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Expert’s Roundtable: Football Game Operations Amidst The Pandemic

With the collision of COVID-19 and the return of football, AthleticDirectorU chats with a number of facilities, events and operations leaders on changes to game day routines, real-time operational adjustments, communication, post-game wrap-up meetings, improvements moving forward and more.

 

How was your game day routine (arrival time, meetings, sequence of the day, execution, departure, etc.) different given the attendance restrictions & safety measures?

 

Brendan Dwyer (Senior Director of Athletics Facilities and Events – UAB) – We had staff at the stadium for the better part of the day, from about 9am until after the game, which is a pretty drastic change for us. Being in a stadium that is managed by the City of Birmingham, we typically don’t have as much to handle on a typical game day as schools with on campus stadiums do. That being said, there were a lot more moving parts leading up to this game, so we wanted to be sure that everything was good to go.

 

The biggest change for us, outside of social distancing and masking, was trying to get a new event staffing company, Stadium People, up to speed with the almost daily changes. They did a great job working with us, and staying flexible.

 

Two other changes for us: the team arrival and 110 minute meeting. Without being able to do the Blazer Walk, the team took a much more direct route to the stadium, and unloaded at the back of the locker room. The other big change was having the 110 meeting via zoom the morning of the game, and not on-site. Luckily, we weren’t having to monitor the weather very closely.

 

Tim Atkinson (Associate Athletic Director – Southern Miss) – For the most part, I would say our game day routine looked a lot like a normal first game of the season. We certainly had to adjust some things based on the current climate. Some of our set-ups were different. We better defined our queuing lines at gate entrances, added length at some existing queuing locations, and added queues for restrooms which haven’t had before. Our arrival time was normal for the first game of the season. We typically come in bright and early for the first game to ensure everything on our end is ready to go and spend a fair amount of time throughout the day addressing the needs of others who have last minute requests or changes which require our attention. The one meeting change for me this year is the 110 minute meeting with the officials and appropriate representatives from each institution. As the title states, the meeting is typically held onsite 110 minutes prior to kickoff. With the new safety measures in place this season, we held the meeting in a virtual format well in advance of the game on game day. We will continue with that format for the rest of the football season.

 

One unique aspect of Southern Miss football games has included the opportunity for fans to come down to the field after the game concludes and the visiting team and officials have left the playing surface. Field access this season is exceptionally restrictive prior to the game, during the game, and now afterward as well. So, a big change for us was reminding fans that they would not be able to come down to the field after the game and keeping our security on post for much longer than we have in the past.

 

Tim Wise (Senior Associate Athletics Director, Facilities and Event Operations – Miami (FL)) – My arrival time remained pretty consistent, the normal 5-6 hours prior, however, the weeks and days leading up to game day were definitely different. Frequent meetings and almost daily conversations with Hard Rock Stadium Management on implementation and messaging of enhanced safety and social distancing measures. I had lots of visits to the stadium to check on the progress of installations and preparations for the season. Also, with all of the changes, lots of walking around ensuring signage was in the correct place, event security staff briefings, credential boards and access changes, etc. There was lots of more double checking and triple checking. The team arrival was different. We did not do our traditional Hurricane Walk as student-athletes were screened at the hotel prior to coming to the stadium. Subsequently, buses pulled up to the locker room doors and student-athletes enter directly from the buses.

 

Fans were automatically socially distanced in the seating bowls as tickets/seats were grouped together and any unavailable seating was blocked off with a seatbelt. In terms of enforcement, the stadium had Guest Experience staff located in the aisles and throughout the stadium to give fans a friendly reminder of wearing face masks unless eating or drinking. The stadium also had increased signage through out the concourse reminding people to socially distance and wear face masks.

 

Also different on game day, our 105 meeting was conducted virtually and could only last for approximately 10-15 minutes. Usually this meeting has about 20-25 people gathered together in one room and we quickly overview the game and operations. Now we have to conduct it virtually, so making sure folks connect either prior to or after the meeting was challenging. Normally the chain crew, clock operators, officials and red hat are located in the same dressing room area so they always talk/meet beforehand. With the 105 minute meeting being virtual and the restrictions on access, it became a puzzle to figure out when and where could these groups have brief conversations in passing to ensure everything was in order. This was handled through a combination of either telephone, walkie talkies or quick passing in the hallways.

 

For your game day team (full-time employees, contracted staff, volunteers, etc.), what surprises did you all face in real-time? Did you find there was more (or less) communication between the team on game day (via radios, phone calls, etc.)? To what degree did local officials (law enforcement, health & safety, etc.) assist with any new protocols?

 

Dwyer (UAB) – I think the biggest real time challenge for us was really just having to remind everyone, our staff included, that this isn’t a typical year. I think everyone had gotten used to being able to move around the stadium more freely in the past, so it was a lot more friendly reminders about mask, and access protocols, which people were very receptive to.

 

Playing football in a stadium that is managed by the City of Birmingham gives us the opportunity to work closely with not just The City of Birmingham, but Jefferson County Department of Health. They were both extremely hands-on during the planning process, and also very supportive of our efforts to play this fall. We wouldn’t have been able to do anything without them. They are both a critical part of our game day team.

 

Atkinson (Southern Miss) – I wouldn’t say it was a surprise, but the requirement for fans to wear face coverings while in transit was a bit of a challenge with some in attendance. Most people complied, but we did have individuals who forgot as they moved from their seats to the concourses and those who simply didn’t want to wear one. Our game day staff was constantly reminding fans of the policy required by the governor via executive order and had to deal with pushback from certain individuals. The other issue we faced in real-time and something we will continue to tweak and improve is assisting fans with distancing in some of the seating areas. We sold tickets based on a model of general admission within each section and asked our fans to distance themselves within their assigned section. We had a few sections right at midfield where there were some concentrations of fans that were not properly distanced. We did prepare for this possibility by adding additional ushers and having designated seating sections that were available for those who wished to further distance themselves from others, but we will be looking at other measures to help with this issue for the remaining home games.

 

As far as communication, we didn’t experience much of a change in frequency of calls on the radio or cell phones. Our game day staff was trained on the policies and for the most part, they handled situations within their chain of command.

 

We are very fortunate to have a high level of support from our local officials when it comes to our collective effort to host events on our campus. We collaborate closely with law enforcement, emergency medical services, and our emergency management officials. Law enforcement provided support with enforcing restrictions on tailgating and in the stadium with fans who may not have been very cooperative with regard to wearing face coverings. Our emergency management officials provided masks that we had at each gate for fans who showed up without one as well as temporal thermometers that we had available for staff and media.

 

Wise (Miami) – Appropriately staffing the gates and getting the parking lots and stadium gates open are always challenges. I work with the Hard Rock Stadium management to make sure staffing levels are appropriate and adjust where needed. This was the first major event for the stadium and us, so working through staffing and getting everyone placed appropriately was interesting. First, Guest Experience staff was placed at the aisle at the bottom of the first 8 rows to ensure fans didn’t come below the 8 rows, as these were blocked off. Second, Guest Experience staff were placed in the parking lots to remind fans of the social distancing measures and the timing cues to enter the stadium among other duties. I mention those two because these are added positions that fans were not use to but beneficial to help enforce the social distancing measures.

 

Also, we have a new wrinkle this season with ambient crowd noise, so the experience of getting two teams to mutually agree on the sound level was a definite surprise for me. The files were selected by the ACC via collective efforts of the schools marketing directors in conjunction with the director of football operations and review with the game management directors.

 

Since we are able to have fan attendance we were able to work through this challenge. More communication on cell phones and radios. Quickest and best way to reach folks when needed.

 

From the onset Hard Rock Stadium Management worked with county and health officials to ensure all safety measures being implemented met county and state guidelines as well as the stadium received the first GBAC rating for a NFL stadium for enhanced cleaning. Obviously local law enforcement plays a huge role in safety on any given day and this was no different. From staffing officers, to assisting with enforcing safety measures to just being a presence when needed, law enforcement is always helpful.

 

Was the structure of your post-game wrap-up meeting (attendees, length of meeting, etc.) notably altered compared to a “normal” season? If so, how?

 

Dwyer (UAB) – We will be hosting our large group post game meeting next week. We have had small group discussions, but playing back to back Thursday night games, with the Labor Day holiday thrown in the middle made it difficult to get our large group together soon. All of our preseason meetings have gone longer than they had in the past, so I wouldn’t expect that to change after game one.

 

Atkinson (Southern Miss) – Our postgame meeting was not particularly out of the ordinary. It was a virtual meeting as most of our meetings are these days and it was actually probably a little shorter than it typically is. Having a considerably smaller crowd than normal, we had a fewer number of issues to discuss. I think we all felt that overall things went well and perhaps even better than expected. We don’t have plans to make many changes before our next home game.

 

Wise (Miami) – No, not really. At the end of the game I always try to do a brief recap with the Stadium Operations folks, so I was able to do that. We generally collect feedback via email from staff, make adjustments during the week, then do a big wrap up meeting at the end of the season.

 

After one home game in the books, what operational improvements are you looking to implement going forward?

 

Dwyer (UAB) – I think we executed our plan very well. There are always small tweaks from week to week, even in a non-COVID year. Everyone will always say that better communication is key, but this year more than ever there is a need to over-communicate, both internally and externally. The policy changes don’t impact just one group, so you have to find ways to reach as many people as much as possible. I think that our external team has done a good job reaching folks via social media, email blasts, and we will continue to work with the city and Jefferson County to increase the signage and get the information out any way that we can.

 

Atkinson (Southern Miss) – The two items I mentioned earlier – face covering issues and social distancing in a few of the seating areas – will be the two main areas we focus on. I think we need to continue our educational efforts as they relate to our stadium policies and I also hope to learn from my colleagues across Conference USA and across the state of Mississippi what they are doing that may help with the effectiveness of our efforts. And finally I will be working with our game day staffing provider and campus police to look at other possible solutions.

 

Wise (Miami) – Working with stadium management on staffing and educational training. There have been lots of changes and no one person can remember them all, so the constant training of staff and educating our fans on the appropriate protocols and changes is essential. And finally one of the big things for us coming from game one is the level of communication with the visiting team and staff. We will increase this to ensure the visiting teams understands and knows all the changes not only from the conference level, but also stadium protocols. Since we play in an NFL stadium, we are enforcing a lot of the NFL requirements so there is consistency from our games to Dolphins games. This is great, but slightly different from our normal routine so ensuring our internal staff knows all the changes and how to get from point A to point B and what can or cannot be done will be on going throughout the season.