When sports events returned after cancellations and delays as the prominence of COVID diminished, stadiums were silent. Crowds were replaced by cardboard cutouts and noise recordings—the fan experience was noticeably absent. While championships and victories were celebrated, the in-person fan participation was underscored by the inability to high-five strangers and no pregame tailgating. The electricity of a sold-out stadium proved to be essential to the sporting atmosphere.
As more people are vaccinated, transmission rates fall, and social distancing eased, fans will want to return to the stadium. Leagues must remain diligent and act responsibly as they welcome fans back into their seats. Our report provides this roadmap for a safe and exciting return to the stadiums.
Four characteristics of a winning return-to-the-stadium strategy
The COVID-19 pandemic fundamentally changed how we interact with each other. Sports fans are eager to return to the stands, but they also have new expectations. At the same time, teams and venues are balancing local regulatory requirements, consumer safety expectations, and profitability.
Successful sports organizations will recognize this shift and inject four crucial characteristics into their operations. Starting with empathy as the foundation for their fan experience, these organizations will focus on communication, proactivity, and technology to responsibly bring the sports community back.
Society has gone through unprecedented stress since the start of the pandemic, which challenged our health and economic systems more than any event in recent history. Although fans may be ready to return to the stands, many still have concerns about their health. Others, facing job losses and financial pressures, might not be able to return.
Sports organizations should ask empathetic questions and seek ways to meet the needs of their supporters in innovative ways.
Over the last year, sports organizations have taken action to address the new reality, including:
• Setting up COVID-19 relief funds for hourly employees.
• Hosting COVID-19 testing or vaccination sites at stadiums.
• Distributing groceries and supplies to help families experiencing food insecurity.
Such initiatives generated goodwill within communities and may have helped stem the spread of the virus. While the economic recovery have begun and infection rates are down in some regions, sports leagues should remain mindful of the role they can play in their communities to drive recovery or address other social issues.
Sports organizations should communicate with their fans through the channels they use. This may include leveraging influencers through social media to appeal to younger audiences and sending out regular email blasts to stay connected with fans. Sports teams should be clear and transparent about what fans should expect when they re-enter the stadium. Rely on local regulations and mandates to enforce standards at your venues. Some parts of the world have relaxed mask-wearing rules while mandates remain in other regions. Successful venues will have appropriate signage delineating routes for individuals to follow and floor stickers that promote social distancing in bottleneck areas. Stadium personnel should be encouraged to coach — rather than police — fans on proper distancing and mask mandates. Star athletes can lead the way by displaying proper mask-wearing on the big screen, within in-game apps, and on signs throughout the stadium. Not only is it important to describe protocols to fans, but communication is a two-way street. Successful organizations will listen and interact with fans on social media and emphasize the importance of adhering to COVID-19 safety protocols.
Sports organizers should develop plans to diversify their revenue streams during a time when ticket sales may still lag. But they should also ensure that solving today’s revenue problems does not lead to missing out on future opportunities.
As they address immediate challenges, organizations should be looking ahead and planning for best- and worst-case capacity scenarios months in advance, allowing them to quickly scale their operations and avoid missing out on ticket revenue. This means having contingency plans for health screenings, socially distant security lines, and labor availability when capacity ramps up.
The adoption of new technologies accelerated across society during the pandemic, and sports was no exception. As fans return to the stadium, they will expect a digitally enhanced and technology-enabled experience.
Clubs that plan to invite fans back into the stadium should leverage innovative technology to safely bring stadiums back to life and create an enhanced experience. Smartphone tickets and contactless payments for concessions are a start. Many fans will expect technologically advanced sporting events filled with event-based apps, access to real-time data, and interactive experiences.
Apps and technology can also improve the health and safety of fans. Smartphone tickets can be tied to a pre-screening health questionnaire to “unlock” entry into the event. However, sports organizations should remember that pre-screening health questionnaires and temperature checks have limited data backing up their effectiveness. And taking these steps does not eliminate all risk that COVID-19 or another virus will spread during an event.
Once in the stadium, some organizations are using sensors and other technology to monitor the flow of guests to pinpoint clusters and assist in contact tracing. Sports organizations should also consider regular sanitation of high-touch surfaces and ensure increased ventilation through the venue. On exiting the stadium, sports teams should consider requiring spectators to leave by seating section, guided by screens and audio messaging.