BALL SCREEN: Arena tested Evolv Express frictionless screening at VIP entrances for NBA games this season and expects to expand the technology at all gates for the 2024-25 campaign. (Courtesy venue)

“Discrepancy” across NBA without full approval of technology

Frictionless screening has been in place at sports venues for more than five years now, with most of the big leagues providing full approval to use the technology. The NBA is the lone holdout. Its deliberate approach has resulted in confusion among some teams and arena managers over their restrictive policy, and the standards they require with setting the systems, with some testing the technology saying the high level of sensitivity for weapons detection doesn’t expedite fan entry as intended.

To date, the NBA has given teams conditional approval to use the technology on a case by case basis without fully approving the screening procedures to a more efficient framework, compared with traditional walk-through magnetometers, which require patrons to empty their pockets of smart phones, wallets and other items before passing through the device.

“A handful of NBA arenas currently operate with frictionless screening,” a league spokesman wrote in an email to VenuesNow. “Ahead of the (2023-24) season, the league office outlined a frictionless screening policy in communications with teams and every team has the option to use it if they are compliant with the requirements.”

In an NBA memo, dated Oct. 5, 2023, and obtained by VenuesNow, the league stipulates that NBA arenas are “prohibited” from using frictionless weapons detection technology in lieu of traditional mags, with exceptions to the rule if teams meet a list of requirements for using frictionless systems.

The memo states that Evolv Express, Ceia Opengate and Xtract One were approved by the NBA. Vendors are required to have been awarded or are in the process of achieving the Department of Homeland Security’s Safety Act, which protects the liability for teams and arenas in the case of potential lawsuits. Minimum settings for the three systems are listed in the memo and X-rays are still required for all bags larger than 4 inches by 6 inches by 1.5 inches.

The NBA has been dragging its feet on implementing full approval due to the presence of courtside seat holders sitting next to players for games at their arenas, sources said. It’s the only league with no separation between players and fans with their feet on the floor, although across the big leagues, more teams have jumped on the trend for creating event-level seats as close to the action as possible, for which they can charge premium ticket prices.

Nine of the NBA’s 30 teams currently use frictionless screening, sources said, most of which are two-tenant buildings with NBA and NHL franchises, including Capital One Arena, TD Garden, Ball Arena, American Airlines Center and Scotiabank Arena.

On top of that, the Intuit Dome, the Los Angeles Clippers’ new $2 billion arena that debuts in August, plans to open its doors with frictionless screening in place for all events, according to the team.

Other NBA teams, such as the Charlotte Hornets, say they are waiting for the league to fully approve the technology after testing it for concerts at Spectrum Center.

NBA officials would not address when full approval may occur after testing the technology on its own as part of the NBA All-Star Game activities at the Indiana Convention Center. Frictionless screening was not used for the All-Star game itself at Gainbridge Fieldhouse, Indiana Pacers officials said.

TECH TEST: The NBA tested frictionless screening as part of the 2024 All-Star game festivities in Indianapolis. (LinkedIn)

Some NBA arenas have tested it on a limited basis at VIP entrances, which has been the case at Arena, which received conditional approval after testing and documenting it in reports sent to the NBA league office. Arena uses Evolv Express after testing it for concerts and the Grammy Awards, and with its artificial intelligence component, it’s only going to get better, said Danielle Snyder, senior vice president of arena services for the downtown Los Angeles facility.

For NHL games, Arena uses Evolv Express at all entrances, as well as at the service level, where arena president Lee Zeidman said he walks through the screening equipment every day to enter the building.

“We’re big fans of the technology,” Zeidman said.

This past regular season, for NBA games with the Clippers and Lakers, Arena, without the league’s full approval, switched to traditional mags for public entrances.

Part of the reason for the NBA’s slow adoption over frictionless screening stems from the technology’s inability at times to identify the size of a knife blade, which has led to some legal issues, sources said.

“There’s still a lot of hesitancy on the NBA security side,” Snyder said. “They’ve been great to work with and I understand their concerns, but there’s been some discrepancy for how each of us has been operating. One thing that Lee likes to say is, we have steak knives in our restaurant, and anything could happen there. You’re also subject to human error. You’re only as good as the people operating the equipment. The systems are much more advanced, but you have to have good procedures and training.”

In Florida, Kia Center uses Opengate for fan zones outside the arena tied to Orlando Magic games.

Officials have tested frictionless screening at the arena, but are not moving further with the technology at this point because NBA standards require the sensitivity level to be dialed so high to flag weapons that they feel their patrons would still have to empty their pockets before entering the building. As a result, it would slow down the process and is no different from using traditional magnetometers, said Allen Johnson, chief venues officer of the city-owned building.

“We found that it wouldn’t save any time,” Johnson said. “The whole purpose behind frictionless is to help get your patrons in the arena quicker, but if it’s not something you’re able to do, the expense is cost prohibitive.”

The NBA memo states that Opengate system should be set at a minimum of +30, far beyond the level of +5 that’s most effective for frictionless screening, security experts said.

By comparison, the NHL’s requirements for the technology were also at a standard that’s impossible to meet, but a lot of arenas moved forward with using it, they said.

American Airlines Center spent about $120,000 to purchase six Opengate units, said officials with Center Operating Co., the arena’s management firm. They evaluated all three systems approved by the NBA and said Opengate best suited their application. They filed a comprehensive report to the league, detailing which system they were using, testing and training procedures, the operational game plan and the data related to its effectiveness.

The arena still uses traditional mags for patrons for handbags carried into the building, which is part of the NBA’s requirements for using the technology, they said.

In LA, where the NHL fully approved frictionless screening for Kings games at Arena prior to the 2023-24 season, Snyder said the plan is to expand the system to all entrances for next NBA season. She said the arena doesn’t have to wait for the NBA to give blanket approval after testing the technology and providing thorough documentation to the league.

“Regardless of where the NBA lands for approving it for the entire league, we’re going to go ahead and do it,” she said. “We feel confident after Ball Arena and Capital One Center were successful in doing it. It’s the right thing to do and makes for such a better guest experience. For Laker games, with the VIP lines, it takes no more than three to five minutes. The screening process works so fast, that you have to make sure your ticket scanners are working properly to avoid lines after they go through Evolv. It’s created a different issue to consider.”

Bottom line, the safety and security of all patrons is the first priority for arena managers, Johnson said and, in Orlando, the city will continue to evaluate the technology to determine how it best fits at Kia Center.

At Camping World Stadium, situated 1.5 miles west of Kia Center, city officials use Opengate for two college bowl games and the NFL Pro Bowl, plus international soccer matches, including this summer’s USA-Brazil contest and Manchester City-Barcelona. Last year, the technology was applied for the Real Madrid-Juventus match. It’s been effective for screening larger crowds of up to 60,000 attending those events, Johnson said.

“We take it seriously, but there’s a way to do that in a more fan friendly manner (at Kia Center) and we’re going to explore those options,” he said. “At some point, there will be the ability to use these systems on a regular basis at arenas. For us, it’s a little bit of wait and see how it progresses.”