The fight between Madison Square Garden Entertainment and New York’s political establishment continues to escalate, with the Manhattan venue facing a potential revocation of its liquor license and the loss of a multi-million dollar annual tax break over its continued refusal to budge on its lawyer ban and controversial facial recognition software to enforce it.

The fight, which drawn on for months and involves many of New York City’s most prominent entertainment venues, has major implications for ticketing and the power that venue owners have to keep people out for any (or no) reason if they don’t want you attending events in their building. It began when the venues began banning lawyers from attending events in any of their venues if they worked for a firm that was representing clients in litigation against the venues or related companies. One such firm is representing clients accusing MSG and teams playing there of violating New York’s Arts & Cultural Affairs laws protecting consumer ticket rights.

Many firms and potentially thousands of lawyers are impacted by the ban, which has involved the use of facial recognition software to identify and lock out individuals from attending events, including one instance where an attorney who is not even working on the case at her firm involving the venues was told to leave a Rockettes performance at Radio City Music Hall in December where she was serving as a chaperone for her daughter’s Girl Scout troop.

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“Madison Square Garden and Radio City Music Hall are world-renowned venues and should treat all patrons who purchased tickets with fairness and respect,” said New York Attorney General Letitia James in a warning that the venues were potentially violating the law with their bans and use of the technology earlier this year. “Anyone with a ticket to an event should not be concerned that they may be wrongfully denied entry based on their appearance, and we’re urging MSG Entertainment to reverse this policy.”

According to multiple reports, the New York State Liquor Authority has hit MSG with four violations of its policies related to the lawyer ban, due to a requirement that retail venues that sell alcohol must be open to the public or risk losing their liquor licenses. The venue has filed a lawsuit against the liquor board in relation to those violations. Other reports have detailed how Democrats in the state assembly have threatened to end a 40-year-old property tax exemption for the venue if it continues to hold to these policies.

“Millions of businesses across the state of New York pay property taxes, and Madison Square Garden doesn’t. What’s wrong with this picture?” state Senator Brad Hoylman (D-Manhattan) said. The ending of the abatement could cost $42 million annually, but MSG continued to take a combative stance in response to the threat.

“It’s interesting that Senator Hoylman is rallying to end governmental subsidies for corporations when just last year he voted in favor of legislation that extends a $420 million government subsidy for the film industry and currently sponsors legislation to create new subsidies for the musical and theatrical production industry,” an MSG spokesperson said.

The debate over the use of facial recognition (or any other “biometric” data) is significant, as some venues are looking to turn in that direction for access control, while privacy advocates sound alarms over the potential for misuse of that data – which the MSG fight clearly illustrates. According to Slate, multiple venues are already using facial recognition software at their entry points, even if not all consumers have opted in for such data collection outside of fine print buried in the terms and conditions of tickets they’ve purchased.

The use of facial recognition technology at sports stadiums goes far beyond MSG. I’ve tracked at least 20 other venues and stadiums across the country—including college sports venues—that have used this technology on their attendees, usually to admit them through the gates, although it’s unclear just how broadly this technology can be used by venues if they are inclined. The venues are:

● Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, which announced in August 2022 that it was testing facial recognition technology for gates and concession stands.

● FirstEnergy Stadium in Cleveland, which offers “Express Access” with facial recognition technology.

● Citi Field in New York City, which has face-ID ticket kiosks at stadium gates.

● Pechanga Arena in San Diego, which installed facial recognition for entry scanning and payment verification.

● Save Mart Center at California State University, Fresno, which enables entry and payment with facial recognition tech.

● Lower.com Field in Columbus, Ohio, which has express entry with face-ID ticketing.

● FedEx Field in Landover, Maryland, which uses facial recognition for entry.

● Caesars Superdome in New Orleans, which uses facial recognition tech for entry into training facilities.

● Toyota Arena in Ontario, California, which announced in 2022 that it was installing facial recognition for ticketing and concessions.

● Sun Devil Stadium at Arizona State University in Tempe, which was being used as a “living lab” to employ facial recognition technology that will analyze how fans feel “based on their facial expressions.” (Disclosure: ASU is a partner with Slate and New America in Future Tense.)

● Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Florida, which uses facial recognition for ticketing.

● BMO Stadium in Los Angeles, which began using facial recognition technology for entry into training facilities but wants to “move everything to face.”

● The Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California, which used facial recognition on 30,000 attendees without their knowledge in 2020.

● And many stadiums use TendedBar machines, which scan your face in order to serve you alcohol.

There are almost certainly many more, according to experts who say the lack of transparency about the use of technology has obscured its spread. It represents an extension of the surveillance network in private spaces that helps to amplify the power of law enforcement.

While in many instances, privacy advocates have pushed back successfully against the use of biometric data for events, it may take more comprehensive legislation to defend consumer privacy and avoid situations like at MSG, where the venue owner is weaponizing the technology against those they deem unfit to enter their building, even if they’ve paid for a ticket.

Last Updated on March 17, 2023 by Dave Clark