Nationals COO Andy Feffer discusses Ultimate Ballpark Access cards

Mar 12, 2013

Last week, the Nationals began unveiling the details of their Ultimate Ballpark Access cards, smart cards which combine ticketing, retail and concession payments, loyalty rewards and targeted promotions. While such cards are already common in Europe's top soccer venues, they could mark a significant change in Major League Baseball.

Team COO Andy Feffer, who spearheaded the project, said the cards signal a "monumental change" in the relationship between American sports franchises and their most important customers. Uncertain fans, though, have plenty of questions:

Will it be difficult to manage shared season-ticket accounts? Will this signal the end of ticket-stub collections? Just how often will they get free hot dog offers, anyhow? Also, what are their options if they can't make it to a game?

Andy Feffer will live chat with readers Tuesday at 2 p.m. ET about the changes. Submit your questions and opinions for Feffer to respond to now.

Related:
- Washington Nationals to introduce smart card system for ticket holders
-
About the Nats' new 'Ultimate Access Card'

Hi everyone - Welcome to the next generation of ticketing! We're excited to bring you the most customer-focused innovation in sports. 2013 Natitude is here. Let's get started with your questions.

I've heard different things from different people, so I'm hoping you can clear this up. Will I still receive Red Carpet Rewards points this year? I have really enjoyed this program and I'm hoping this change in ticketing isn't a means to take away Red Carpet Rewards. Thanks, Kelly.

Yes, Red Carpet Rewards continues as MLB's only online loyalty program, providing upgrades, additional seats, parking and suites. New for this year, one of a kind experiences. 

When can I expect to get my card in the mail? How do I go about getting cards in time for the season for the other people in my season ticket group? Will those cards arrive in time for the start of the season?

Cards will arrive this week and early next week. Once you have your card, you can log on and start adding partners and sharing your seats immediately. Partner cards will arrive shortly after they've activated their accounts. 

We have 6 members in our group. Previously we handed out all the tickets prior to the season. During the season we would do in group exchanges, but every now and then a member would exchange the tickets for another game at the box office. If our primary ticket holder electronically transfers the tickets to another member, can that member exchange the tickets for other games or can only the primary member exchange tickets to future games? Thanks.

All ticket exchanges will be done exclusively online for the 2013 season. Both primary account holders and their partners will be able to take advantage of this service.

Any chance of the program being expanded to non-season ticket holders? I typically attend 10-20 games each year, often deciding to go at the last minute. Being able to use a single pre-paid or linked-to-a-credit-card card to pay for everything sounds useful.

Yes, in future seasons, we will expand this program to include single game buyers.

Mr. Feffer - Can you explain in greater detail how loading cash onto these cards works? Overall I am a fan of the concept, but am curious as to how this is better than using my credit card.

Beginning later this season, you'll be able to load cash onto your card using your bank account or your credit card. Using the e-cash feature will be faster at concession stands, as there is no transaction between you and the concessionaire - you just place the card on the reader and go. Plus, we will create special lines dedicated to e-cash users only. 

How will season ticket holders be able to sell their games on StubHub or in other secondary markets?

Season plan holders will be able to resell their seats the same way they have in the past. 

Will you answer one concern I have regarding this new system? As background, I am a Capitals season-ticket holder and pronounce myself dissatisfied with their new ticket-card system. The big problem is the need to swipe each card at the arena entrance, and print out a ticket stub (or "seat locator tab," as they call it) so the ticket-holder can demonstrate which seats they own. All the official press releases talk about what a quick process this is, and indeed it only takes 10-15 seconds (except when the card reader breaks or the roll of paper runs out). But when you compare this to the 2 seconds or so needed to scan a paper ticket's barcode, and multiply by the several hundred people likely to go through each line, the result is that simply getting from the arena door into the concourse takes 2 minutes instead of 15 seconds or so. Now I admit that in the grand scheme of things, this isn't much of a delay, but it's very frustrating when you are running a bit late and the game is about to start, and moreover it creates an unpleasant and conceivably dangerous crush of people in the area between the doors and the ticket takers. And just to add insult to injury, at a recent game we got on a line that was noticeably shorter than the others, only to be told that it was for paper tickets only. That's right, an exclusive NON-SEASON-TICKET-HOLDER express line! But my point is not to gripe about the Caps' new system. I mention all this so I can ask you how a Nats cardholder will prove which seat(s) they own at each game. If you are planning any type of system involving printing a slip of paper at the stadium entrance to serve as a ticket stub, please please reconsider. Nats Park has about 2.5x the capacity of the Verizon Center and therefore already features significantly more congestion at the entrance before the game. If people have to wait even five seconds for a machine to print them a stub, I shudder to imagine the result...

I can grab this one; unlike the Caps's system, the seat row and seat number is printed on every Nats Ultimate Access card. There will be no receipts or printing.

Suppose I'm meeting a friend at the game, but he calls me just before game time to say he's running late. Normally I'd leave his ticket at will-call and go in without him. How's this going to work now? I'd be reluctant to leave one of my cards at will-call, in case he doesn't show at all or it gets lost or something.

No need to leave tickets at will call anymore. Just email his seats directly to him. No lines at will call and no waiting to pick your tickets up. 

In past years, STH were limited in the number of 'buddies' they could transfer tickets to. After you were out of buddies, they would charge a transfer fee. The easy way around this was to just hand your printed tickets to others. With the lack of paper tickets, how will this be handled? And if you say there's going to be a transfer fee, this new system will look even more like a cash grab (eg charging for souvenir tickets, no longer including opening day in partial packages, etc).

You can add as many contacts as you'd like and there are no transfer fees. 

Hi Andy - Thanks for taking the time to talk with Natitude Nation! Me and my friends were talking about this the other day and wanted to know how the Nationals plan to regulate seat abuse. If I use my card to get into the park, I could technically sit whereever I want, no? How would an usher, for example, know where I am sitting without a physical ticket? -Mike

One card per seat and each card has a seat location on it. You will show the usher your card to get down to your seat. 

How can swiping a card be any faster than scanning a barcode on a ticket?

I'll grab this one too, since Andy and his staff and I discussed this at length.

Essentially, there can be user error with barcodes -- holding it upside down or sideways or having a ripped piece of paper or a barcode that's in some other way not ready for immediate scanning. The actual difference between a successful barcode scan and a successful smart card scan is minimal. But just one person who takes 10 seconds to get a barcode scanned correctly increases the average entrance time for everyone behind him. And these smart cards should, like SmarTrip cards, be virtually immune to user error.

For those of us with mini-plans, how do we prove we were at the game for promotions such as free wings at Hard Times for 6 or more runs?

Just like last year, bring your ticket to Hard Times to qualify for the promotion. Season Plan Holders will be able to use their cards for these promotions as well. 

Mr. Feffer, personally, I prefer the old school, 120# cardstock ticket. But if the new technology has benefits for me, I'm open to the idea. Much of what the Nats has published hints at benefits, but why hasn't an actual list of benefits been distributed? And if the benefits have not been distributed, why not? Will you guarantee that ALL stands, ALL the time will accept the new cards? Because honestly, there's all sorts of problems with your vendors and gameday staff and technology....

Check the microsite at nationals.com/access for all of the benefits you'll be able to take advantage of.

So when we have two seats, do we scan the card twice, or does it allow two in at once?

If you have two seats, you'll have two cards.

Mr. Feffer, can you take a beer question? How come so much American light lager (Bud/Miller/Coors), and very little good beer? Why not set up some stands with locals like DC Brau, Port City, Chocolate City., etc.?

We have more than 30 different beers - including micro-brews - available throughout Nationals Park. 

Did you consider phasing this process in instead of all at once? Like giving Season Ticket Holders a choice of the paper tickets or Access cards this season until the bugs get worked out...especially given how late the NATS are sending out the Access Cards?

Yes, two years ago we launched the Red Carpet Rewards online program for Season Plan Holders - the first and only one of its kind. Last year, we launched a pilot program for virtual access before taking it to the larger group this year. 

While it was a one-off, MLB offered a discount to the Hall of Fame if you presented a ticket stub from a particular game this past year. If something like that happens in the future, would STHs be forced to purchase the "souvenir" ticket to take advantage?

I asked Andy about this as well, since some fans had asked me questions about things like the special offers for wings, and other discounts based on stubs.

These issues will be handled based on the wishes of the retailer -- in this case, the Hall of Fame. If the outlet really wants to limit the offer to people who were at a particular game, the Nats would e-mail the offer to everyone who had used a Smart Card to that particular game. But if the retailer was open to it, the offer could simply be extended to everyone who has an Ultimate Access card.

Bear in mind, when Hard Times offers wings if the Caps score 5 goals or whatever, they're not doing it with the hope that very few people will take them up on the offer. The idea is that a trip there for wings leads to a large tab that otherwise would not have existed. So it's not inconceivable that retailers would want all card holders to have access to these offers.

In any case, no, you would not be forced to purchase the souvenir ticket.

I and my family hold Caps season tickets and also attend several Nats games per year. While this smart-card plan sounds great, I have one major worry arising from my dissatisfaction with the Caps' new ticket-card system. Its flaw is the need to print the equivalent of a ticket stub at the arena entrance, so that the cardholder can demonstrate which seats they own to the section usher and/or anyone who might be sitting in the wrong place. While this process only requires a few extra seconds for each attendee, in the aggregate it has created significant and frustrating delays and congestion at the entrance. Nats Park, due I assume to its greater capacity than the VC, already takes longer to access and features more of a mob scene at the entrance. Please reassure me that you have a system in mind for cardholders to demonstrate which seats they own, without requiring them to obtain a printout at the gate. If such a system is planned, let ME assure YOU that it is likely to result in MAJOR delays and dissatisfaction at the stadium entrances.

Our system is a completely different technology and idea than what you'll find at Verizon Center. Our cards use RFID technology similar to what is used in the Metro. It's faster, easier and more secure since all seat locations are printed on your card. There are no ticket takers or seat locators. 

What is the process if you arrive at the Park and realize you forgot the card?

Simply go to Ticket Services at the Center Field Gate and they will be able to assist you. 

Will the beer vendors accept the ultimate cards so i dont have to carry cash? Also, Also, any plans to add vending machines that use the Ultimate Card to purchase water or soft drinks?

We are looking into this as a possibility for the future. 

Mr Feffer - With RFID chips in the cards will the Nats be tracking movements, purchases, and time spent in the park? What assurances do season ticket holders have of privacy?

You determine the level of access and interaction with the club - the cardholder ultimately controls the experience. 

Are you going to charge a fee for lost cards? I've got 8 shareholders x 4 seats=32 cards and I guarantee people are going to lose them.

Yes, there will be a minimal fee for replacing lost cards.

In past seasons, we've had trouble redeeming the so-called "Nats Bucks" at various concession stands because the technology needed to scan the tickets didn't work at them. Will you be able to ensure that the smart cards will work at every concession stand?

The card uses a different technology (RFID) than Nats Bucks, making the transaction faster and more secure.

Mr. Feffer, thanks for taking questions. I host a group with multiple seat locations (more than one partial plan), and multiple members (17!). We used to have a great process for distributing tickets to group members. Now, it seems like the only feasible option is emailing tickets to each member of the group. While the system seems fantastic for more traditional season ticket holders, it is challenging for those of us in large groups. Can an "opt-out" option be added, where we can choose to instead receive printed tickets for our games?

It's actually going to be easier to share your tickets with partners. Simply add their name and email to your partner list, highlight the games and seats and send. It's that easy.

I used the same system at an Arsenal soccer match in London last year. Emirates Stadium seats 60,000 and there were absolutely no lines to get in. I think people are getting all worked up for nothing.

FYI, the Nats used the same firm that created Arsenal's system (and many other EPL ticketing systems) to craft their system. The Nats are their U.S. "showcase" franchise.

Reports were that fans would still be able to "purchase" traditional paper tickets upon entering the ballpark to retain a stub, etc. How much will these extra tickets be and why as a season ticket holder should I pay twice for a ticket?

Commemorative tickets will be available each game for a nominal fee, with all proceeds benefiting the Washington Nationals Dream Foundation.

If the Nats hit a walk-off home run to win the final game of the season, can we all throw our cards onto the field in celebration like the '91 Skins-Falcons seat cushion playoff game?

I've held one of the cards. They're pretty light weight. You might have a decent amount of trouble getting it onto the field.

To follow up on the will call question, if its REALLY last minute and I e-mail the ticket to someone they obviously don't carry a printer around with them. Will there be a way to scan the email ticket off someone's cell phone?

Yes, they will.

Andy, why all the mystery of what bobble heads the Nationals will be giving out this year? You're apparently driving Steinberg nuts.

Yeah, really.

Follow us on twitter @Nationals or Facebook to find out!

What happens if I miss a game do to something that comes up at the last minute and can't exchange my tickets in advance? Will the card remember that I missed the game (since it wasn't swiped) so that I can get tickets to another game under the ticket exchange program.

Yes, you will be able exchange unused tickets as you have before.

If you're part of a group that has multiple seats, you may not have the same seat for every game. For example, I'm part of a group of six that splits four seats. So I'll have to either (1) carry four cards with me, resulting in a Costanza-sized wallet, or (2) keep careful track of which seats I have for which game and bring the appropriate card(s), which was not necessary when I had a stack of paper tickets and could just grab that night's ticket(s) off the pile when I left for work in the morning. Are there any plans to let SPHs consolidate to a single card per plan member, rather than one per member per seat?

Our system is set up for one card per seat. Just bring the card for that game. 

Will Presidents club seats be added to red carpet rewards?

Yes, just as they have in the past. 

When will the Nationals support ticketing in Apple's Passbook iOS app like some other MLB teams?

This is already available for single game ticket buyers. We are also creating a mobile platform for cardholders that will allow them to manage their seats and view special offers. 

You guys have created a great fan environment at Nats Park. The only major exception is that the cell phone coverage (I've got AT&T and Verizon) is abysmal when the park is more than half full. Have you guys been working with any of the providers to improve the network availablility within the park?

We have expanded cell phone coverage with the various carriers at Nationals Park this year. 

Did you consider forming a "Focus Group" of Season ticket holders to gauge their response to this move to the card and forgoing paper tickets? If not, why not?

Yes, we conducted an extensive program using a pilot group during the 2012 season.

When will the site be operational so I can start printing and emailing tickets? Will it have a handy archive so I can keep track of everyone I sent tickets to, or when I printed the ticket, or used it via swipe? Will it track food purchases and offers? Basically, will we as users be able to see our entire history -- all the information the Nats have for the account?

Once you recieve your card this week or early next week, you can go online and will be able to see your entire ticket usage history. 

Not to get ahead of ourselves, but will we be able to use the cards for the playoffs? The reason I ask is that as season's ticketholders we were able to buy additional seats before they went on sale to the public and I'm wondering if we'll be able to transfer any extra tickets.

No, we will issue tickets or other cards for the postseason.

I want to be sure I understand it. I am the primary holder of four tickets with someone else who has two of the four. At the beginning of the season, I am OK but he has to log on to set up an account for his two tickets. Is this correct?

Yes, once he sets up his own account, he can manage his two seats himself.

Once we set up the system with our partners and they set up their sub-accounts will we have to go through the whole process again next year and get new cards every season?

Be sure to keep your cards for future seasons. You will not have to set up your account again. 

While I know that my seat number will be printed on the card, what if I've done a ticket exchange for that game (thereby assigning me to another seats) or if two folks with partial plans (thereby printed with the same seat numbers) both claim to hold that seats for that game. How will they verify the correct seat holder?

Our guest service staff will be equipped with handheld readers that can identify whether or not a card is active for that game. 

Thanks everyone for your time today. I hope I've been able to answer your questions. If you have more questions, go to nationals.com/access or call your ticket sales rep directly. We look forward to seeing you at Nationals Park this year!

In This Chat
Andy Feffer
Andrew Feffer is the Chief Operating Officer for the Washington Nationals Baseball Club, overseeing all business operations for the team. He is directly responsible for the club?s revenue generation, marketing, communications, brand development and business administration. Feffer received his undergraduate degree in economics from the University of Virginia and his MBA from Georgetown University.
Dan Steinberg
Washington Post staff writer and D.C. Sports Bogger.

Recent Q&As

E-mail: sportsbog@washpost.com.
Recent Chats
  • Next: