KANSAS CITY, Mo. – The smell of barbecue floats hours before kickoff in the parking lots at Arrowhead Stadium, and when the first burst of fireworks explodes overhead, thousands of Chiefs fans begin to march en masse to the entrance gates.
That’s how it’s normal on an NFL game day in Kansas City.
But nowadays very little is normal, and like so many things in life, the upcoming football season is full of uncertainty. With the coronavirus pandemic that has brought sports to a halt for months, everyone is wondering what games will be like when spectators can finally get back in – and if they even want to show up.
The changes will be big and small, temporary and long lasting.
Fans were able to scrutinize every movement through cameras and lasers. After a touchdown, no one in the next seat can be high-five. The idea of passing cash to a beer seller between innings will be a memory. Temperature displays and medical checks may be required to enter. By having virtual tickets scanned on their smartphone, fans can recognize the health risk of attending a game while giving up some of their personal privacy.
It all begs the question: will fans be able to have fun?
“I think there will be a wealth of unexpected victims, things that we all took for granted as part of the live game-day experience,” explains Nate Appleman, director of the sports, recreation and entertainment practice. for Kansas City-based architectural firm HOK. “Some things we have yet to fathom, but will become painfully clear as soon as we go back to locations and go back to the real human nature of gathering and celebrating the community.”
Some leagues return with few or no fans, including football in Germany, car races in the US and baseball in Japan. But as the sport grew, The Associated Press discovered during interviews with more than two dozen experts in stadium design and infrastructure that the only thing that could look the same is what’s happening on the playing field.
The biggest short-term change will be social distance, something that has already become a reality in everyday life. Ticket sales are limited. Entire rows and sections are blocked. Aisle seats are left open to maintain a buffer for those walking up the stairs. Fans are given access time to avoid crowds at the gates. The lines at toilets and concessions are limited. Meeting in the hallways is no longer allowed.
College football season is still about three months away, but the state of Iowa expects the capacity at Jack Trice Stadium to be halved based on “ current guidelines set by national and local officials ” – roughly the number of fans who have purchased season tickets. In Kansas, athletic director Jeff Long said the Jayhawks have about 16,000 fans planned for Memorial Stadium this fall – about a third of the official capacity.
Several NFL teams, including Miami and New Orleans, are modeling for reduced abilities this season. For fans in the stadium, it will undoubtedly look different, not to mention the millions who will be tuning in on TV.
“There’s an old saying,” Necessity is the mother of the invention. “I’d say we’re in an increased emergency right now,” said Appleman. “There are a lot of really smart people who come up with really cool initiatives that just create a new can be a way of working, and new is not always bad. “Sometimes change is good. Sometimes we have to adapt.”
Indeed, such plans bring hope and fear: hope that some fans will be able to see their favorite teams live and fear that colleges and leagues such as Major League Soccer, which rely heavily on ticket sales, will be able to make ends meet.
To fill some of those gaps – both optically and financially – many facility operators have explored opportunities with companies such as Arizona-based Bluemedia, which designs and manufactures screens that can cover large areas of seats. Such screens are already used when arenas want to limit their capacity or create more intimate settings, but Bluemedia vice president R.J. Orr said the same products can offer sponsorship and marketing opportunities.
“Of course they can sell ads,” said Orr, “but there are many ways to get creative. What if a ticket seller went to subscription holders and you can upload a photo and we can put your photo in the gallery? We try to come up with some cool ideas that may work. ”
Other companies are also customizing products to help with social distance and crowd control.
Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the new home of the Atlanta Falcons and Atlanta United, already has cashless systems for merchandise and concessions. Several professional teams are talking to motion analytics company iinside, whose SafeDistance system uses lasers to map spaces and measure people’s density. At KeyBank Center in Buffalo, New York, a company called WaitTime uses an app to tell Sabers fans how long lines are in toilets and concessions.
“We have a great opportunity to rewrite the new standard for the return of sports,” said WaitTime founder Zack Klima.
It all sounds a bit Orwellian – as if Big Brother watches a lot. And such systems dance a fine line between informative and intrusive. But they could also help curb the spread of a virus, which could make the difference between having Michigan Stadium empty on a fall Saturday or rooting 100,000 fans back on the Wolverines.
Not everything will be as open as bare halls and empty seats. Most of the changes that colleges and teams make are not noticed by those who are satisfied with the kickoff or the first throw.
Premier League club Tottenham recently opened its new stadium in London after spending millions to create over 1,600 WiFi access points and 700 Bluetooth beacons so fans can take advantage of high-density apps and other technology. Many facilities upgrade heating, cooling and ventilation systems to scrub air as it circulates through their buildings, while others play around using QR codes to monitor the health of their customers.
“We’re extrapolating these trends that already existed, and I think we’ll start in 2025, even if it’s not until 2020,” said Jason Jennings, director of strategy and digital integration for the sports and entertainment group at Mortenson, who is building the The Raiders’ new stadium in Las Vegas is rounding for $ 2.4 billion. “The technology will be deployed much faster because of the value it has for the experience of fans and public health.”
Even the way facilities are cleaned will change. It will no longer be enough to hose down chairs and clean up waste left behind by fans. Location giant ASM Global recently announced a new hygiene protocol for its 325 facilities worldwide, noting the importance of international health recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization, among others.
Few professional teams are willing to disclose their reopening strategies, whether they be potential seats or infrastructure upgrades. The rapidly changing social and political environment combined with the unpredictable nature of the virus have made planning difficult. But the Miami Dolphins and Hard Rock Stadium have recently pledged to be the first public institution to receive a STAR rating from the Global Biorisk Advisory Council, which means completing a rigorous program to help Dolphins director Tom Garfinkel “the safest environment possible”.
Of course, even that may not be enough. While much is unknown about the new coronavirus, a fact that is painfully clear is how easily it spreads. No league or team wants their matches to become a ‘super spreader’ event and everyone acknowledges that all preparations in the world cannot guarantee safety.
“In large numbers, there is no system that can effectively prevent another person from sprouting to a second person,” said Philip Tierno, clinical professor of pathology at New York University’s Grossman School of Medicine. “If they sneeze or cough or talk directly, or even breathe directly at a person, there is no system that can prevent that.”
That doesn’t stop sports facilities from spending millions of dollars during months of downtime to minimize risk. Giving fans a degree of confidence is an investment in the bottom line.
“We’re going back to stadiums and watching football, basketball, baseball, and so on, there’s no doubt about it,” said Ryan Demmer, an epidemiologist at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health. “But it takes some time to do it safely. And that takes a little innovation to do it safely in the short term.”
Sourcing & Methodology
AP Sports Writers Dave Campbell and Larry Lage contributed to this report.