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Empty seats, health checks and robots: What will the post-Covid venue experience look like?

Most sports resuming around the world have done so behind closed doors, but fans will eventually return. When they do, the venue experience will look fundamentally different from what they have come to know.

3 August 2020 Sam Carp

Usually a boxing event in Managua would be of little consequence to the global sports industry, but a fight card staged in the Nicaraguan capital in late April offered a glimpse into the imminent future.

This was not simply one of the few live sporting events going ahead in the midst of a pandemic, but perhaps the only one taking place with fans in attendance. If the idea was to offer something recognisable in unfamiliar circumstances, the end result was anything but. Spectators arriving in face masks to the Alexis Arguello Sports Complex had their temperatures checked outside the venue by doctors; once they were inside the 8,000-capacity arena, attendees were required to keep a distance of at least one metre, which meant sitting two seats apart.

It all appeared a little strange at first, but as experts within the stadium industry have pointed out, it is likely to be the new reality for fans returning to sports venues in a world dramatically altered by Covid-19.

“There’s a whole series of different routes which it may take,” Christopher Lee, managing director of Europe, the Middle East and Africa (EMEA) for stadium architect Populous, told SportsPro in May. “We’ve put together a task force which has a bunch of external experts – epidemiologists, cleaners and sanitisation, doctors, roboticists – exploring what it looks like.”

Supporters want to come back but also want to feel safe.

Then there is also the challenge of convincing spectators that it is safe enough to return. In a survey of 2,200 US adults conducted in April by technology and media company Morning Consult, 79 per cent of respondents indicated that it was important for a vaccine to be developed for them to be comfortable in a crowded stadium. The results of similar polls will no doubt fluctuate the further time moves away from the onset of the pandemic, but it hints at the measures venue operators must now be considering to alleviate the concerns of a general public that will be more health conscious when it can attend sports again.

What it all means is that the stadiums fans have come to call their second homes are set to undergo visible and technological overhauls to accommodate a safe return. Some of the changes will only be temporary, but others could transform the venue experience for the better.

Strict health and safety protocols, social distancing and other precautionary measures will be key to restoring public trust in attending live events 

Empty seats and virtual experiences

Medical professionals have warned that, in most countries, bringing tens of thousands of people together in an enclosed space is still some way off. Research carried out by professor Tim Spector of King’s College London found that horse racing’s Cheltenham Festival and English soccer side Liverpool’s Uefa Champions League game against Atletico Madrid – both held in early March during the week building up to the UK’s nationwide lockdown – contributed to an increase in coronavirus-related deaths in England. Such case studies mean that governments are unlikely to entirely lift restrictions around mass gatherings until either a vaccine is found or the virus is eradicated.

Indeed, the majority of sports that have found a route to return have so far done so either behind closed doors or with significantly reduced capacities. Many countries still have strict social distancing measures in place, meaning sold-out stadiums and strangers high-fiving in celebration are unlikely to be familiar sights again any time soon.

“When you start looking at returning fans to venues, it very much depends on where you are and what the local guidance is,” says Lee, who was the project director for Tottenham Hotspur’s new stadium in north London. “At a two-metre social distance you’re looking at something in the ten per cent of capacity in stadiums to observe that rule.”

To maintain that distance, Lee says, would effectively mean every other seat and every other row being left empty, although there may be scenarios where people who live in the same household could sit in a group. Eventually, he envisages fans being able to move in a “bubble” that they would stay with for their entire time in a venue. That group might range from two to six people initially, but could over time be expanded to ten or as many as 20.

Social distancing measures mean stadiums will operate at reduced capacities for some time

Lee also believes that as long as teams can only offer a limited number of tickets, they might even look to sell some virtual form of the in-venue experience, which could see a remote audience appearing alongside fans inside the stadium.

“It’s something we’ve been talking about for a long time,” he adds. “We’re anticipating the integration of some kind of remote audience, whether that’s VR (virtual reality), how they’re portrayed in-bowl itself.

“If you look at any of the big clubs, Manchester United, they’ll get a couple of million people physically through their doors [per season], but social media says they have 650 million fans around the world. A reasonable percentage will watch a game live somewhere, and it’s how you then bring that remote audience into a live stadium audience – so using screens and boards – and I think you’ll see more of that.

“We will see more sophisticated ways of watching your favourite team, whether it’s using VR, or AR [augmented reality]…and having that represented in the stadium. I think that is something that will stay much longer than just to do with Covid.”

Lee believes the integration of remote audiences will continue post-Covid

Longer queues and staggered arrival

Despite most stadiums operating at a reduced capacity, fans can expect longer waits to access an event. Teams and venue operators could implement socially distanced lines at entry gates, which may create a need for more space around the facility to accommodate spread out queues. That could be particularly problematic for facilities located in city centres or residential neighbourhoods, but will be less of an issue for more modern stadiums situated out-of-town or positioned as the centrepiece of wider entertainment districts.

Most major sports teams have so far kept their reopening strategies close to their chest, but some have hinted at the measures they are likely to implement.

“We would have times to come in for security at different gates so people would be separated out, in terms of when they enter the stadium,” said Tom Garfinkel, chief executive of the National Football League’s (NFL) Miami Dolphins, speaking to Good Morning America in May. “We would exit the stadium much like a church environment, where each row exits so people aren't filing out all at the same time in a herd.”

Staggered entry and exit times could also go some way towards avoiding a rush on busy metro systems – in addition to reducing the likelihood of bottlenecks at gates – but public transport could still present one of the biggest obstacles to fans feeling at ease about attending games.

Fans could be asked to arrive at different times to prevent big crowds from forming

Realife Tech, a London-based technology startup which until recently was known as LiveStyled, has launched the ‘Post-Covid Fan Safety Hub’ to help minimise such risks. The platform – or “companion hub”, as company founder and chief executive Adam Goodyer describes it – will use heat maps and location data to monitor crowd density to provide every visitor with real-time safety information about issues such as travel congestion and crowded entry gates through messaging on a venue or team’s mobile app and website.

“We looked to focus on some of the major issues that are going to happen when events come back,” adds Goodyer, whose company also works with London’s O2 Arena and the Los Angeles Galaxy Major League Soccer (MLS) team. “How do you allay fears of people planning to go to events? How do you then create a better experience and allay their fears getting there? What is the experience and the safety concerns when they’re there? And how do you deal with them exiting in a safe environment?

“We looked at those four areas and then started to focus on some relatively simple ideas, such as how you reduce congestion and contact when you are inside, and how you reduce congestion and contact when you are getting in.”

The Fan Safety Hub is due to be used for one of the first times at IndyCar’s rescheduled Indianapolis 500 in August, when Indianapolis Motor Speedway hopes to host approximately a quarter of the 300,000 visitors that normally attend the iconic race.

“That really is going to be the first event worldwide that is going to be putting significant Covid safety measures in place, including our safety hub,” says Goodyer. “We’re putting a lot of effort into that with Indy and we will be taking some of those learnings back to our [other] clients.”

Japanese baseball fans wait patiently in a socially distanced queue

Health checks and contactless entry

Getting to the front of the line will be half the battle. Todd duBoef, president of boxing promoter Top Rank, told SportsPro in April that there is going to be “some structure similar to what happened after 9/11” to create a safe environment for returning fans. Venue operators will not only be scanning visitors for physical weapons, but also an invisible one that has proved to be equally as harmful.

Body temperature checks could become standard at sporting events, just as they have at many airports, and some companies are working to find ways for the process to be automated. A collective of UK agencies – Threepipe Reply, rEvolution and MoonShot – announced in April that they were collaborating with artificial intelligence (AI) camera technology company AMCO to develop a thermal screening product that can detect high temperatures in individual fans, helping to identify those who might be displaying Covid-19 symptoms.

Spectators might also be required to equip themselves with digital health passports, which are being trialled by several Premier League clubs in partnership with biotechnology company Prenetics, and are also being explored as an option to facilitate wider cross-border travel. The web-based test-evidencing and access system would simply require fans to scan their information upon access to a venue in order to prove their Covid-19 test is valid and has also produced a negative result.

“If you go to the park or you go to the supermarket, everybody follows the protocols, but you’d probably like to know whether anyone there has recently failed a test or is positive,” explains Stephen Taylor Heath, the head of law at JMW Solicitors and representative of Prenetics in the company’s commercial matters. “The whole point of the passport is controlling access to a particular destination on the basis that a person has recent data which shows that they’ve passed a test.”

Temperature checks are set to become standard procedure at sports venues around the world 

Another alternative could be provided by robots. Silvester de Keijzer, chief executive of Frankfurt-based RobShare, claims his company’s robots are capable of checking the temperature of 15 people in one second. The machines can scan and count the number of people in a given space 20 times faster than a human being, he says, and also carry out other functions, such as cleaning or customer-facing roles.

“The first results are that you see marketing value,” he explains. “The next step is where you find efficiencies, in terms of the robot counts, it tells us that traffic in a specific area is less or more, or people stop at a particular place more often – that’s where the data comes in.”

De Keijzer points out that some shopping malls use robots for security, something that will also be problematic for operators of sports stadiums, many of which still have stewards carrying out pat-down checks at entry gates. That could accelerate the adoption of non-invasive protocols and software such as that developed by Texas-based Blink Identity, whose solution – already used by Danish soccer club Brondby – identifies people using facial biometrics as they walk past a sensor at full speed.

In any case, almost certain to be universally deployed when stadiums reopen is mobile ticketing, with the increasingly outdated practice of handing over a paper ticket set to be replaced by fans scanning themselves into a venue. That not only mitigates the potential for viral spread between spectators and staff, but suppliers such as Ticketmaster also provide services that allow operators to keep tabs on how many people are in the facility and where they have come in.

“The two main things are mobile ticketing and cashless,” states Goodyer. “They are going to be the things that are just obvious. From both a reduction in contagion and risk and contact, if you can remove the thing that you are passing hand to hand from people, being both cash and paper tickets, then you are removing a big risk in terms of contagion. You’re also creating benefit, which is quicker entry, which is a better data ecosystem that you will be able to react on and then build better operations from.”

Covid-19 could spell the end of paper tickets

Hygiene scores, hand sanitiser stations and drones

Around 76 per cent of respondents in the aforementioned Morning Consult survey said the addition of hand sanitiser stations would make them feel more comfortable attending games. That was in addition to 74 per cent of those polled suggesting that the communication of venue cleaning practices would help put them at ease.

Lee, who contributed to the UK’s Guide to Safety at Sports Grounds, thinks that venues will soon be given a “hygiene rating out of five”, similar to those attached to restaurants. He also says there will be an increased focus on the things that fans can’t see, such as improving venue circulation to decrease the amount of time people might be exposed to harmful microbes.

“All the MEP [mechanical, electrical, and plumbing] systems are really important,” he explains. “A lot of work we’re doing is looking at where you have conditioned spaces, how you can increase the fresh air input to have more air changes per hour – it’s very much the epidemiologists we’re liaising with talking about that.”

Some businesses are also devising solutions that will support regular deep-cleaning of the various areas within stadiums when they reopen. Launched in late June, Florida-based startup Perform Path is offering teams and venues its ultraviolet (UV) disinfection products which it claims ‘are effective at killing up to 99.9 per cent of harmful bacteria and viruses’.Speaking to the Mobile Sports Report website, Perform Path president Jack Elkins said the company’s units can be mounted to ceiling tiles or walls in any room and are not susceptible to hands-on “cleaning errors”, such as missed spots or incorrect application of cleaning products.

Drones could be used to spray disinfectant onto venues below

Meanwhile EagleHawk, a startup operating out of Syracuse, New York, has developed a coronavirus-killing drone to hover above any large outdoor or indoor sports venue and spray disinfectant onto the facility below. In an interview with Syracuse.com, EagleHawk chief executive Patrick Walsh said the product is being marketed to college, major and minor league teams.

Whatever path venue operators choose to take, fans are likely to be reassured if they see greater health safety measures in action.

“Supporters want to come back but also want to feel safe, so there’s a lot of work that sanitation companies are looking at, down to what surfaces are being put into toilets, concessions and bars,” Lee notes. “[I think we will see] a lot of the stuff which is very prominent in Asia – fogging, disinfectant – through to quite visible training regimes.

“If you were cynical it’s a bit of theatre, but I think customers will want to see cleaners in venues, whereas we try and design and operate our venues so that you don’t see them – the cleaning crew is cleaning everything behind the scenes or when you’re in the bowl. But I think people will want to see them more visibly.”

A spectator uses a hand sanitiser station at Twickenham before England's Six Nations game against Wales in March

One-way systems and artificial intelligence

Fans are likely to have their freedom of movement limited when they find themselves back on the concourses. Lee expects most venue operators to set up a one-way system for access to the stadium bowl that will be similar to what has been seen in supermarkets, where customers enter the shop one way and leave through another.

Controlling peoples’ movement to and from their seats will be more straightforward than managing the rush for concessions, restrooms and other services that typically occurs during intervals in games, which could increase the risk of physical contact. Lee says operators could introduce measures as simple as having squares on the concourse that are two metres apart or overhauling existing signage to remind people about social distancing.

“Then you start bringing in technology overlays,” Lee continues, “whether it’s simple devices you’re wearing that beep when you’re within a set distance from someone else. There are more sophisticated versions that also add a track and trace overlay on top of that, so it tells you if you’re within two metres or eventually if you’ve been in contact with someone who has been diagnosed with the virus. [There is also] a lot of work on robots linked to CCTV cameras and central command posts where they can enforce social distancing.”

Key to all this will be the ability for venue operators to track movement and immediately respond to overcrowding. In 2018, the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers rolled out a real-time stadium operations system in partnership with software specialists SAP, allowing managers at Levi’s Stadium to monitor nine data sources and relay information to employees on the ground in order to provide rapid responses to gameday issues. 

More recently, the 49ers became the first NFL team to sign a deal with Detroit-based startup WaitTime, whose AI building technology system uses overhead cameras and sensors to anonymously track and record the movement of fans in real time, letting both guests and operators know where crowds have formed at exits, concession stands and restrooms.

What has happened with Covid-19 is these solutions are becoming the focal point of the operation, and venues are going to find that their operation is better

“We ultimately put that messaging out on digital signage and on the team’s mobile application for the fans to be in control of their destiny of knowing where to go inside the venue in real time,” explains Zachary Klima, WaitTime’s founder and chief executive. “But it also gives operations a real-time view on what exactly is happening inside their venue. So it’s a rare breed of both the fan side and the operations side at the same time.”

WaitTime, whose technology takes “under two business weeks” to install, according to Klima, already has partnerships with the National Basketball Association’s (NBA) Miami Heat, the Buffalo Sabres National Hockey League (NHL) team and Australia’s Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG). The system has typically been used to point fans in the direction of the shortest queues for refreshments, but Klima’s team is already adapting the product to help operators police social distancing in a post-Covid world.

“We’ve been able to translate a lot of the best practices from retail environments or environments that are opening up a little bit sooner than the sports and entertainment venues, and using those best practices to shape the sports and entertainment package,” says Elizabeth Grabowski, WaitTime’s design strategy director. “How the product has shifted is to be very focused on those health and safety elements, and use that guest experience platform as a way to be flexible in real time.

“We’ve also added an entry and exit algorithm, which tracks how many people are coming into and out of a space like a restroom, or an area that has a limited capacity, keeping track of how many people are in that space and then using the real-time information to notify whether people can be allowed in that space or if they should hold off. We’re sending thresholds through each camera so that when certain areas reach certain points either the security staff or the cleaning staff responsible for the area will be notified so they can respond.”

Mobile ordering and pick-up slots

Klima, who counts Michael Jordan’s son Jeffrey as a business partner, says that the inbound leads “have been rolling in” for WaitTime during lockdown, noting that the company’s product has gone from being a “nice to have” to potentially a key cog in venue operations. That sentiment could also be true for in-seat ordering, which up until now might have been viewed as a luxury option for teams.

“I’ve always seen it as like the chicken and the egg,” says Anthony Perez, chief executive of mobile commerce technology company VenueNext. “The operator says it is going to invest more in marketing and driving this solution once it sees higher adoption, but you’re not going to see the higher adoption if you’re not marketing it and driving it forward. That’s always been a bit of a push-pull that we’ve seen.”

Perez, formerly the chief marketing officer of the Orlando Magic NBA franchise, adds that mobile ordering would support social distancing in several ways. First, it would prevent fans from touching a payment terminal by allowing them to purchase food and drinks through credit card information stored on their phone. Then it would eliminate the need for fans to queue in crowded lines, either through allocated pick-up times or notifications that their order is ready. Finally, from an operator perspective, mobile ordering would allow venue managers to control how many people are coming up to a concession stand at any given time.

VenueNext, whose OrderNext platform is used by the New York Yankees and the Charlotte Hornets, has added Sidearm Sports, a Learfield IMG College company, as a client during lockdown, and Perez expects more teams and operators to adopt mobile commerce as a means to comply with new safety standards around in-venue concessions and merchandise.

Yet while the short-term benefits might be obvious, Perez believes the technology – and the various other solutions likely to be deployed at venues in the coming months – is here to stay.

“Pre-Covid there’s always been a lag in adoption in venues versus what you see outside of venues,” he says. “Consumers with Uber Eats, Amazon and all the sort of others have been very comfortable using their phone to purchase the things that they need. Seeing that less adopted in venues, a big part of it is because you haven’t seen the venues really go all in.

“What has happened with Covid-19 is these solutions are becoming the focal point of the operation, and venues are going to find – regardless of how fan behaviour or potential aversions may change once there’s a vaccine – that their operation is better.

“I’m not sure these solutions are going to be viewed as safety critical in the long-term, but I do think that everyone is going to find great benefits from deploying them at a much higher degree of scale than ever before. And once they do, and they see those benefits – because there’s going to be a lot of operational benefits too – they’re going to say: ‘We’ve already got fans doing it this way, it’s working, we’ve changed the expectation. Why would we ever go back?’” 

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