Stadiums Have Gotten Downright Dystopian

Fans are getting a glimpse of the future of surveillance.

An illustrated collage of baseballs, tennis balls, basketballs, and footballs, each positioned within a camera viewfinder.
Tyler Comrie / The Atlantic

Like so many cities before it, Phoenix went all out to host the Super Bowl earlier this month. Expecting about 1 million fans to come to town for the biggest American sporting event of the year, the city rolled out a fleet of self-driving electric vehicles to ferry visitors from the airport. Robots sifted through the trash to pull out anything that could be composted. A 9,500-square-foot mural commemorating the event now graces a theater downtown, the largest official mural in Super Bowl history.

There were less visible developments, too. In preparation for the game, the local authorities upgraded a network of cameras around the city’s downtown—and have kept them running after the spectators have left. A spokesperson for the Phoenix Police Department would not confirm the exact type of the cameras installed, but ABC15 footage shows that they are a model manufactured by Axis Communications with enough zooming capability to produce a close-up portrait of any passerby from an extended distance, even when it’s completely dark out. The Phoenix police have said that the surveillance upgrades don’t involve facial-recognition technology, but Axis’s website specifies that the cameras are embedded with an “AI-based object detection and classification” system. Among other tricks, the cameras can tell if someone is loitering in an area for too long.

Advanced surveillance tactics are in use at other events venues. Late last year, Madison Square Garden in New York City found itself in the news for denying people access to games by means of a secretive facial-recognition system. One 28-year-old lawyer was reportedly approached by a stadium official who identified him by name and denied him entry simply because he is an employee of a law firm that represents clients who are suing the venue. But sports matches have long played host to surveillance measures that are, at times, implausibly intrusive or use certain technology that has not yet made its way into the mainstream of everyday life.

Sporting events, like any major gathering, have no choice but to monitor fans in the name of safety. A big stadium can fit 100,000 people, and global events such as the World Cup and the Olympic Games draw far more visitors—they are clear targets. Such spaces “should be of high importance from a security point of view,” says Daniel Eborall, a global director at the AI security start-up Irex who previously managed security at Texas A&M’s 100,000-plus-person Kyle Field. With such big crowds, violent outbreaks and acts of terror could have nightmarish consequences. In 2015, an attacker with a suicide belt was stopped by security officials before he could get inside Paris’s Stade de France, where close to 80,000 people were watching a soccer game.

And yet sports also have a way of bringing out particularly Orwellian tendencies in their organizers. For billionaire team owners, cities that have bet the house on stadiums, and less-than-democratic host governments, anything that poses a threat to business or reputation, even protesting or panhandling, can count as a matter of security. In some instances, organizers stretch surveillance far beyond the bounds of public safety to serve their own interests. During the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, for example, two women were detained for wearing orange clothes. Authorities suspected that they were engaged in a guerilla marketing campaign to promote a Dutch beer brand that was not an official FIFA sponsor.

Many organizers have broad power to act on these impulses, especially when an event is on private property. A big enough sports event on public property, meanwhile, can trigger special government authorizations. In France, the government plans to change national law so that it can use cameras that detect suspicious behavior at the 2024 Paris Olympics. The amount of money available for such gear is near-unlimited, especially in the post-9/11 era, because security budgets have mushroomed in the name of preventing mass terror. Authorities earmarked about $180 million for the 2000 Sydney Olympics. It is now routine for Olympic host cities to spend 10 times that amont.

With these high stakes, the traditional instruments of venue security—metal detectors, guards, sniffer dogs—are sometimes supplemented with technologies that have yet to be used elsewhere. Back in 2008, for example, when uncrewed surveillance aircraft were still almost exclusively the domain of militaries, Swiss police considered using air-force drones to circle over the European Football Championship. Facial recognition to identify criminals was tested even earlier, at Super Bowl XXXV in 2001, a time when the technology was barely known to exist outside of movies. And while spy balloons are now in the news, the Rio de Janeiro police launched a small fleet of them during the 2016 Olympics.

Such early and exuberant displays of surveillant prowess can have a contagion effect. When one club or government enacts “extraordinary security measures,” Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst at the ACLU, told me, “you’ll have security people at other venues saying, ‘Well, we’re very serious too. We need this.’” Now artificial intelligence is ushering in the next sports-surveillance arms race. ​​According to a 2021 study by the National Center for Spectator Sports Safety and Security, sports-venue security directors were most likely to cite facial recognition as the technology they would acquire to beef up their venue security if funding allowed. Stadiums are particularly good for honing facial-recognition systems, researchers have noted, because groups of spectators are all facing in the same direction. “If the technology works in the sample-size test environment” of a stadium, Eborall told me, “then it can also be rolled out within the city environment and further public spaces.”

In some cases, this sort of intrusive technology does seem to improve the experience of being a fan. A survey of fans who entered the New York Mets’ Citi Field Stadium by way of a new facial-recognition access system reported that 80 percent of respondents found it to be a “more convenient and engaging way” to get into the stands. Security is one of the main factors pushing sports venues towards surveillance measures such as AI and facial recognition, Francisco Klauser, an expert on urban surveillance at the University of Neuchâtel, in Switzerland, told me, “but commercialization is also another one.” For example, the Minnesota Vikings have been testing a giant wide-area camera to detect demographic information about fans such as gender and age, while also estimating whether they’re paying attention to the game and the advertising.

Sports are a harbinger of a future of surveillance that is more intrusive, multitudinous, and expansive. But they aren’t just showing us the future. Sometimes, they’re directly bringing it about. In the lead-up to the 2010 World Cup, South Africa’s police minister openly proclaimed that its investments in surveillance technology were “not only meant for the event but will continue to assist the police in their crime-fighting initiatives long after the Soccer World Cup is over.” An AI-based camera on a street corner that might one day help identify a violent fan could eventually out a protester exercising a fundamental right.

This bond between sports and surveillance seems unlikely to break. Following the uproar over Madison Square Garden’s facial-recognition policies, the state supreme court in Manhattan granted an injunction that forbids the venue from turning away people with tickets from concerts and shows (although it can refuse to sell tickets, or revoke them). But the ruling makes an explicit exception: If it’s game night, the Garden can kick out whomever it wants.