We live in an era of data collection and data breaches, so it’s only natural that both the traditional media and social media jumped to fear-based assumptions when news broke that the University of Alabama had launched an app designed to collect information from student consumers at Crimson Tide football games. In fact, the New York Times ran an article critical of the app on September 12 that included in its headline the term “Orwellabama.”
The New York Times article included quotes from a privacy watchdog attorney named Adam Schwartz who identified Alabama’s new tech as “very alarming” because students were asked to “give up their privacy.” Schwartz told the Times that “a public university is a teacher, telling students what is proper in a democratic society.”
Yet teachers at public universities regularly take student attendance, and more have started to utilize geolocation checking attendance applications (e.g. Top Hat or Arkaive) that remove the need for pencils, paper and roll calls. Professors can now ask students to use their phones to check in before every class, and the app does all the work.
Reached for comment, Alabama athletic director Greg Byrne drew comparisons between what the school is doing with its sports fan app and the attendance-checking apps used in classrooms. He also noted that Alabama is not alone in the use of attendance-checking apps for tracking student consumption of intercollegiate athletics. Actually, Byrne and Rand Harris, Alabama’s assistant athletics director, who in charge of information technology, wanted to stress that their application affords students more in the way of privacy protection than is provided by many of the most popular attendance-checking apps.
Specifically, Harris stated that Alabama worked closely with FanMaker in creating an application that uses Bluetooth technology instead of GPS. According to Harris, Alabama’s Bluetooth-based app works only inside the stadium and does not continue to collect information from students once they leave the facility. Harris added that students can log out of the app or even uninstall it if they so choose and wait until the home game to add it again, or not. This brings up another important feature pertinent to Alabama’s attendance tracking process: It’s completely voluntary.
Students without cellphones or those who do not want to make use of the application can still participate in the reward system by tapping their student identification cards on their way out of the stadium. Furthermore, there is no requirement for students to participate in the system because there are no penalties built into what Alabama is administering. The attendance checking is done to reward students for their attendance and for staying until the end of the game. The program is not a condition to the receipt or use of student tickets for Alabama sporting events. Students who participate will earn 100 Tide Loyalty Points for attending the game and an additional 250 points if they stay until the fourth quarter.
By accumulating points through the system, students at Alabama earn a better shot at obtaining tickets to College Football Playoff semifinal games, and possibly even the championship game. Students will not need to sacrifice their health and safety to earn those points because Alabama has adjusted the app by crediting students for the full 350 just for showing up rather than staying late when temperatures reach 90 degrees.
The launch of the app for Alabama’s first home football game came with some glitches, with students not being able to obtain credit through the application. Harris said that the athletic department and FanMaker have been working to iron out those issues and credit students for their attendance, but he noted that some problems should be expected whenever new technology is rolled out for the first time.
Additionally, Alabama claims that the consumer-based data collected through this app is very limited in scope. Byrne stressed that he and his staff worked with FanMaker to ensure that they would obtain identifying information only in the form of the student’s email address and the fact that the student user checked in while inside the stadium. Byrne stated that Alabama’s contractual arrangement with FanMaker includes a non-disclosure condition that any information obtained via the app would not be used for any purpose other than checking student attendance for use in the rewards program.
When asked to comment on Alabama’s attendance tracker, David Hsu, an intellectual property attorney with more than 10 years of experience as a software developer, verified that a Bluetooth-based application probably collects less information from students than a GPS-based system: “Alabama’s decision not to use a GPS-based system does provide more protection and reduces concerns that students are being tracked outside of the stadium.” He also recognized that the students likely do not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in information gathered through the app because others could attest to the fact that the students attended games, which are public events. Participating students could even be caught on camera during the nationwide telecast of Alabama football games. For Hsu, the fact that Alabama is using an opt-in system alleviates privacy concerns because students can obtain the same benefits without using the application. Hsu described the application as “a convenience feature that imposes no punishment for not being tracked.”
Without pointing fingers, not all programs have gone to the same effort as Alabama in terms of working with an app creator to develop a less-intrusive online approach to checking attendance. Thus, it makes sense that Alabama’s athletic department perceives that it has not been treated fairly by both social and mainstream media.
Still, the collection of any student information by an athletic department that represents a state university might be grounds for concern in and of itself. This raises the question: Why are schools like Alabama tracking student attendance? And in the case of Alabama, why does it care so much that students stay until the fourth quarter?
Byrne spoke to those questions with his recognition that the market for student consumers has changed. Student attendance at college football games is down just about everywhere, and that’s true even at Alabama, which reported a 22-year low in attendance despite the program’s status as a fixture in the playoff since its inception. Athletic directors care about attendance because the student section is filled with the next wave of alumni consumers. It’s natural to want to build within that future alumni base a lifelong attachment to the program that fuels consumption in good seasons and in bad. Byrne also believes that having the students stay until the end of the game is important because their fandom is “part of what makes college football special.” In other words, the student section adds to the experience for all in attendance, including potential high school recruits for the football team. Perhaps the recruiting benefits of having students in the stadium is why Nick Saban, Alabama’s head football coach, has made a point to address student attendance during some of his press conferences. Even the head coach at Alabama takes student attendance seriously.
The bigger problem that Byrne and other athletic directors around the country face is in persuading students who likely did not grow up attending games not only to do so but to stick around until the final whistle. The influence of society on sport consumption should not be overlooked, and unfortunately, many families were priced out of college football many years ago. Ticket prices have skyrocketed to meet market demand and the donation requirements needed to secure the option to purchase tickets at many major programs are set at costs that not all can afford.
As a result, fewer students on campus now grew up going to games in rain or shine and under the social norm that they were not to leave until the Alma Mater is sung. Instead, many current students developed their sport consumption habits by watching games on high-definition televisions in settings far more comfortable than the confines of a crowded stadium in the blistering heat of September in Tuscaloosa.
Alabama’s reward system may or may not work in changing the market for student interest in the school’s football products. The climb is uphill in terms of socializing students to change their consumption habits so that they attend games no matter the opponent and stop leaving games early.
What Alabama is doing through its reward system that makes use of an attendance-tracking application may seem to some as misguided or unnecessary. Still, unless Alabama is lying about its application and the data that it collects through it, there exists little reason for concern that the athletic program that made Brother Oliver relevant within college football has turned into Big Brother.