Security Challenges Await as Football Fans Return to Stadiums

Aug. 13, 2021
Both college and professional venues prepare for a season of risk unlike any other

When the NCAA capped its 2020-21 college football season with No.1 Alabama defeating No. 3 Ohio State in the National Championship game in January of this year at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Florida, it ended a season of constant anxiety and chaos. College players, coaches and administrators endured daily COVID-19 testing, scheduling nightmares and canceled games as the pandemic raged and games were played in empty stadiums.

And it was just not college football that bore the brunt of COVID’s wrath. According to an article in USA Today, following the cancellation of last season's NCAA men's basketball tournament amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the NCAA experienced a $600 million annual decline in its total revenue for the 2020 fiscal year – a revenue decrease of more than 50% compared to 2019. The money hit was intense as a linebacker blindsiding a quarterback, as college programs from California to Georgia not only lost revenue from the absence of spectator ticket revenue but from losses in television and marketing rights revenue as well.

As the NCAA college football season prepares for its new season, there is an air of optimism that the COVID menace has been vanquished enough to allow for full stadiums and normality in the locker room for all collegiate events. But make no mistake, there has been a paradigm shift in how the pandemic has changed the landscape of “game day” across the country and the “new normal” is here to stay.

Reassessing Policy

For college Athletic Directors who oversee facilities and security at some of the largest universities in the nation, the anticipation for the new college football season is palpable. The goal to re-establish the security and safety norms of 2019 is driving the reopening of venues, however, most know that things will never be the same. Just how has the role of a security director in charge of facilities changed to meet the new challenges of a lingering pandemic and an undercurrent of social unrest?

“I think that it's changed significantly in the fact that we're thinking much more out of the box than we did in the past. For the past 20 or 30 years, we didn't think a whole lot about the medical side of it and the possibility of a pandemic. It just seemed so out of character for our thought processes for safety and security. We've also been forced to reassess everything we do and to review why we do it, how we do it, and make significant changes in the way we do it based on the pandemic threat. Take something as simple as loading (supplies) in the facility for vendors for either a football game or a basketball game; what was our timeline on that and how did we secure that load? We had to change that approach significantly, particularly early in the pandemic,” says Jeff Steel, the Athletic Director of Facilities operations at Auburn University, adding that the discussions had to consider if boxes coming into your facility were safe and were secure. And if not, what's the best way to make them safe and secure enough to be brought into your facility.

“We didn't know a lot about the virus when it initially started, and there are still lots of things we don't know. But it has forced us to think about policies and procedures we had not previously considered in dealing with the best ways to keep our facilities safe and secure for our talent, for our student-athletes, our coaches and our staff, as well as for our guests that attended our events.”

Hatcher Parnell, the Senior Athletic Director for the University of Southern California in Los Angeles figures he had an advantage when it came to reassessing security and safety policy for facilities under his purvey.

“Luckily for me and for us here in LA, we have a lot of professional and amateur sports venues, stadiums, and arenas, so there's a huge knowledge base here. We have the Lakers and Clippers at the Staples Center, we have the Coliseum, the Rose Bowl, all the major stadiums, so it's a collaborative effort for us. We've been able, through the beginning of COVID, to create what we call the Los Angeles Venue Task Force. And it's made up of brilliant minds,” Parnell says. “We're able to collaborate and bounce things off of each other to help scale solutions based on your venue size, budgets and event. It's given us a new start and a way to reset and rethink what's really important to us, how to keep our folks safe, and how to do that within budget because not all budgets are created equal. We're working through it as a team.”

Parnell stresses that it has been extremely important that all parties have been reading from the same script when it comes to security, logistics and staffing. He says it's an organizational calculation of what best practices fit the risks that have been identified,

“We've been fully supported by our university and by our administration to be able to make these things work and work well and to be efficient. We’ve all been dealing with COVID, and everyone's been hit with the loss of revenue, not only from the athletic department side and the university side but also our promoters and event organizers as well,” adds Parnell.

 Performing one’s due diligence and conducting comprehensive risk assessments have occupied much of Steele’s time since the pandemic peaked and the decision to return to fans in the stands was made. As he previously mentioned, his staff has ramped up the medical aspect of preparedness, and as he puts it, “not just on a bad day, but every day.”

“There are certain things that I think will carry over from our experiences over the last 17, 18 months as we move through the pandemic. Some things we've changed have made our operation better and safer and more secure. And I think we'll continue to do so as we strive to put ourselves in a better position today than we were yesterday,” says Steele. “I have to say the Southeastern Conference has been phenomenal in their support of our organization as a part of a wonderful team. The university has been phenomenal, and we do everything in lockstep with our university. They have made the athletic department a part of the process for how the university would respond and react to the pandemic and what kind of processes we put in place. They provided great resources, support resources, and subject matter experts to help us get where we needed to be, so we are able to protect our student-athletes and coaches and our fans in a safe way.”

The University of Southern California was already establishing its new normal prior to the COVID-19 outbreak. So, Parnell figures his security team was already ahead of the game by integrating various technology solutions in the course of facility upgrades aimed at providing faster and safer service and screening on game days.

“Normal for us prior to COVID-19 is something we've been moving to anyway. One of the big things that we wanted to accomplish was improving the speed of service. With that speed of service, some of this other stuff comes naturally, touchless water fountains not only for the people using them, but people cleaning them. We have touchless entry. The metal detectors that we use, the way we handle our parking with automated parking and emailing everything out before games so all you have to do is scan for parking -- you don't have to touch anything. A lot of those things we were doing prior to COVID, and we will continue to do now that we're in COVID protocols,” admits Parnell. “In my opinion, we're moving in a very good direction. Policy and procedures we've implemented to meet the crisis, like food, we will keep. It's important for us to make sure we keep down that path. Many of these solutions aren't expensive, they're scalable and easily implemented.”

Steele also figures his staff’s challenge is to not be tempted to reinvent the wheel. A solid partnership between Auburn and the public safety community around the university has helped “the loveliest village on the Plain” embrace and grow its risk mitigation technologies.

“The entire community has supported the university as we implemented video surveillance across a large swath of our athletic facilities and campuses as well, and we have had that system for years. The university has made a commitment to keep systems up to date and on the cutting edge to provide us the tools we need to assess our risk and be situationally aware of how our facilities are operating,” Steele says.

Auburn’s security technology strategies extend from the parking lots straight into the various academic and athletic facilities as well.

“We have access control systems. We have biometric access control systems for certain places in our facilities that are state of the art. We have license plate readers that we've had on campus now for the last six or eight years that help us track what kind of vehicles and who's vehicles are in our parking lots,” Steele explains. “If something does go, boom, heaven forbid, we have information at the ready to be able to track who's who and what is what, and that's very helpful. There have been some remarkable technologies in the last four or five years, that have come out in the way of IED detection, and we have access to those technologies. We're very happy with where we are on the technology front. We feel like we're at the head of the class with technology being able to help us be situationally aware and create a safe and secure environment without being intrusive to the fan’s game day experience.”

Pro Sports Face Similar Security Challenges

The security and health/safety challenges that lie ahead for the National Football League when its season opens in September in front of full stadiums are not unlike those Steele and Parnell expect to face. Jim Mercurio, Executive Vice President and General Manager for the San Francisco Forty-Niners Stadium Management Company, says the level of preparedness for each NFL organization depends on where they were in 2019. He adds that if you're looking at the college preparedness playbook compared to where the 49ers are with the NFL Best Practices having been implemented, he feels that with respect to Levi's Stadium, the bar has been set pretty high.

“When we opened up, moving from Candlestick to Levi's Stadium, we were testing and had already made the decision that we were going to go to full magnetometers. We were one of the only (NFL) teams at that point that had made that decision. We also started to layer security and emergency protocols prior to the pandemic. In fact, we got DHS designation when we went into that whole security upgrade. We opened up LEED-certified and have operated lead certified,” Mercurio explains.” I think that just because that new widget security technology comes out, it doesn't mean that you have to install it right away. We're still evaluating every piece that can improve our core operation. There's a couple of things for 2021 that we're looking at like turnstiles – ticketless and frictionless.”

Mercurio also adds that the 49ers went to mobile ticketing several years ago realizing it offers a safer, secure, more convenient guest experience. They have also used handheld scanners when engaging with ticket holders who didn’t have mobile credentials. In 2021, the organization is going to look at frictionless turnstiles with self-serve capability so fans can simply scan their own tickets and enter the stadium.

Are We Ready?

As with Parnell and Mercurio, Steele realizes the upcoming 2021 season is filled with various highly charged intangibles ranging from full stadiums to intense social discourse. The pent-up emotions of fans and the potential for incidents spinning off social media worry Steele as he prepares his security game plan.

“When you bring it, large crowd, together on a college campus, it provides an opportunity to state your message and be heard. And so, making sure that we're prepared efficiently and effectively to provide for a safe and secure environment for our guests, meeting the needs of all of those that come to come to our campus is critical. We are a state campus, and we're an open campus. While we certainly have rules and regulations, the state of Alabama is very open about allowing people to voice their opinions in certain places. We have to be cognizant of that during game day. We have to be prepared for that and make sure that we allow people to be expressive, which is their right, but at the same time, offer a safe and secure environment for those that attend their events,” says Steele. “That's probably one of the biggest challenges that we face because there are so many unknowns about what the new season holds and we are such a wide-open environment, particularly for football which is a large venue and has huge numbers of people coming in. You need to make sure you have a sound plan to provide for a safe and secure environment at all times.”

About the Author:

Steve Lasky is a 34-year veteran of the security industry and an award-winning journalist. He is the editorial director of the Endeavor Business Media Security Group, which includes magazines Security Technology ExecutiveSecurity Business and Locksmith Ledger International and top-rated webportal Steve can be reached at



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