Sports arenas

Sports arenas, stadiums facing a new normal

There are subtle, albeit silly, parts of sports that you won’t realize you like until they’re gone. There is a charm in passing a hot dog down the row at the ballpark. It’s surreal for kids to score a high-five – or puck returned to them – from a player at the arena.

Even if the sport returns to Chicago with the White Sox and Cubs opening on Friday, it won’t be the same until the coronavirus pandemic is over. And it will end. In the meantime, a lot of what makes games common will be missing.

There is no clear plan for fans to attend games this year. The NBA and NHL will play in empty buildings as part of their “bubbles”. Major League Baseball has an indefinite fan ban, and the NFL is still deciding.

Some football teams, including the Bears, are optimistic about hosting limited crowds – perhaps 15,000 in stadiums with over 60,000 seats – but that’s the best of times and it doesn’t. would almost certainly not happen if the season started today.

Whenever the doors finally reopen, get ready to rethink every aspect of the fan experience. Some changes will last until a vaccine is available. Others will be permanent.

Four of the city’s top five pro teams – the White Sox, Bears, Bulls and Blackhawks – declined requests from The Sun-Times to discuss in detail what a “new normal” fan experience might look like.

In an interview Thursday, Cubs president of business operations Crane Kenney offered a glimpse of the Cubs plan, saying the team’s proposed protocol would allow 6,000-7,000 fans to attend games, likely to from the middle of the season. They would enter in groups of two, four and six and would have assigned doors to enter and exit the grounds, among other security measures.

The plan has been presented to both the mayor’s office and the MLB, and both must approve it.

In a statement, the White Sox said they were discussing the possible return of fans with medical experts, elected officials and Major League Baseball, but that “any more detailed comment at this point would be premature and speculative.”

United Center CEO Howard Pizer said in a statement that there will be changes and arena staff “are examining various models creatively, keenly aware of the important role that ever-evolving technology will play. evolution in this process “.

Many teams nationwide had already started to switch to fully digital ticketing and cashless concessions. These will become commonplace, as will advanced door entry procedures. With very tight entry lines a concern, some teams are working to install passage security scanners. Fans wouldn’t have to empty their pockets – or touch anything. More doors will likely be added.

The Independent Chicago Dogs, which held their home opener this month in Rosemont, are the only local professional team to host fans, albeit at 20% of capacity. The team’s ticketing site ensures social distancing; nearby seats are made unavailable after purchase.

Fans’ temperatures are taken at the gate, where ticket barcodes are scanned on their phones. Concession stands do not take cash. The bathrooms are scrupulously cleaned. The lobby has been transformed into a two-way street, another feature, Dogs owner Shawn Hunter says could survive the pandemic.

“Cashless transactions for ticketing and food and beverage, I see that is an industry standard going forward,” he said.

As teams seek to secure their sites, including seeking cleanliness certification from the Global Biorisk Advisory Council, they will be looking at tailgating. Some NFL teams have banned it, while others are considering it. One possibility: converting car parks into restaurant-type catering, socially distanced. If it goes well, it could become permanent.

Inside the stadium, face masks will muffle the roars of the crowd. They’re essential in all public spaces – and mandatory in all NFL stadiums, if they’re open to fans. Bulls president Michael Reinsdorf said last month that making masks mandatory “makes a lot of sense”, while Cubs president Tom Ricketts said it “could be part of the solution”.

This assumes that fans are allowed in.

“It’s just completely different not having [fans] here, obviously, ”Cubs pitcher Kyle Hendricks said. “But number 1 is health and safety, you know? “

Blackhawks star Jonathan Toews has said he would be disappointed if there were still no fans in 2021, while forward Dominik Kubalik appeared resigned.

“We just have to get used to it,” he said. “This is how the world is going right now.”

Editors Daryl Van Schouwen, Russell Dorsey and Ben Pope contributed to this story.

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