It's All in the Cards

Photo: Rod Searcey

There must be a better way. That was the thought going through Dan Levy's mind as he and 1,600 other student fans of the men's basketball team camped outside Maples Pavilion in October 1998. The 1,200 season tickets allotted to students wouldn't go on sale for another two weeks, but pitching a tent and waiting in line was the only way to get a shot at a season pass. Levy, '00, eventually got one. But four months later, he found himself waiting again. This time he stood for an hour in the rain, waiting to see Stanford play Connecticut -- while two ushers hand-punched every ticket. "It just seemed like an unfun and inefficient system," Levy says.

This is where the story took a very Stanford turn. Levy, an industrial engineering major, saw -- what else? -- the seed of a start-up company. Along with computer science major Matt Koidin, '00, and Jon Bruck, '99 -- his classmates in a high-tech entrepreneurship class -- Levy started toying with the idea of replacing paper tickets with electronic swipe cards. They recruited Jared Kopf, '99 (who, along with Bruck, had created his own major in interactive design), to help build the system. In May 1999, over dinner at Palo Alto's Gordon Biersch Restaurant, a young entrepreneur friend encouraged them to try to sell their plan. "An idea is only an idea, and an opportunity is just an opportunity," he told them. "And until you take advantage of this opportunity, you only have words."

Levy and Koidin backed out of summer internships (with Merrill Lynch and Microsoft, respectively) and hit up friends and family for just under $250,000 in preliminary funding. In June, Koidin and Bruck pitched the idea to Stanford's athletic department. Administrators balked at first, but eventually agreed to give the fledgling company -- dubbed Justarrive -- six weeks to build the system. The young men returned in August with a working prototype, and athletics officials signed on. Neither the founders nor administrators will disclose their financial arrangement, except to say that Justarrive paid to install the prototype and earns money based on how well the new system performs.

The results, so far, look pretty good: during the 1999-2000 season, no students camped out overnight or misplaced paper tickets. Plus, attendance went up. "It's worked phenomenally," says Earl Koberlein, an assistant athletic director. "It's been perfect."

Here's how Justarrive operates: in the fall, students who want season basketball tickets go to a website. The first 2,000 students who log on can register by paying a $10 fee and entering their credit card information. (The athletic department will charge them only for games they actually attend.) Two weeks later, students pick up their electronic swipe cards. An hour before each game, the gates open and the first 1,200 students in line enter Maples by running their swipe cards through a reader. The system charges their credit cards for the game -- and it also notes their attendance.

The most ingenious aspect of Justarrive may be its incentive system. When students turn out for lower-profile matches against teams like Cal State-Bakersfield and Marathon Oil, they earn 10 "fan-addict" points. The games predicted to be the most popular (last season: UCLA, University of Arizona and Cal) are designated "priority" games. A student doesn't get any credit for going to these. Before each priority game, the students who have accrued the most points receive e-mails guaranteeing entrance. This means that less ardent fans are admitted on a first-come, first-served basis, while die-hard enthusiasts enter via a separate, faster line. They also get extra entries in the lottery for student tickets to NCAA tournament games.

For administrators, boosting attendance at less popular games is a key benefit of the Justarrive system. "It can be embarrassing to have such a great team and only have 50 or 60 percent of the student ticket holders show up," says John Hopkins, marketing coordinator for men's basketball. "We want to support the team for every game."

Still, Hopkins concedes, there are kinks to work out. Some card-carrying students were turned away from last season's game against Arizona State -- and they weren't happy. But with 2,000 cardholders eligible for 1,200 seats, being turned away from a game will always be a possibility.

And there are some basketball fanatics -- like Brent Duke, '00, and Eric Liaw, '00 -- who have experienced few changes under the new system. To ensure prime seats in the front row of the unreserved student section, Duke and Liaw still show up six or seven hours before the doors open. But others, like Joe Kroeger, a third-year law student, see the swipe cards as a big improvement and think other schools will be interested. Students at places like hoops-crazy Duke, says Kroeger, "would be pretty happy with just a half-hour wait to see a top-ranked team."

Now that they've launched their system, the young alums are working out of shared office space in San Francisco, trying to round up venture capital funding. Justarrive will likely be a permanent fixture at Stanford men's basketball games next year, and may be expanded to cover football and women's basketball. The founders are also talking to officials at Cal, the University of Washington and Georgia Tech about introducing swipe cards at those schools. The future of ticketing, they hope, has just arrived.