The Delta Sky360 Club at Mercedes-Benz Stadium
Photo: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC file
Photo: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC file

Sports teams grapple with how venues must change when fans return

A few years ago, when about $2.5 billion was being spent on building or renovating venues for Atlanta’s pro sports franchises, the architects and the teams valued social spaces where fans could mingle and dine.

The homes of the Braves, Falcons, Hawks and Atlanta United introduced an array of upscale clubs, often with buffet-style food service. The Braves built an enclosed area for large groups directly behind the right-field fence. The Hawks outfitted a space with couches and cabanas overlooking the court. The Falcons and Atlanta United created a beer garden concept with communal tables. 

In all, Truist Park (formerly SunTrust Park), Mercedes-Benz Stadium and State Farm Arena incorporated dozens of gathering spaces for fans to watch, or not watch, games in bustling social settings away from the traditional seating bowl.  

Now, amid the coronavirus pandemic, the teams are grappling with questions about how such spaces – and the fan experience in general – must change when their venues reopen to ticket buyers, whenever that is.

“I think if you follow the social-distancing guidelines and if people are doing what they’re expected to do, it’s possible you could still have those spaces,” said Patrick Rishe, director of the sports business program at Washington University in St. Louis and founder of a sports consulting firm. “You’ll have to have fewer people in them. Some tables have to be blocked off to keep people six feet apart. 

“It’s just not going to have the same feel. There are staffing needs that are going to be required to ensure a higher standard of hygiene and social distancing for as long as we need to. So the question becomes, is it worth the added expense of doing that? Or does the team shut down those areas?” 

There are far more questions than answers at the moment about the resumption of pro and college sports. Teams are consulting with one another -- locally, nationally, even internationally -- and sharing ideas and issues. They’re looking to leagues, governments and medical experts for guidance. 

“There’s discussions about all kinds of different scenarios that could happen or could not happen,” said Dietmar Exler, chief operating officer of AMB Sports & Entertainment, which includes the Falcons and Atlanta United and operates Mercedes-Benz Stadium. “If we’re honest, that’s all speculation.

“It is not that far off,” he said, referring to a Falcons schedule that calls for exhibition games in August. “But given all the surprises, all the unexpected twists, we’ve already had with coronavirus and things changing … it seems to be quite some distance away.” 

The Falcons and Atlanta United have a “task force” examining and planning various phases of reopening the stadium and other facilities, Exler said. The Braves and Hawks declined to comment because of the fluidity of the situation.

MLB has a plan to start its season in early July without fans in attendance, but that depends on reaching an agreement with the players’ union on financial and safety issues. Those efforts have proved to be contentious, particularly the financial part. 

The NBA and MLS are considering restarting their seasons this summer without fans at Disney’s Wide World of Sports complex near Orlando. The NFL and college football have had the calendar in their favor, providing more time to figure out how to proceed. The NFL has consistently maintained it expects to play a full season, but even if that happens, it’s not known how many fans could attend games. 

The operator of New Orleans’ Superdome said last week that under a six-foot social-distancing guideline the stadium would have only 17.5% of its normal capacity – or about 13,000 fans for Saints games. The Saints reportedly are looking at ways to increase that number. 

Whenever fans return, in whatever number, they surely will find a much-changed environment inside the venues, at least until a COVID-19 vaccine is in place. 

Vince Thompson, chairman and CEO of Atlanta-based sports marketing agency MELT, thinks pro and college sports fans will notice changes in stadiums as dramatic as travelers found “going to the airport post-9/11.” 

He thinks venues increasingly will transition to cashless operations and mobile-only ticketing to reduce contact. Mercedes-Benz Stadium went to cashless transactions at all events last year, adopted mobile-only ticketing for Atlanta United and Falcons games this year and now is exploring a shift to mobile ordering of concessions. 

Thompson also looks for a “harsh re-examination” of the high cost of attending games in light of the economic fallout from the pandemic. He wonders “how soon fans are going to be comfortable coming back,” both because of safety concerns and less discretionary income. 

“Now, when we get to the other side of the pandemic with treatment and a vaccine, I think you’ll see a migration back,” Thompson said. “But I don’t think that’s going to be like turning on a light switch. No way. 

“I do think this is going to drive a shift in sports consumption patterns permanently.” 

Thompson figures “it’ll be impossible” for clubs and other gathering spaces in stadiums to operate as they did in the past. It’s an important issue for teams because such spaces have resonated with customers and are linked to the most expensive tickets. 

Asked how such clubs could operate in the future at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Exler said: “It’s the same question ... with social distancing that everybody has. We’re discussing different options, but there is nothing that we want to share at the current time.” 

He said new cleaning and disinfecting procedures will be implemented for all of the “high touch areas” in the stadium. 

“Cleaning has always been a big focus, but we are substantially increasing our efforts there,” Exler said. “We are looking at all kinds of new technology, new cleaning products. We were extremely good in the past, but the situation just warrants we double down on it.”

If stadiums are reopened to fans to some extent with social distancing still in place, operators will have to change entry procedures to prevent congestion at the gates and exit procedures to alleviate crowded concourses.  And, among countless other details, it remains to be seen if the freestanding soft-drink refill stations at Mercedes-Benz Stadium can survive new sanitation protocols.

Operating stadiums with reduced capacity, leaving vacant some seats in each row and some rows in each section, could require determining which season-ticket holders can attend from among those who want to return.  That could be a particularly thorny issue for, say, Georgia Bulldogs football games.

“It’s not a time I envy leaders in the sports industry because they’ve got some very difficult decisions to make,” Rishe said. “I think the impact on the sports industry is not going to be a six-month, 2020 phenomenon. I think it’s going to be something we’re still reeling and reacting from probably over the next two years.”

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