm E15 — the cashless system was successfully implemented in a pilot program during 2018, where cash-free environments saw an average transaction time of up to half that of traditional environments that accept cash, resulting in faster moving lines and increased fan satisfaction above expectations (the average decreased wait time in cashless environments has been calculated elsewhere as 25%).

But that doesn’t answer which fans had a better experience.

How many Rays fans does the team think have no access or limited access to a card? Is that a data point evident from the pilot of gift card buyers?

Better yet, does the team know the demographics of their ticket buyers writ large well enough to estimate how many fans will be impacted by this change? And for those who are impacted, how much will it feel like an inconvenience?

2. How will the “gift card” option function?

Whether this new system creates barriers for the unbanked may hinge on the functionality of that gift card system mentioned above, and unanswered questions about that system remain. The Rays did not provide details on how many gift card kiosks there will be, other than confirming that roaming or stationed employees will be able to reload gift cards in $10 and $20 increments.

Levy confirmed to us on Friday that there will not be any fees associated with obtaining a gift card, so at least there is no additional direct cost to fans using this form of payment. But the full picture for such fans is still unclear.

Will fans who use cash need to buy a gift card to buy a ticket at the box office? And if so, will kiosks be available outside the stadium? But perhaps most importantly, the Rays have not yet clarified whether you can get refunds for unspent balances on your card.

This strikes us as an important concern.

Few of us can project to the dollar how much we may spend in an evening at the park. Many fans will likely purchase cards for more than they will ultimately need. If these fans can’t get those unspent dollars returned then they are, in essence, paying a fee, and perhaps a hefty one, for failing to use plastic.

Tropicana Field is about to become a bank

The Rays have never been shy about trailblazing, whether that be on the field employing The Shift or The Opener, or off the field leading the way on issues like Domestic Violence and stadium configuration. Additionally, the Rays are quite intentional on maintaining a cost-efficient experience for the fans as much as they do their owners.

On the side of affordability, Tropicana Field remains one of the increasingly rare venues that allow you to bring your own food, a policy we applaud. For the budget conscious, coming with a bag of homemade sandwiches remains a viable option. And with frequent special deals for weekday games, kids and seniors, a Rays game is still an affordable option compared to many other forms of entertainment.

Yet, this move seems abnormally fan “un-friendly.” It limits, rather than expands, choices for people who have already made a decision to spend the day or evening at the ballpark, and creates complicated inconveniences that target populations most likely to experience hardship in others arenas as well.

We don’t actually know how many people who patronize Tropicana Field don’t have credit or debit cards. Fans who park in the stadium lots have already been confronted with a no-cash parking policy; perhaps the Rays are confident that few fans will be inconvenienced.

Whatever the details of the implementation of this decision to go cashless, and of other future stadium decisions, will be, it is important that the Rays consider the impact on all of their fans — not just their mean or median fan — if they wish to be perceived as a positive and valuable member of the Tampa Bay community.

The Rays need to consider how they are accommodating the cardless, and make every attempt to implement this system in a way that is both transparent and non-discriminatory.