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When fans return, the challenge will be keeping them moving and spaced out

Herds of crowds at stadium entrances, concourses and concession stands will be a thing of the past as venues consider a host of measures to restrict and track movement in sports venues when fans can return in the COVID era. Staggered arrival times, socially distanced seating arrangements and seating areas cordoned off by plexiglass dividers are among the approaches under consideration. So are increased staff to make sure fans wear masks and adhere to social-distancing protocols, simplifying concession selections and limiting where fans can roam to certain areas of a venue closest to their seats. It all comes down to striking a balance between safety and still providing fans with an enjoyable experience.

“The one that we’ve been asking our clients to really focus on is really movement of people, which is one of the most difficult things to control,” said Gerardo Prado, HNTB’s sports practice leader. “When I’m talking about the movement of people, it’s the movement of people on the concourse in plazas, both for outdoor venues and indoor venues.” What that means for fans is until there’s a vaccine or local and state health officials have deemed the spread of the coronavirus not to be a significant public health concern, the days of meandering throughout a stadium or arena’s concourses are over. HNTB and other architectural firms are telling their clients to limit fans to their ticketed section or “neighborhood” quadrant of the venues, if there are sufficient amenities for concessions and restrooms. “Instead of allowing fans to have what we call all-venue circulation, a free-for-all, we have to start to implement some more control measures, and maybe one strategy is to look at neighborhood circulation and restricting fan flow,” Prado said. That task becomes more challenging during halftime, when fans are used to leaving their seats to go to the concourse to use the restroom or buy concessions. Prado said that tradition creates multiple “collisions” between fans at a time when keeping distance is key to preventing the spread of the virus. “You could create 40 to 50 collisions on the concourse” he said. “Multiply that tenfold, a hundred times, and you can kind of see how it becomes very challenging.” HNTB recommends clients that provide in-seat service to offer limited menus, and to provide limited selections at concession stands as well, to make ordering go faster and to limit human interactions. Some of the firm’s clients are considering limiting alcohol sales, to minimize trips to the restroom and lessen the likelihood of disruptive fans violating social distancing protocols. Some have even considered allowing fans to bring their own food, Prado said. So just how much capacity could a venue have in order to realistically maintain proper social distancing in the concourses and seating bowl?

HOK architect Nate Appleman said that if 6 feet of social distancing is going to be the standard, on average a venue is going to have to be at 15% to 20% of capacity. HNTB studied three college football stadiums, three college arenas, four of the newest MLS stadiums, four of the newest NBA arenas and four of the newest NFL stadiums, finding at 50% capacity those venues could provide fans a mean of 4.1 square feet of social distancing in concourse areas. “The newer NBA arenas, they’re way up there — 7.5, 7.8 square feet. NFL, they’re about 4.5, all the way up to 5, and collegiate and MLS is down low,” Prado said. For the average MLS stadium with 15,000 seats, there’s an average of 4 square feet of concourse space for each of those seats.

“So they’ll have 60,000 square feet of concourse to spread people around,” Prado said. “Well, if it takes 36 square feet per person to spread people around and you divide that, I can fit 1,666 people on that concourse without moving, and maintain social distancing, which equates to basically 11% of the capacity for that venue.”
However, venues are not expected to be redesigned significantly to adjust to the new reality, Appleman added, and will need to find a way to adjust capacity upward while still providing a comfortable level of social distancing. The standard could instead be a range of 3 to 6 feet of social distancing. “The operating protocols that we’re under now from the financial standpoint are going to live on and venues will not be redesigned to be reduced by 20% or by 80%,” Appleman said. “That’s not going to happen and so there’s going to have to be measures taken, that are smart measures, to make fans feel comfortable and excited about being in the venue.” Venues will likely undergo temporary modifications to comply with social-distancing guidelines, but Appleman said at this point the firm is not recommending any significant capital expenditures. Prado said it’s not financially feasible for venues to greatly reduce capacity and still cover the additional operating costs that will come from added safety measures. One client, for example, recently told him that he expected to increase his budget for game-day operations by about 40%. “So if they have to increase their budget 40% just for sanitizers, masks for everybody, and you can only get 20% of the fans in the seats, or even 30% — if you can get that — it’s just not penciling out financially,” Prado added.

Temporarily, venues could take out seats in aisles and create more circulation space in concourses and pods for fan groups, said Matt Rossetti, president of architecture firm Rossetti. Some venues also could opt to spend more to make possible permanent changes, such as adding more entryways so that fans arriving and exiting can be spread out more. He said such additions could provide financial benefits to offset the cost. “There’s always a corporate partner and
sponsorship opportunity that can be assigned to those.” Venues could also take a phased-in re-entry approach. That’s what architecture firm Moody Nolan is recommending to Ohio State for the upcoming football season. “[Athletic Director] Gene Smith has asked us to work with Ohio State ticketing to actually do real studies and help him predict what a 50% stadium capacity would look like,” said Troy Sherrard, a partner at Moody Nolan. Moody Nolan’s model suggests a reduced capacity of 50% or lower and then to increase capacity every two games, depending on how Columbus is faring against the coronavirus. Designers are showing their clients multiple mockups with seating scenarios that range from seats to allow for social distancing from 3 to 6 feet and still provide multiple options for people who may need only a pair or as many as four or more seats together. Some venues, such as the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center and the Cleveland Cavaliers’ Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse, plan to create “safe suites” in the stands by using plexiglass to further separate available seats. As expected, technology could play a big part in how crowd flow is managed on event days. When it comes to entry, getting fans to clear administrative protocols ahead of an event could better improve crowd flow, said Richard Pinnick, senior vice president of global business development at digital ticketing company Fortress. “We’re running a number of tournaments, both in the U.S. and in the U.K., and this concept of pre-checks has come up,” Pinnick said. “So that means that before you even come to the venue as a fan or actually as a member of staff, on the day of the event you will be sent an email or some sort of digital questionnaire, which will basically ask you a list of questions about your health.” Confirmation of completing the survey will transfer to the fan’s digital ticket and be noted when it’s scanned at the gate. Among the crowd-flow management protocols Fortress is recommending to its clients is a colorcoded traffic light system of boxes or lanes in various floor areas to hold fans in a safe space and then release them through security and ticket scanning one group at a time. The system would include Resolution Zones, where visitors with ticketing issues could be directed, and Clean Zones, where visitors who consider themselves vulnerable because of their age or health can access the venue.

Rossetti said facial-recognition software and touchless biometric tools could be used to create an almost frictionless venue from the parking lot to the
seat. “We looked at different ways of having touchless biometrics read, including the facial recognition, so that it not only allowed the proper timing of entry, it also could monitor the crowd movement on the concourses, and allow touchless and simplified transactions for food and beverage and merchandise, along with access throughout the building,” Rossetti added. When it comes to purchasing merchandise, Rossetti envisions fans being able to try on merchandise virtually by taking a picture of themselves, then uploading it through the fan or venue application to see how they would look in a hat or team jersey. When fans complete their purchase, they would go to a locker to pick up the merchandise. WaitTime founder and CEO Zack Klima said that despite the many steps taken, there will still be lines at venues. That’s where his company comes in. WaitTime uses cameras and artificial intelligence to monitor crowd flow, in real time. Clients include the Miami Heat, U.S. Open Tennis Chamionships and Sydney Cricket Ground, and the company is nearing a deal with an NFL team, Klima said. WaitTime can direct fans to use their concourse areas at different times during the game to pick up merchandise and food and beverages, or to find shorter lines at restrooms and concession stands, Klima said.

For a venue installation, WaitTime charges $1,000 per camera, then the venue pays $100 per month for each camera for licensing and support. At AmericanAirlines Arena, the Miami Heat bought 56 cameras. WaitTime requires a 30-camera minimum. Ultimately, whether it’s a high-tech approach or simple moves with staffing, teams and venues will have to make the right decisions to provide safety while ensuring fans will want to spend the time, money and effort to attend a live game. “So in everything that is going to emerge over the next six months to a year, it will all be about finding that correct balance between what makes sense from an operational perspective, but what also makes sense from a safety perspective, and what also makes sense from a crowd enjoyment of coming to the venue,” Pinnick said. “If you get that balance wrong, then people won’t want to come at the end of the day.”