AMB Sports & Entertainment has added cash-free points of sale at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in the past year. (Getty Images)

Transition comes as part of AMB Sports’ decision to lower some concessions prices further

Cashless venues are gaining traction at the highest level of sports. AMB Sports & Entertainment, owner of the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons and Major League Soccer’s Atlanta United FC, has committed to eliminating cash transactions at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

The move takes effect March 10, when Atlanta United opens its 2019 home schedule against FC Cincinnati.

Mercedes-Benz Stadium becomes the second big-league building to go cashless for food and merchandise after Tropicana Field, home of Major League Baseball’s Tampa Bay Rays. Levy runs the food service at both venues and merchandise at the Trop. Fanatics runs retail at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

Other facilities in Atlanta are moving in the same direction. Delaware North Sportservice, the food provider at SunTrust Park, is adding more mobile payment express lines for baseball season, said Derek Schiller, the Atlanta Braves’ president and CEO.

For AMB Sports, the cashless effort was driven in part by the group’s decision to cut prices by 50 cents on a handful of concession items for 2019. Hot dogs, the stadium’s top seller, now cost $1.50. Pretzel bites, specialty burgers, ice cream and chips/salsa have also been reduced by 50 cents.

Transitioning to a cashless system allows the stadium to shift from its whole-number pricing model, which was used to reduce transaction times, and enables AMB Sports to adjust pricing more frequently, company officials said.

The elimination of cash management issues such as employee theft, plus the data analytics piece for better understanding customers’ buying habits, are other benefits to going cashless, according to teams and vendors.

Starting with MLS events, Mercedes-Benz Stadium patrons must use credit and debit cards and mobile payment options such as Apple Pay to buy food, drink and merchandise. Hawkers vending in the stands will use tablets to process cash-free payments, said Steve Cannon, AMB Sports’ CEO.

(The only circumstances in which cash will be accepted is to pay for concert merchandise during touring productions. AMB Sports has no control over those operations, Cannon said).

For those who carry only cash or don’t feel comfortable using those payment methods, AMB Sports is installing 10 machines across all levels of the stadium that convert cash to a Visa debit card. The debit cards can be used for purchases inside the facility and any location outside the venue where Visa is accepted.

The machines, provided by NCR, the stadium’s point-of-sale supplier, are made by Ready Credit, a company whose headquarters are in Eden Prairie, Minn. At the stadium, the prepaid cards, called Ready Card, can store value running from $10 to $1,000, Cannon said.

There is no additional charge for Ready Card buyers. As part of its commitment, AMB Sports will pay the transaction fees for using the debit cards, Cannon said. For credit cards alone, those fees typically run from 1 percent to 3 percent, according to food vendors.

“It’s a small investment for us,” he said. “We’re going to try and make this as seamless for our fans as possible. We can shift the machines around depending on demand and add more in the future if needed.”

AMB Sports did not give a total cost for going cashless at the stadium.

In the past year, AMB Sports has gradually converted more points of sale to cash-free systems for both NFL and MLS events, in addition to conducting fan surveys to get feedback on the system. They didn’t get much pushback against the concept, said Greg Beadles, AMB Sports’ executive vice president and chief operating officer. Per caps and the number of transactions remained steady during the testing phase, Beadles said.

The survey’s data showed a much higher percentage of Atlanta United fans already use cashless payments at the stadium compared with Falcons fans, officials said.  

“There was a double-digit difference between cash use for Falcons and Atlanta United,” Cannon said. “Atlanta United is a much younger demographic and they’re much more comfortable with it. In a lot of ways, we’re comfortable launching this (for MLS games). We’ll have a lot of learnings under our belt, so if we have to make any pivots, we can do it before the NFL season begins.”

At SunTrust Park, Sportservice and the Braves still accept cash for food and retail, which the team runs in-house. What’s new this season, Schiller said, is upgrading the ballpark’s point-of-sale systems with more locations accepting Apple Pay and Google Pay as a form of mobile payment.

“It’s a big thing and extremely important for us to give our fans,” Schiller said. “Most of them want to pay with their mobile device, especially younger fans.”

The technology falls in line with the Braves’ digital commitment on the ticketing side. Over the past few years, they’ve led MLB in mobile ticket delivery, which last year stood at about a 70 percent adoption rate, Schiller said.

AMB Sports, meanwhile, saw a 600 percent increase in Apple Pay transactions in 2018 over the previous year at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Cannon said. Apple’s data shows transaction times are reduced by 20 to 30 seconds over cash for all of its consumers using the technology, he said.

“We have not yet been able to validate those statistics, but when you are part of the halftime (crush), seconds matter,” Cannon said. “The ability to satisfy demand across a long line is significant. It’s really about becoming more efficient and fan friendly inside of our stadium.”