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Viewpoint: Technological challenges for the return to stadiums

David Sánchez, CTO of 3D Digital Venue, discusses the operational difficulties that have had to be overcome to bring fans back to sport…

No one can deny that this last year-and-a-half has been a headache for sports organisations in all countries of the world. One of their great concerns, among many others, has been the uncertainty about the return of the public to the stadiums.

The clubs have had to manage to keep up with the epidemiological situation and, in the absence of clarity in the different health regulations, they have desperately asked for help to at least begin to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

The lucky few

Something that seemed as simple as maintaining a safe distance between people became a difficult challenge to solve. Not only because of the unknown provided by the date on which people could enter a venue, but also because of knowing who would be the lucky few who could enjoy a game or show.

The debate over who had priority to enter appeared surprisingly much later than many may think. At the beginning, everything was to know what minimums the clubs would face: will it be profitable to open the stadium for a low occupancy percentage? Seeing how the pandemic has evolved, this response was blown away in a matter of weeks.

Giving up most of the revenue from ticket sales, the focus has ended on ensuring people’s safety and, little by little, building confidence in attending mass events. This could suggest that governments would allow the facilities to be opened earlier, and therefore generate income as soon as possible.

Contradictory situations

Unfortunately, there has been no universal law that health authorities and event organisers could consult and apply. This has led to bizarre and contradictory situations in Spain and elsewhere. For a few months, we have seen audiences in stadiums in matches organised by the Royal Spanish Football Federation (RFEF), but not in those organised by LaLiga.

We have seen indoor venues, such as theatres and cinemas, hosting events in recent months, but we have not been able to see audiences in outdoor stadiums.

The first problem we face is the small technological deployment to which the clubs have access – it depends on the country to a greater or lesser extent – and this forced in the first instance to look for quick and manual solutions.

For example, we have seen the assumption that, if we leave three empty seats between people in the same row, there will be a safety distance of between 1.4 and 1.6 meters, due to how wide the seats are usually in an enclosure.

What neither the clubs nor the authorities began to consider was that between rows the distance between people was not fulfilled. The first proposal of maximum capacity was 30%; Paradoxically, we have not seen any venue where maintaining a distance of 1.5 meters between people (remember, leaving three seats empty) can achieve a 30% capacity. Leaving so many seats free can reach, at most, a 15-20% capacity.

And all this without taking into account that the venues themselves have seat locks unrelated to social distancing (club commitments, position of TV cameras, etc.).

Sample of a simulation of capacity with groups of 2 and 4 people at 1.5m (30% of capacity)

To provide a technological solution that would help solve this mess, some technologists turned our houses into small research centres and made the most of our experience on capacity, geometry, and sports and cultural venues.

Seating groups

The first observation was to use actual distances instead of leaving a fixed number of seats and rows empty. Thanks to having access to virtual representations of various venues, we were able to simulate gauges where effectively the distance between people was respected in all directions. As more seats were cancelled, capacity plummeted.

We realised that using seating groups could significantly increase the number of people. These groups can be considered as people from the same coexistence bubble, where we can omit the distance between them.

A very simple example: if only groups of four people sit, the capacity that can be achieved, unlike sitting people individually, practically doubles.

In order to defend the argument of the groups, we did a brief market study to find out the interest and the possibility of including groups among the attendees. We saw that the difference between countries was notorious: in Spain today it is still advocated not to introduce groups, while in the US they were used from the first day of opening.

We can point to cultural reasons, and we sense a distrust when it comes to forming bubbles of coexistence to attend games.

Capacity simulations

Thus, the first iteration in the capacity simulations was based on adjusting the groups (for example, determining the percentage of groups of different sizes) to achieve the desired capacity numbers.

As the restrictions have been relaxed, the distance between groups has also been adjusted. It should be noted that the rule of reaching a maximum of 30% capacity in stadiums ended up dying due to disuse, and at the time of opening a maximum number of people has simply been set – it seems someone realised the incongruity.

The next task – and the most complex – was to provide web applications so that the clubs and event organisers themselves had a capacity simulator at their disposal based on various input parameters (including social distance and group percentages). The ultimate goal was for the club itself to be able to extract a list of blocked seats and thus be able to communicate to its respective ticketing system which seats were available.

At first, assigning these seats to subscribers was a puzzle, since the criteria for selecting people to enter the stadiums were very difficult to rationalise.

One of the first clubs to test a membership assignment was Club Brugge KV of Belgium. A registration and draw system was devised that allowed the stadium to be timidly filled in some matches in the summer of 2020.

The basic concept was based on a simulation that it satisfied the operational needs of the club, and from there limited the groups of people who could join; in this way, they ensured that the number of registered groups corresponded with the number of available groups of seats.

On the contrary, in the major leagues in the US, they opted more for ticket sales from the beginning, and the subscriber system there is more open (for example, packages for a certain number of matches in time of a whole season).

An analysis was made of the percentages of groups that usually attend the events and, together with the reasoning of increasing the groups to gain more capacity, a large part of the tickets for sale were sold.

Physical markings of the seats to occupy at Club Brugge

Favourable evolution

To this day, we can affirm that the vast majority of organisations have their sights set on the US and are launching the sale of available tickets. In fact, we have been facing the favourable evolution of the pandemic: many regions where the clubs had already sold tickets present such positive data that they allow to fill the stadiums more than expected weeks ago.

This allows to sell more on a previously closed capacity, and therefore it has been required to do simulations with a lower social distance on a previously blocked capacity. The headache of venue managers is uncertainty, and for this reason all possible scenarios have had to be simulated.

Without going any further, the Minnesota Twins (MLB team in the US) have announced that at the beginning of summer they will be able to fill the stadium to 100% capacity. To get there, the capacity will have to be expanded little by little to fill the seats that were blocked, but always with a head and respecting the measures present in each of the events.

We cannot ignore the operational difficulties involved in opening a venue in this situation: entrances, restaurants, toilets, and the control that people sit in the corresponding seats.

We have experienced how, depending on the country and even the competition, operation has not been a bed of roses and it has become clear that it is a pending issue for many. Since the first game of Brugge we have already seen the blocked places physically marked – in many other parts of the world fingers are still crossed trusting in the good will of the people.

The crisis derived from the pandemic will have few precedents, but, as with all of them, some positive reading must be sought. Venue managers need to have more and more capacity management and visualisation tools at their disposal, and thus demonstrate to both fans and authorities that they have mechanisms to guarantee people’s health.

David Sánchez, CTO of 3D Digital Venue

3D Digital Venue provides 3D Digital Venue Management Solutions for the Sports & Entertainment Industry across the World.