Attending pro sports events an experiment

Game-day experience may never be the same

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Craving a Jumbo Jet Dog at Bell MTS Place? Maybe the infamous Beer Snake at IG Field is more your style. Or something as simple as the seventh-inning stretch at Shaw Park as you root, root, root for the home team.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 20/10/2020 (664 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Craving a Jumbo Jet Dog at Bell MTS Place? Maybe the infamous Beer Snake at IG Field is more your style. Or something as simple as the seventh-inning stretch at Shaw Park as you root, root, root for the home team.

These are dark times for local pro sports fans hoping for a front-row seat to the action. And as we enter a long, cold Prairie winter, with COVID-19 numbers continuing to be alarmingly high, the odds of your favourite professional sports venue opening up any time soon remain bleak.

The next NHL season won’t start until at least January, and it’s not known if that will involve Jets games played in Winnipeg, let alone in front of any kind of crowd. The Blue Bombers won’t get a chance to defend their 2019 Grey Cup championship until next June at the earliest after a lost 2020 CFL campaign. And the Goldeyes can only hope they don’t have to spend next summer playing an entire baseball season on the road again.

Mike Sudoma / Winnipeg Free Press Files
In happier times: Winnipeg Jets fans celebrate a victory over the Washington Capitals in February. The odds of your favourite professional sports venue opening up any time soon remain bleak thanks to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

It’s enough to have you rushing to the Budweiser King Club, Rum Hut or Craft Beer Corner to drown your sorrows, isn’t it?

So how, and when, might things return to some semblance of normal? And what might that all look and feel like? In an attempt to get some answers, I spent Tuesday travelling to a trio of American cities — virtually, of course — for a glimpse into the challenges facing sports organizations these days.

Based on what I heard during the hour-long webinar hosted by a U.S. company that works with stadiums, campuses and corporations, you might want to restock your fridge and get comfortable on your couch. More patience is required, with sold-out crowds a pipe dream until a vaccine is developed. Incremental baby steps, some of which are underway south of the border, are more likely. And technology will play a significant role in getting you safely back in your seat.

Take the Cleveland Cavaliers for example. Just like Bell MTS Place, the NBA team’s home venue, Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse, sat empty this fall as the playoffs were held in a bubble in Florida. But unlike our downtown barn, the 19,432-seat facility, which also hosts the Cleveland Monsters of the American Hockey League, has recently reopened in limited capacity with the blessing (some might suggest lunacy) of Ohio government and health officials, despite case numbers actively climbing.

To date, they have held about 60 small events, including a cornhole tournament, youth sports camps and corporate gatherings. This has allowed the organization to bring in revenue while building a valuable, comprehensive database.

THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods Files
Winnipeg Blue Bombers fans with a “snake” made of plastic cups and passed down the east-side stands during the second half of a CFL game in 2010.

Air flow within the facility, and people’s “breath signature,” are among the studies currently taking place in conjunction with local health officials. They are utilizing “threshold monitoring” that can alert staff to potential gathering hot spots such as washrooms and concessions. There is contact tracing information being collected through smartphones, along with co-ordinated triage areas outside to do temperature checks, symptom monitoring and assign strategic entry points to limit crowd size.

“We start to understand what risk in our venue looks like, so we can eventually get to the point where we can operate in the black, not the red. We’re starting to get real-world insights as fans get back in the venue and allow us to better shape those protocols to be smarter over time,” said Mike Conley, chief information officer with the Cavaliers.

No such experiment is taking place at any major venue in Winnipeg, with only minor hockey teams allowed to play in local rinks to 25 per cent capacity. But Conley believes other organizations will follow their lead. True North has kept its plans close to the vest, deferring comment at various points during the pandemic. But it’s clear business as usual isn’t going to cut it going forward. Packing patrons in like sardines and herding them like cattle is so pre-COVID-19.

“You need these little, smaller events to get your feet underneath you to make sure what you’re trying to achieve with your operational protocol is going to work. We’re just kind of using it as a bit of a petri dish to test our way through these various solutions.”
– Mike Conley, chief information officer with the Cleveland Cavaliers

“You need these little, smaller events to get your feet underneath you to make sure what you’re trying to achieve with your operational protocol is going to work. We’re just kind of using it as a bit of a petri dish to test our way through these various solutions,” said Conley.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has recently stated they hope to play in front of at least partial crowds as early as January. Another hub city/bubble situation is unlikely. For a league that gets 50 per cent of its revenues through ticket sales, some fans are better than none. That could mean the Jets starting in front of a few thousand supporters at first, then eventually expanding, although local and federal officials signing off on that within the next few months seems unlikely.

We might see something similar to the NFL, where just a few teams are playing in front of live audiences. One of those is the Atlanta Falcons, who are permitted by state government to have as many as 20,000 people inside 71,000-seat Mercedes-Benz Stadium. At least in Georgia, infection numbers have been in decline for weeks.

(AP Photo/Tony Dejak)
Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse in Cleveland, Ohio, home of the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers.

As I learned Tuesday, the Falcons are using technology in a number of novel ways — from high-tech drones used to sanitize the stadium after it empties, to making in-game concession adjustments to limit lineups. For example, they’ve learned fans buy more salty snacks in the first half, and sweet treats in the second, which allows them to shift gears at “dynamic concession queues” on the fly.

The CFL isn’t in the same stratosphere as the NFL when it comes to cash flow, so I would expect any changes here to be more subtle. Still, Bombers boss Wade Miller and his Blue & Gold crew are keeping tabs on how this plays out south of the border, hoping for similar clearance in time to have a 2021 season. Without fans, and plenty of them, the league is in dire straits.

PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES
The WInnipeg Jets could begin the next NHL season in front of merely a few thousand fans.

Banc of California Stadium, home of the Los Angeles FC of Major League Soccer, is a closer comparable to IG Field, with a capacity of 22,000. They did not get clearance to open for the current season. But when they do, the game-day operation will change significantly.

“We are really reimagining our concessions and focusing more on mobile,” said Christian Lau, the team’s chief technology officer. “People were more hesitant to want to use their mobile device to order beer and pizza. But now it’s ‘I absolutely want to use my mobile device, I don’t want to touch your point of surface.'”

Lau said based on feedback from fans who have attended recent sporting events in other markets, the partial audience experience doesn’t leave them anxious to return.

“You have a lot of single seats people are buying, but then they’re not coming back because it’s a diluted experience. It’s just not the same. And then people are worried about getting sick,” he said.

And there’s the rub. Just because you will eventually be allowed to return to sports venues in some fashion doesn’t guarantee you will. At this point, we’re all quite accustomed to watching games from the comfort and safety of home. Given the high price of tickets and current economic climate, who says that changes any time soon?

However, if the end result is a more efficient, streamlined experience for fans who want to get their live sports fix, that will be something to cheer about. In a physically distant way, of course.

mike.mcintyre@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @mikemcintyrewpg

Mike McIntyre

Mike McIntyre
Sports columnist

Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.

History

Updated on Tuesday, October 20, 2020 7:27 PM CDT: Adds photos, pullquote

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