Several marketers are racing to get an edge in creating "stored value" cards that function like debit cards at events, replacing cash in transactions for everything from food to merchandise to parking.
Swiped through card readers that will deduct the amount of the purchase with each transaction, the cards will ideally sport a sponsor's logo, but so far not all do.
MasterCard International is among major marketers currently in talks with the PGA Tour about using its stored-value technology cards at an undisclosed number of tournaments next year, as a channel for educating consumers about new debit card and stored-value alternatives.
Meanwhile, tiny West Sports Marketing of Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., which already has successfully executed several stored-value programs at major events, aims to ink deals with several major sponsors for 1998 events including auto races and tennis tournaments.
"The only thing holding us back is the learning curve for sponsors and event managers -- consumers catch on fast," said Art West, West Sports Marketing's president.
Stored-value cards dramatically cut the mistakes and fraud of cash handling, while creating precise records of food, merchandise and ticket sales that enhance event planning and management.
Pre-event sales of stored-value cards also can sharpen event forecasting, while on-site card sweepstakes can be used to capture customer data for sponsors and for general marketing purposes.
'OPENS DOOR FOR COOL THINGS'
"It's a real improvement over the old systems, and it opens the door for a lot of very cool things we can do in the future," said Gary Thrower, director of the Greater Greensboro Chrysler Classic, a PGA Tour event held last April in North Carolina.
Four different versions of stored-value cards for the Greens-boro event featured Chrysler car models. West Sports Marketing executed the program.
The Greensboro tournament plans to repeat the program next year; a sponsorship deal has not been finalized.
MasterCard also has been very active recently in testing marketing capabilities of stored-value cards.
At the MasterCard Colonial golf tournament in Fort Worth, Texas, last May, a card embedded with a chip was given away to spectators who were encouraged to use the card to enter a sweepstakes by swiping it through card readers at booths.
MasterCard did a similar sweepstakes program for hockey lovers at the NHL FanFest in San Jose, Calif., last January, and at other events has allowed limited merchandise sales through its stored-value cards.
'TEST BED' FOR MC
"Consumers at sports -- and especially golf -- events tend to be early adopters of new technology, providing an excellent test bed for chip cards," said Bill Daily, MasterCard VP-sponsorships.
Mr. Daily said he's in talks with the PGA Tour but would not disclose specific events MasterCard is eyeing for its upcoming stored-value card programs.
MasterCard sees events as the testing ground for a variety of debit and stored-value card applications it plans to develop for various of venues.
"Ultimately, we want to take debit and stored-value cards into the general marketplace," Mr. Daily said, "but events are a good starting point."
Mr. West's company completed another stored-value card program at last month's Las Vegas Invitational golf tournament, without a card sponsor.
"The timing is still tricky in this arena, because sponsors need a lot of time to plan and technology is moving very fast," he said.
STADIUMS TEST CARDS
Separately, a few stadiums around the U.S. are testing stored-value cards created by banks, which also are in the race for dominance in debit and stored-value tools.
In 1994, Charlotte, N.C.-based First Union created the SpotCard for all purchases inside All-Tell Jacksonville Stadium, where the National Football League's Jaguars play. Sold inside the stadium and reloadable up to $100, the cards have saved the facility thousands in cash-handling costs.
This year, First Union added a new series of 10 limited-edition signature series SpotCards featuring Jaguars players; the non-reloadable cards come in increments of $20 each and can be collected.
"We're very excited about the potential for these cards in this stadium and other venues, possibly including sponsors in the future," said Lynn Layton,