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Papal Visit Wreaking Havoc on Sports Events

23 Sep, 2015

By: Mary Helen Sprecher

You’ll occasionally hear that a sports event is on, “come hell or high water.”

Make that holy water.

The visit of Pope Francis to select cities in the United States is wreaking havoc on traffic, as well as on preplanned vacations – and it’s about to cause headaches for sports event planners, too.

According to USA TODAY, transportation officials are expecting an estimated 2 million people and 100,000 to 250,000 vehicles to travel through New Jersey during the papal visit, requiring the closure of the Benjamin Franklin Bridge in Philadelphia and the need to boost mass transit options between New Jersey and New York.

The Supreme Pontiff landed in the USA on September 22 and he departs for Rome on September 27. In between, there are stops in Washington, DC, New York City and Philly. A full schedule of the Pope’s activities is available here.

A papal visit is a tourism boon, driving the faithful (and the curious) into cities for a glimpse of His Holiness. However, it’s also going to take an act of God for planners whose sports events will coincide with the activities, to have things come off as scheduled.

For example if your Sunday plans include, say, football, well, USA TODAY has two words for you: Good luck.

The NFL’s New York Giants and New York Jets will play home games at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., that week on Thursday night and Sunday afternoon.

“You don’t need to be a traffic engineer to know we’re going to have traffic jams,” traffic engineer Sam Schwartz said.

Oh, and if you're in DC, WTOP says to throw this into the mix: the Nationals and Orioles will complete a three-game series at Nationals Park with a 7:05 p.m. game on Wednesday (the first took place on Tuesday). If there is one upside to the fact that the Nationals and Orioles could each be close to elimination from playoff contention by gametime, it’s possible that the baseball crowds will be a bit smaller than otherwise would be expected for the regional-rivalry "beltway" series.

But that's just the NFL and MLB. That’s not even taking into consideration the weeknight youth soccer practices and weekend matches, high school football games or even Saturday morning 5Ks in the affected areas of DC, New York, New Jersey and Philly – all of which were scheduled well in advance of the papal visit, and are now scrambling for ways to accommodate the demands the event will place upon their attendees.

In fact, the Rock 'n' Roll Philadelphia Half Marathon had to be rescheduled to Halloween to avoid conflicts with the papal visit. The event, which draws about 15,000 athletes, as well as family, friends, staff, vendors and others, did not want to contend with the traffic shutdowns that would threaten the route or diminish its economic impact. A study conducted by San Diego State University (near where the Rock 'n' Roll event is headquartered) estimates that race weekend has an economic impact of $15 million on the region. Ordinarily, the race is a huge draw since many pros use it as a tune-up for the New York City Marathon. According to Philly.com, this year, the New York event will be the day after the Philadelphia half-marathon. The event's move is already having a domino effect on how local runners will compete, too. The Run the Bridge 10K, which draws about 3,500 runners, is traditionally the first Sunday in November - the day after this race. The Philadelphia Marathon and its accompanying half-marathon are scheduled for Nov. 22. Both half-marathons have about the same number of finishers - and neither sees this as an ideal scenario.

Some events are unable to change their dates, and expect to suffer. Philadelphia Area Girls Soccer could not, because of their schedule, change the dates of any games, but posted a notice on their website stating they would allow others to reschedule games with their opponents privately.

Some school systems (particularly parochial schools) that stood to be affected by the weekday traffic closed for the day, effectively cancelling their after-school activities such as sports, pushing events forward into the school year. However, college sports, who have pre-planned travel schedules, were particularly hard-hit. Penn's game with Villanova had to be rescheduled because of the expected congestion. Drexel University had created a full page on its website to deal with the impact of the papal visit, including on recreational and sports activities. Cabrini College cancelled all sports activities for the duration of the pope's visit to the Philadelphia area.

In addition to the traffic headaches, a papal visit requires a high degree of security, something else that stood to impact sports events in the area. Mailboxes on the pope’s motorcade route are removed, lest they present a place for someone to hide incendiary or explosive devices. There is an extensive inventory of prohibited items, including coolers, glass, thermal or metal containers (yes, that includes water bottles), drones, selfie sticks, oversized backpacks and more. Many of these are commonly used by visitors to sports events – and those visitors won’t take well to the restrictions. A full list can be found here.

In Philadelphia, Mayor Michael Nutter has been criticized for his aggressive approach to security during the papal visit, noted an article in Center City Team, “with many saying that the security perimeters and traffic boxes are too intrusive. This latest set of instructions, however, was issued by the Secret Service, which is in charge of keeping the pope safe. As you are unlikely to get anywhere good rebelling against the security restrictions, you would likely do better to just embrace the crazy and weather the storm that is the papal visit.”

In other words, abandon all Pope hope.

And since laughter is the only way for a sports fan to deal with it, you might as well order one of the great T-shirts designed by Jamesville-DeWitt High School graduates Scott Soffen and Chris Bostic. Take your choice. One says, "Yo, Pontiff!" (get that "Rocky" reference?) and the other shows the pope as the goalie for the Philly Flyers with the inscription, “Francis Saves Philadelphia.”

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