Tropicana Field is going cashless

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Daniel Kaplan of SportsBusiness Journal reports that Tropicana Field will be the first major league ballpark to stop accepting cash. Yes, for real. Everything — beer, hot dogs, nachos, foam fingers and the rest — must be either (a) purchased with a credit card; or (b) with a Rays gift card which one can obtain for cash.

This is gonna cause a lot more controversy than you might think.

It’s still a small handful of places, but a growing number of businesses, often coffee shops or upmarket fast casual restaurants, have adopted cashless policies, refusing to accept paper currency and requiring customers to pay with debit or credit cards. The rationale: thanks to chip and tap and smartphone technology it’s become quicker and easier to to simply take cards or electronic payment, reducing customer wait time and the hassle of making change, counting cash drawers down at the end of the day, etc.

The polices have met with backlash, however, because they freeze out people who don’t have access to bank accounts and/or credit or debit cards, such as low-income and people of color, who are far more typically unbanked of underbanked than others. You can read up on what that means here, but the upshot is that, according to the FDIC, 6.5 percent of households in the United States do not have any affiliation with a bank whatsoever. Some 18.7 percent of U.S. households — around 25 million people — have a checking or savings account but also obtain financial products and services outside of the banking system. Costs and fees and minimum balance requirements and poor credit and all manner of other things that disproportionately impact the poor lead to this. In response, a few cities have passed laws prohibiting cashless businesses.

To be fair, there is a difference between a ballpark going cashless and, say, a convenience store doing it. You have to pay a considerable amount to enter a ballpark to begin with, so the discriminatory line is drawn before one gets to the beer stand. In this it’s not unlike airlines who only accept cards for people who want to purchase snacks or drinks on a plane. Can it work a hardship on people? Sure, but it’s not as big a hardship as someone selling essentials to the general public on a credit card-only basis.

It’s still bad practically, however, in that there’s a lot of room to gouge people here. If you want to use cash and not a card, and you give the Rays $20 in exchange for a RaysBux (or whatever) gift card, and you spend only $16, do they give you your $4 back as you go out the door, or are you stuck with $4 in RaysBux? Anyone who has used gift or payment cards in various places knows how that works: you end up paying a buck or two more for stuff due to basically unusable small balances. Even if there is some way to get your change back, it’s a hassle and it’s inefficient, and this whole thing is supposed to eliminate hassle and inefficiency, yes? What it will do in reality is give the Rays a lot of free money thanks to rounding error and people simply not using full gift card balances.

It’s also worth noting that this will hit concession employees who get tips rather hard. Rather than keeping the change on a sale, the beer guy will likely be tipped out of a pool if, in fact, people think to tip on their card transactions at all. Either way, pool tipping serves to cost servers money, and can lead to the owner keeping a cut.

Finally, it’s simply a poor signal to be sending by the Rays. Maybe it’s not as big a factor in all of this as super expensive tickets and an increasing focus on luxury and club sections in ballparks, but going cashless further makes going to the ballgame a luxury good as opposed to an entertainment for the everyman, and that’s rather sad in my view, even if it’s only a matter of symbolism. It’s antithetical to the way baseball has long portrayed itself in the national consciousness and makes it something it never was to most of us growing up.

Rethink this, Rays. Or, short of that, make the Rays re-think this, City of St. Petersburg.