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Post-COVID Sports: Stadium Disinfecting Drones, Cardboard Spectators

13 May, 2020

By: Mary Helen Sprecher
A New Economy is Emerging, and It's an Entrepreneurial Showcase

While the sports landscape is still shaky, we’re starting to see some sports re-emerge. Just last week, for example, B.A.S.S. announced a return to competition, and US Lacrosse noted the formation of its Safe Return to Play Advisory Group.

Another aspect of the sports event industry that requires study is the need to keep spectators safe, whether they're indoors or outdoors. The industry has moved from sellouts to shutdowns – and now that it wants to reopen, new protocols are going to be necessary. And while all sports want to avoid the no-fan experience, it’s less clear what constitutes a healthy approach.

Companies have recently stepped up their games, entering into the new arena of spectators safety in a post-COVID-19 era. It’s a new market and it’s only just starting to be tapped. At the moment, it's an entrepreneurial free-for-all.

One part of the puzzle will be sterilizing venues before and after use. In this case, a modified crop-duster approach, using drones, is coming into play. According to an article in Venues Now, U.S. companies including Rantizo Inc. of Iowa City, Iowa; OMI Environmental Solutions of Belle Chasse, Louisiana.; and EagleHawk of Buffalo, New York, are offering amphitheaters, arenas, stadiums and other facilities the opportunity to have airborne sprayer drones disinfect and sanitize their facilities.  

All three use sprayed disinfectants and are marketing drones’ ability to sanitize seating areas and other spaces quickly and safely. In fact, work is already in place with a number of venues. Rantizo recently conducted tests at Principal Park, the Des Moines home of the Triple A Pacific Coast League’s Iowa Cubs, and EagleHawk has done the same at Sahlen Field, where the Buffalo Bisons of the Triple-A International League play. 

All three companies say the drones save on labor costs since it removes the need for individuals to go into stadiums and hose down seats with disinfectants. And for jobs that require a quick turnaround, more drones can be employed, getting the venue done in a shorter time.

Rantizo’s president and CEO, Michael Ott, says it’s a brave new world for companies that can expand their capabilities and look for opportunities.

We’re looking at what groups are going to be starting up and what opportunities are out there. Sporting events still seem like they are a little bit away, but we want to get into public parks, we want to do warehouses … things that are getting people back to work and back to enjoying life. Car dealerships. School playgrounds. Those type of things,” he said. “It’s a target rich environment and we’re trying to figure what are some of the best near-term things that we can do.

On the logistics side, there is much to do as well and teams are feeling their way through the new landscape of requirements and restrictions. According to Bleacher Report, for example, the Miami Dolphins are making plans to allow fans to attend games – with some modifications.

The stadium has a capacity of 65,000, but it is possible that attendance could be capped at 15,000. This is likely to be met with enormous pushback from fans who have long had groups of seats with friends or families – and more from those who might not get into games, despite having purchased season tickets.

 Another significant change being considered, said the article, could be felt by those entering and exiting the stadium.

"We would have times to come in for security at different gates so people would be separated out, in terms of when they enter the stadium," Dolphins president Tom Garfinkel said. "We would exit the stadium much like a church environment, where each row exits so people aren't filing out all at the same time in a herd."

Note to Garfinkel: You must go to a very organized church; many turn into a veritable free-for-all once the recessional hymn is played.

While it’s one thing for a stadium to downsize its capacity (even temporarily), it’s another to create a full-on plan for how seating should be arranged and enterprising companies are making their way to the table here as well. The Stadium Business noted that 3D Digital Venue has launched a new service allowing clients to maximize ticketing revenues while maintaining distancing rules when stadiums reopen following COVID-19.

The Barcelona, Spain-based firm’s new Venue Business Intelligence (VBI) is being marketed as a way to help stadium and arena management teams achieve “maximum efficiency” when seating their clients while maintaining the safety distances recommended by health institutions. Through the new service, managers can access interactive virtual reconstructions and perform different types of simulations.

Lluis Pascual, chief marketing officer at 3D Digital Venue, told The Stadium Business that adapting to new measures imposed by governments will be key for the venues that host sports events (and even the events themselves) to survive in a post-COVID-19 world. And, he noted, as sports returns to play, experiences could become more intimate and personal as venues operate at limited capacities.

He told the publication, “The next year may force changes in our behavior to maximize our ability to respond to these challenges. The most important thing will be the capacity to adapt to the new measures that the governments will impose. At least until a vaccine is found, it will be crucial to respect health indications, even in mass events. Companies will have to be able to change at any time the way they operate to keep going.”

Of course, if local ordinances are still forbidding mass gatherings completely, there's a way to put fans in the stands, sort of. And it gives the term "paper man," a whole new meaning. In Germany, where the pro league, the Bundesliga, still is not able to host spectators, one fan has developed an app that, for a fee, allow fans to upload an image of themselves that will be printed out and placed in the stands to root for their teams. It costs the equivalent of $20.

Ingo Müller, a fan of soccer club Borussia Mönchengladbach, came up with the idea during quarantine. So far, he says, the cardboard campaign has exceeded 10,000 orders. For their photos, fans put on their jerseys and wear their scarves. Even supporters of visiting sides have placed orders, so that when their team travels to Mönchengladbach, they’ll be at the game too — booing the home team, at least in spirit. Müller insists intense rivalries will preclude other Bundesliga clubs from replicating the cardboard plan. “They would never dare to copy it,” says Müller. “Bayern Munich is really pissed that we came up with it.” (Bayern Munich did not respond to an email seeking comment.)

A portion of the proceeds from cardboard sales, says Müller, will be placed in a fund for fans requiring help during the pandemic. The initiative is also assisting the local printing business during an uncertain time. Officials from Borussia Mönchengladbach immediately embraced the idea: they opened up their stadium to the supporters group, who have already stationed 3,000 cardboard fans in the 54,000-seat facility. Dinamo Brest, a team in the Belarusian Premier League, has adopted a similar strategy, according to the Wink Report.

The ability to pivot is has been showcased throughout the COVID-19 crisis. Early on, Quore, a company that produces workflow management systems for hotels, modified its products to help hotels set up as temporary isolation wards or makeshift hospitals, including repurposing of personnel and mechansims to minimizeg face-to-face contact between staff and guests.

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