Bringing Fans Back to Stadiums
Since March 2020, and the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, worldwide sporting events have been brought to a complete standstill or have limped through the year behind closed doors. Football fans have been asked to stay at home. Matches that have taken place have done so in front of empty stands. For players and fans, the result has been intensely frustrating. And, for clubs, leagues, associations and confederations, the financial impact has been a hard one to bear.
Since the end of the summer, there have been tentative attempts to bring fans back into stadiums. Particularly in the UK and Europe, limited numbers of local fans have been allowed to enter football grounds for specific ‘pilot’ games - the format, however, is like none fans have ever experienced before. Only a small percentage of supporters (anything from 10% to 30%) have entered arenas, which have been divided into sections to seat limited numbers. Within those sections, fans have been required to sit in small groups only (max. 6 people), with numerous rows and seats between each group. Masks have been a mandatory requirement, and staggered arrival times have been the norm.
UEFA (Union of European Football Associations) have monitored the developments carefully. Following the successful reintroduction of fans at the UEFA Super Cup match between Bayern Munich and Sevilla on September 24th, they decided to allow the partial return of fans at national team games, Champions League and Europa League games from the beginning of October. Only 30% of available seats may be occupied at any one match and, for now, no away support is acceptable. Fans may only return in accordance with local COVID restrictions at the time of play. Social distancing and precautionary measures, such as masks, will also be subject to local laws.
UEFA’s decision allows more flexibility for individual countries. Football associations can, on a case by case basis, allow or curb access to matches depending on the local rates of infection and associated restrictions. The ruling spells a move in the right direction towards normality and brings hope to fans keen to resume their support. Across the world, other confederations will be watching to see how the move pans out as they and their fans are similarly eager to bring life back into football stadiums as soon as possible.
But, this is only the beginning; more needs to be done to embed health, safety and social distancing at events. Long-term solutions are required to overcome the dangers of mass gatherings, and protect careers, economies and a way of life, now and into the future. One solution being investigated is the use of technology at stadiums, arenas and large events.
The Role of Technology in Returning Fans to Stadiums
As the year draws to a close, in many countries, the pandemic is heading towards a second wave. What will this mean for sports events in 2021? 2020’s cancellations and postponements have already caused untold repercussions on the sporting industry, sportsmen and women, and fans. And, the pandemic shows no signs of disappearing just yet. Going into 2021, solutions need to be found to get sports on the road to recovery or to adapt to the ‘new normal’. For the sports industry to recover, games, matches, competitions and tournaments need to go ahead. But, just as importantly, supporters are needed back in stadiums in greater numbers and with fans from near and far. But, how can this be achieved safely and in line with restrictions?
Foot traffic in and around stadiums and queues for ticketing, refreshments and toilets cause congestion and bottlenecks, with large numbers of people unable to physically distance. Organisers need to implement initiatives to reduce and eliminate the problem, without causing issues elsewhere and without causing unnecessary inconvenience.
Technology programmes and modelling tools that map, predict and simulate people movement and behaviours are being explored to inform methods of crowd control at stadiums.
Software, which takes individual stadium plans and their operational procedures and emulates specific scenarios, such as fan entry and exit, and security checks, can model where congestion might build up. By altering the scenario, the software can show how specific solutions, such as digital ticketing, security scanning equipment, additional facilities, etc., might alleviate overcrowding and the contact time between spectators.
3D modelling programmes can also pinpoint hotspots for congestion. The programmes work by analysing data, compiled for specific venues, to simulate the movement and behavioural patterns of attendees under different scenarios. And, by adjusting particular scenarios, the programmes can offer solutions, such as the optimum, safe number of attendees at a venue, where the movement of attendees should be reduced, where to locate security and ushers, where to provide extra facilities or to close facilities, etc. The models could even inform cleaning regimes in heavily used areas.
Navigation and tracking applications for mobile phones may also offer credible solutions for the safe re-opening of event venues. Since many events already have an official mobile app, new tracking software can piggyback on those for efficiency. By using tracking software, the user experience may be enhanced, especially in terms of ensuring social distancing. Predetermined routes to seats can guide visitors through venues to avoid congestion and stay within designated areas. Notifications can warn guests of crowded facilities and direct them to alternative locations. The software could even offer a solution to hot spot areas such as refreshment outlets. By allowing the option of pre-ordering, and providing a notification when the order is ready, queues could be dramatically reduced.
The organisers of the World Cup 2022 will no doubt be considering these and many other options. The aim will be to ensure that the competition is supported by fans in stadiums. Indeed, each stadium has been built using modelling tools to inform its design and its operational plans under normal circumstances, as well as for crisis management. And, each of the new stadiums is complete with ticketless entry points and has software programmes that work with mobile technology to provide navigation, information and alerts to stadium goers. So, using the technologies purported to offer scenario-based solutions to COVID-19, even to implement many of the solutions suggested, would be eminently viable. Thus, giving hope to fans across the world that the World Cup 2022 will see fans lining Qatar’s stands.