I'm in New Orleans for the 3rd Annual National Sports Safety & Security Conference and Exhibition.
The three-day conference, organized by the National Center for Spectator Sports Safety and Security (NCS4) at the University of Southern Mississippi, attracted roughly 400 people this year, a slight increase from last year's numbers, Lou Marciani, NCS4's director, told me. There are also 53 exhibitors, from camera manufacturers to companies offering incident management systems.
The major panel discussion of the day tackled the issue of spectator violence, its causes and what methods are being applied to combat it.
The panel included several security professionals involved in the sports world, including Jeff Miller, the NFL's chief of security; Evan Dabby, senior director of operations for Major League Soccer (MLS); Jim Mercurio, VP of stadium operations and security for the San Francisco 49ers; and Paul Denton, police chief at Ohio State University.
Some of the causes of spectator violence discussed were not a surprise. Alcohol is a major one. Another is team rivalries and gang activity in certain scenarios and in certain cities. But a few causes not often considered were also on the table for discussion.
Nelson Rodriguez, executive vice president of competition for MLS, took a few contrarian viewpoints. He argued that two other factors contribute to fan disruptions and violence. One is the rising cost of tickets, which he said creates an environment were fans feel entitled to do anything they want "because they paid a pretty penny" to be there. The second are attempts to segregate fans of rival teams, which he said perpetuates an us-versus-them mentality, rather than integrating them. In Europe, where soccer is much more popular than it is in this country, all the stadiums segregate fans. That method is beginning to be implemented in some new U.S. stadiums, such as PPL Park in Chester, Pa., where fans of the MLS team Philadelphia Union have their own entrance and seating section. "I wonder if by segregating them we're not creating the gang mentality," Rodriguez said.
However, on that latter point, Rodriguez joked there isn't much debate within MLS on the issue because he seems to be the only who holds that opinion.
Miller from the NFL also mentioned that bad behavior on the part of players can contribute to fans believing that anything goes and disruptive behavior will be tolerated.
As for solutions, Miller discussed what the NFL has done to combat spectator violence, including being proactive about enforcing a fan code of conduct, which he helped develop when he joined the league in 2008. That means anyone caught breaking the code could be ejected. In some cases, those ejected are asked to take an online course to regain future entry. The class is designed to educate fans about what they can and can't do when they're in the stadium. The fan isn't forced to take the online course, but if they don't and are caught in the stadium again they could be arrested for trespassing.
Miller also said he's a big fan of the "broken windows" theory and that security professionals have to go after the little things, whether that's deploying recycling teams to encourage tailgaters to recycle their empty cans and bottles rather than leaving them in the parking lot or targeting public urination. "You have to be relentless," he said. "If you do that, by the end of the year you'll have changed behavior."
And, obviously, alcohol management is an important factor. Miller spoke to the fact that NFL stadiums have limits on the number of beers one person can buy at a time (it's two) and that all vendors are trained to see red flags and not over serve fans. NFL stadiums also cut off alcohol sales before the end of the game, sometimes during the third quarter or even during halftime depending on the situation in the crowd. At one Jets game, they didn't sell any alcohol, Miller said. That is evidence the NFL takes fan safety seriously. "If it was all about revenue the NFL would never cut alcohol sales, ever," Miller said.
Mercurio at the 49ers discussed how last year they began limiting the hours that fans could tailgate, cutting it off when the games start, and being more diligent in barring entry to people who are obviously drunk. (Some of those changes were implemented last year after the 49ers were in the headlines when two fans were shot and another badly beaten after a game against its rivals, the Oakland Raiders.)
Being proactive and working with local law enforcement is also important. Mercurio told one story about last January's NFC Championship game between the 49ers and the New York Giants, which took place in San Francisco. The police chief decided to put undercover police officers in Giants jerseys during the game, then decided to publicize that fact. Mercurio at first questioned whether publicizing that was a good idea, but he had no idea how powerful a deterrent it was that fans thought everyone in a Giants jersey was a police officer. "We will be doing that throughout the season as one of the standing operating procedures," Mercurio said.
As a result of the NFL's crackdown on fan disruptions and proactive stance to stemming problems before they grow out of hand, arrests at NFL stadiums are down 23 percent league-wide since 2008, Miller said. Ejections are up slightly, but that's because more troublemakers are being caught before doing something illegal.
Fan engagement should be part of any stadium security plan, according to Dabby from MLS. In MLS, some of the fan groups are well organized and have a hierarchical structure, which makes Dabby's job easier because he can communicate with the heads of the fan groups, some of which have their own security, something Dabby called "soft policing." Another thing MLS does is use what are called "stewards," Rodriguez said. They are like security, but also work to improve the fan experience. In some cases, these "stewards" travel with the team to away games and patrol within their fan sections. The idea being that they will be a familiar face and they'll also know the potential troublemakers in the crowd.
These MLS fan groups also have certain "carrots," Dabby said, such as the ability to wave large flags, that they don't want taken away. As a result, the fans themselves have been very helpful in rooting out troublemakers within their midsts.
No matter the sport, the fan experience should always be a factor in a security professionals reasoning when developing a security plan, Miller said. Despite security's primary task of keeping fans safe and venues secure, it should also work to contribute to the fan experience when it can. "We as security can't be seen as obstructionists," he said.
Stay tuned for more coverage from NCS4's 3rd Annual National Sports Safety & Security Conference and Exhibition.