The Alabama football coach, has long been peeved that the student section at Bryant-Denny Stadium empties early. So this season, the university is rewarding students who attend games — and stay until the fourth quarter — with an alluring prize: improved access to tickets to the SEC championship game and to the College Football Playoff semifinals and championship game, which Alabama is trying to reach for the fifth consecutive season.
But to do this, Alabama is taking an extraordinary, Orwellian step: using location-tracking technology from students’ phones to see who skips out and who stays. “It’s kind of like Big Brother,” said Allison Isidore, a graduate student in religious studies from Montclair, N.J.
It also seems inevitable in an age when tech behemoths like Facebook, Google and Amazon harvest data from phones, knowing where users walk, what they watch and how they shop. Alabama isn’t the only college tapping into student data; the University of North Carolina uses location-tracking technology to see whether its football players and other athletes are in class.
Greg Byrne, Alabama’s athletic director, said privacy concerns rarely came up when the program was being discussed with other departments and student groups. Students who download the Tide Loyalty Points app will be tracked only inside the stadium, he said, and they can close the app — or delete it — once they leave the stadium. “If anybody has a phone, unless you’re in airplane mode or have it off, the cellular companies know where you are,” he said.
But Adam Schwartz, a lawyer for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a privacy watchdog, said it was “very alarming” that a public university — an arm of the government — was tracking its students’ whereabouts.
“Why should packing the stadium in the fourth quarter be the last time the government wants to know where students are?” Schwartz said, adding that it was “inappropriate” to offer an incentive for students to give up their privacy. “A public university is a teacher, telling students what is proper in a democratic society.”
The creator of the app, FanMaker, runs apps for 40 colleges, including Clemson, Louisiana State and Southern California, which typically reward fans with gifts like T-shirts. The app it created for Alabama is the only one that tracks the locations of its students. That Alabama would want it is an example of how even a powerhouse program like the Crimson Tide is not sheltered from college football’s decline in attendance, which sank to a 22-year low last season.
The Tide Loyalty Points program works like this: Students, who typically pay about $10 for home tickets, download the app and earn 100 points for attending a home game and an additional 250 for staying until the fourth quarter. Those points augment ones they garner mostly from progress they have made toward their degrees — 100 points per credit hour. (A regular load would be 15 credits per semester, or 1,500 points.)
The students themselves had no shortage of proposed solutions.
“Sell beer; that would keep us here,” said Harrison Powell, a sophomore engineering major from Naples, Fla.
“Don’t schedule cupcakes,” said Garrett Foster, a senior management major from Birmingham, referring to Alabama’s ritually soft non-conference home schedule, which this year includes Western Carolina, Southern Mississippi and New Mexico State. (Byrne has set about beefing it up, scheduling home-and-home series with Texas, Wisconsin, Oklahoma and Notre Dame, but those don’t start until 2022.)
In the meantime, there is also time for students to solve their own problems, which is, after all, the point of going to college. An Alabama official figured it would not be long before pledges are conscripted to hold caches of phones until the fourth quarter so their fraternity brothers could leave early.
“Without a doubt,” said Wolf, the student from Philadelphia. “I haven’t seen it yet, but it’s the first game. There will be workarounds for sure.”
As for whether the app, with its privacy concerns, early bugs and potential loopholes, will do its job well enough to please Saban was not a subject he was willing to entertain as the sun began to set on Saturday. He was looking ahead to the next opponent: South Carolina.
Why It’s Hot:
Another example of a brand/institution using gamification to influence behavior, this takes it a step further – pushing towards the edge of the privacy conversation, and perhaps leading us all to consider what might be an acceptable “exchange rate” for personal information.