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Illustration by Michael Austin

A Defensive Stance

​The horrifying terrorist attacks in Paris on the night of November 13—which stretched out for four tense hours, ended the lives of 130 people, and plunged the city into a state of turmoil—all started at a sports stadium. 

About 20 minutes after the start of a soccer match, which had drawn 80,000 spectators including French President Francois Hollande, a man with a ticket to the game attempted to enter the Stade de France. However, a security guard discovered during a patdown that the man was wearing a suicide vest. The man fled the stadium and detonated the vest, killing himself and a bystander. Two other bombs went off near the stadium shortly afterwards. Officials inside the stadium decided to keep attendees inside the stadium rather than evacuate.

The actions of the security guard and stadium security officials likely saved many lives that night. Authorities later revealed that the man who had been stopped from entering the stadium had planned to detonate the vest inside the stadium to kill and injure as many people as possible, as well as trigger panic and cause an evacuation. The bomber’s two accomplices were lying in wait outside of the arena in hopes of detonating their vests among the evacuating crowd. 

The situation brought to life concerns about hard targets with soft security and has spectators and sports officials wondering whether sporting venues will continue to be a target for terrorists. But sports security experts say that stadiums have always been a challenge to protect, although few stakeholders understand this.

“Unfortunately, tragic things have to happen” for stadium security to be a priority, says sports security consultant James A. DeMeo. “My frustration as a security leader is trying to get the folks that are spending the money, the marketers and ownership groups, to understand that security cannot be viewed in a reactionary manner anymore,” he tells Security Management. 

After working with the Nassau County Police Department in New York for 21 years, DeMeo pursued postgraduate education in sports management, where he learned more about what he calls the “specialized niche market” of sports security. Keeping sporting venues safe is a unique challenge because preserving the fan experience is paramount, he explains. 

“It’s incumbent on us as leaders to share knowledge and…align ourselves with all branches of government, whether that be Department of Homeland Security (DHS), FBI, local law enforcement, the contract security that works within stadiums and venues, and venue staff directors, to continue the education and make sure that we keep folks safe during the two to three hours that they are at the sporting event,” DeMeo says. 

Fred Roberts, a Rutgers University professor and director of the Command, Control, and Interoperability Center for Advanced Data Analysis (CCICADA), notes that there is an inherent tradeoff between security and the fan experience. “If you wanted to have much more rigorous security as they do in access to prisons or airplane flights, you would have to keep fans waiting longer than they would like and management would not be happy,” Roberts explains. “We also have issues with the very things we do to control access to a stadium creating their own vulnerabilities by causing long lines outside.”

Sports marketers, who focus on creating customer satisfaction and drawing fans to sporting events, are increasingly focusing their efforts—and finances—on fostering a safe atmosphere at sporting venues. In turn, safety has become an important part of the fan experience. DeMeo says that sports marketers have not always done a good job of keeping security at the forefront of their operational discussions. That’s changing, however, due to a number of recent high-profile cases in which a stadium has been sued following accidents caused by poor safety or security measures.

There are no nationwide standard operating procedures for sports venue security, although each of the five major U.S. sports organizations—the National Football League (NFL), Major League Baseball, Major League Soccer, the National Hockey League, and the National Basketball Association—has best practices, DeMeo says.

However, the SAFETY Act, which provides legal liability protection for sporting and entertainment venues that use designated counterterrorism technology, gives stadiums an incentive to step up their security game, Roberts tells Security Management. CCICADA, a DHS Center of Excellence at Rutgers, uses data to help policymakers and homeland security officials better address national security issues. In cooperation with DHS, CCICADA has developed a best practices guide that helps stadiums become eligible for protection under the SAFETY Act. Currently, fewer than a dozen U.S. stadiums are SAFETY Act certified. This number should be higher, according to Roberts.

“To be certified, you have to have a safety plan that covers all aspects of stadium security from loading dock to HVAC system to credentialing of employees to food security to cybersecurity,” Roberts explains. “This is not a mandate, it is an opportunity for venues to apply for liability protection if they develop a really effective counterterrorism plan. There are some common elements to these plans that all stadiums need to have, such as a risk assessment, inspection of patrons, credentialing employees, training and testing of training, and other things that vary from venue to venue.”

But ultimately, it’s up to each location to develop its own security protocols. Physical security measures, such as access control and CCTV, are an important aspect of sports venue security, DeMeo explains, but should not be the primary focus. Instead, sports venues should pursue a hybrid model that includes guest services, law enforcement, and technology that is used to its fullest potential. “I always say that the technology is only as good as the folks who have that level of training to operate the controls inside various command centers,” DeMeo notes. 

But, especially with the rise in sophistication by ISIS and other malicious actors, strategic planning should be paramount in a stadium’s security approach. Everyone from contract security to food vendors should be vetted, and security managers must develop relationships with law enforcement and other venue managers, DeMeo recommends. Training employees to wear multiple hats during a crisis can also be beneficial, and DeMeo promotes training of both security officers and guest services on how to respond to the latest threats.

Stadiums are also increasingly involving fans in securing their surroundings. DeMeo says it’s important that venues be clear about what fans can expect when they arrive at an event—as well as what’s prohibited—so they can identify suspicious behavior more easily. Some stadiums have developed apps allowing patrons to report security concerns as well.

“We need to make sure we do everything we can to let fans know up front the types of behaviors that are tolerated within that confined space,” DeMeo notes.

It’s also important to stay aware of current events in the community and any special concerns surrounding the sporting event itself, he explains. Stadium security officials are also turning to social media prior to big games to monitor the potential for trouble. 

“One scenario we’ve seen is the reaction to police shootings around the country and monitoring social media for any civil unrest outside the venues,” DeMeo explains. “You need to be conscious of what’s going on within your city, watching what the media is putting out, looking at who’s posting on these sites, and do your homework—talk about best practices, and educate your staff before a particular performer takes the stage in your venue.”

Both DeMeo and Roberts emphasize the importance of staying up-to-date with industry research. CCICADA conducts a number of data-based studies that strengthen stadium security, including simulating stadium evacuations and developing tools that allow individual stadiums to develop the least costly yet still efficient plans for investment in security screening devices and best practices, Roberts explains. For example, CCICADA developed a tool to evaluate the effectiveness of metal-detecting wands that the NFL asked its stadiums to use. The analysis revealed that wanding slowed down the flow of fans into the stadium too much, so the NFL switched to using walkthrough metal detectors.

This type of research is twofold: it measures the effectiveness of security measures as well as the fan experience. The two often go hand-in-hand, Roberts points out—for example, if screening is slow or concession lines are long, it damages the fan experience and also potentially creates a more hazardous environment if a crisis were to occur. 

“We use the data to suggest the number of machines and employees needed,” Roberts explains. “But we also use the numbers to feed into our models. We also provide guidance about what kinds of data venue operators might wish to gather in order to measure the quality of their safety plan.”

DeMeo notes that protecting sports stadiums from malicious attackers is just one of many challenges—there are a variety of security issues that need to be addressed, including severe weather, workplace or domestic violence, and controlling inebriated patrons. Protecting open-air venues such as marathon courses, racetracks, and stadium parking lots is also a significant challenge.

“What makes us so great as a country is that we’re so free and open, but we also have many soft targets that we’ve got to protect,” DeMeo says. “The days of the quick huddles of the yellow-jacket-clad security officers, five minutes before tipoff, are not going to cut it anymore.”    ​