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Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Tickets were once mementos — physical items soaked in memories and nostalgia, tucked away in attics and scrapbooks. They are now barcodes on our phones.

By the numbers: 98% of NFL fans used mobile tickets during preseason games this summer, according to the league. That's up from 67% in 2019.

  • 67% of transactions on ticket marketplace SeatGeek in 2021 have been made on mobile, per the company. That's up from 7% in 2012.
  • Of note: SeatGeek's numbers represent the percentage of purchases made, not the percentage of people who used their phones to scan into events, which is likely much higher.

The state of play: 85% of Americans own a smartphone, up from 35% in 2011, so this shift was inevitable. The pandemic only sped up the process, with most leagues going mobile-only to limit physical contact.

The big picture: The benefits of digital tickets for fans range from convenience (no printer required, easy to share with friends) to security (more fraud protection). For leagues, it comes down to one thing: data.

  • "Rather than knowing the one person out of four who bought the tickets, they now know everyone who uses the tickets," Sports Business Journal's Ben Fischer tells me.
  • Knowing who is in a seat, and being able to communicate with them before, during and after the game is hugely valuable. It could also lead to more in-game transactions (i.e. ordering food with your ticket).
  • Thanks in part to ticket data, the NFL now has 120 million names in its centralized customer database, Fischer reports (subscription).

Between the lines: Amid this mobile migration, procuring a physical ticket can be challenging. That's a threat to the world of collectible tickets — but collectors have gotten creative, hoping to keep their hobby alive.

  • "People are getting tickets by pretending their phones are broken," one collector told The Athletic (subscription).
  • A used ticket from Kobe Bryant's final NBA game sold in May for over $40,000 at Goldin Auctions.

Food for thought ... Could digital tickets eventually become NFTs (non-fungible tokens)? What if, as a ticket holder, you got access to exclusive highlights from that game that you could collect or sell?

Go deeper

The red-hot Tampa Bay Rays are still struggling to fill Tropicana Field

Manuel Margot breaks his bat before a field of empty seats in the fifth inning against the Boston Red Sox on Sept. 2. Photo: Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images

The Tampa Bay Rays are dominating the AL East — on pace to win 100 games this season, powered by Wander Franco, baseball's most exciting prospect who also happens to be chasing a historic record.

Yes, but: The Rays drew four consecutive crowds of fewer than 8,000 people against the Red Sox last week.

7 hours ago - World

Biden seeks to reboot U.S. sanctions policy

Sanctions increased under Obama and dramatically under Trump. Photo: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call

The Biden administration is rethinking the U.S. approach to sanctions after four years of Donald Trump imposing and escalating them.

The big picture: Sanctions are among the most powerful tools the U.S. has to influence its adversaries’ behavior without using force. But they frequently fail to bring down regimes or moderate their behavior, and they can increase the suffering of civilians and resentment of the U.S.

7 hours ago - World

Merkel's farewell spoiled by Poland crisis at EU summit

One last awkward EU "family photo." Photo: John Thys/AFP via Getty Images

Angela Merkel took up her vaunted mantle as Europe's crisis manager for what could be the last time tonight, as she urged the EU to find compromise in its showdown with Poland.

Why it matters: The European Commission has threatened to withhold over $40 billion in pandemic recovery funds after Poland's constitutional tribunal — stacked with loyalists from the ruling right-wing populist party — rejected the principle that EU law has primacy over national law.

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