Iowa strength and conditioning coach Chris Doyle discusses the ways he is seeking advantages for the Hawkeyes in a COVID-19 world. Hawk Central
As some state governments begin loosening restrictions on public activities amid the coronavirus pandemic, college athletics officials are starting to look at how they can stage football games in ways that maintain safety but keep fans as connected to their teams and traditions.
In some ways, the considerations aren’t much different than those facing NFL teams as they try to deal with player, staff, fan and public health. But college-campus life, college stadiums and what college fans love about their Saturdays present their own challenges.
“Part of what makes college football is the pageantry,” said Georgia deputy athletics director Josh Brooks.
But, even if fans and bands and cheerleaders are allowed, how much pageantry can be provided in this new era of social distancing?
“If we have to maintain social distancing, maybe Script Ohio has to be twice as big,” Ohio State Marching Band director Chris Hoch said with a chuckle.
There are still myriad ifs when it comes to what football may look like – and if it will be played as scheduled across the country – and many schools and officials aren’t ready to address it publicly. “With so much uncertainty, we have held off on sharing too much detail on the planning process at this point,” University of Washington athletics spokesman Jay Hilbrands said via email.
In parts of the country where college administrators do feel comfortable discussing their planning, they are getting creative, digging into new technologies and contemplating everything from food service, to event-staff training, to home sidelines that normally would be crowded with more than 100 players and all manner of other participants.
When it comes to the fan experience, schools are having to almost think backwards. They are looking at the best ways to discourage large gatherings around a stadium, on campus and in parking lots. They are also considering ways to create a game-day experience for fans who can’t, or might be reluctant to, attend.
“We’re looking at creating content so that people can get a feel for the game,” said Steve Malchow, Iowa State senior associate athletics director for communications. “Do we do a live look-in at the equipment staff putting out helmets in the locker room? Do we do a live look-in at the team getting on the bus at the team hotel? We want to get (fans) revved up for when TV does kick off.”
Knowing that fans tailgate in the same places year after year, Malchow said Iowa State is thinking about trying to encourage fans to take photos of themselves tailgating in the backyard and then putting the pictures on Instagram or Facebook with identifiers of what would normally be their parking areas.
“We’re just looking at things we’ve never even contemplated,” Malchow said. “But it’s engagement.”
Anything to bring fans closer, except actually bringing them physically closer. Assuming reduced capacities for games that fans can attend, keeping people spread out around the stadium and surrounding areas may be difficult.
“The biggest difference between college and the pros, at least with a lot of the powerhouse programs that have been around for 80, 90 years, is that most (college) stadiums are standing, smack-dab in the middle of campus,” Brooks said. “And many of them have been expanded several times. I’m not making excuses, but that makes it more difficult.”
Parking usually isn’t in a massive lot surrounding the stadium. It’s in multiple lots, all around a campus with students and other visitors. Stadium concourses aren’t as wide as they are in most more modern pro ballparks. Restrooms aren’t as large and may not be fully equipped with touchless fixtures. There may be fewer concession stands and they are less likely to have all-mobile ticketing or fully automated pay systems like ApplePay or customer-controlled credit-card readers.
Mississippi State athletics officials are in the process of acquiring pay systems that they can use not only at the football stadium, but also at other venues. Deputy athletics director Eric George said this was probably going to happen soon, but the pandemic “adds a sense of urgency,” he said.
The mantra is reducing so-called touch points and increasing efficiency of fan-traffic flow.
“If you have reduced capacity and have all the concession stands open, now you can manage,” Brooks said.
But figuring out how to reduce capacity isn’t as simple as it sounds. Malchow said Iowa State is looking at how things set up with six feet of distance between fans and how they set up with 10 feet. Brooks said that because Georgia’s stadium has asymmetrical sections, he and his staff have been having to evaluate seating charts by hand, so they can plot where they could fit groups of two, three and four. “It’s been a fun math project,” he said.
Georgia is looking at other ways to improve the movement of fans at games, including the prospect of free-standing, pedestal ticket scanners. When a fan waves a ticket or smartphone bar code at the scanner, Brooks said, a light turns green — and a person formerly known as a ticket-taker can monitor from a safe distance. “Technology like that is going to be a hot commodity,” Brooks said.
Georgia also is likely to remove water-bottle fillers and cooling misters. “Anything that promotes congregating of people,” Brooks said, “we’re looking at” and whether it can be eliminated.
“If the most important thing is getting the game in, what do you have to sacrifice?” he added. “There may be some things you can’t do.”
Buying nachos and other open, non-packaged food items is probably out, officials said.
And there may be more that gets set aside. Or ruled back in.
“Football season is four months away,” George said, “and while that seems like a long time, you can’t just wait till the season starts. You make the best decisions you can with the information that’s in front of you, then you adapt and adjust from there."