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After Reopening, Sports Venues Attract Rowdy Crowds but not Security Staff

After a long hiatus during the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, events are coming back in full force. But unfortunately, so are security incidents. The National Center for Spectator Sports Safety and Security (NCS4) surveyed North American professional sports venue security leaders earlier this year to learn how they are maintaining or improving security operations, and what sort of new and evolving challenges they face.

The survey findings, reported in the Venue Security Director Survey, were divided up into individual categories.

Staffing

Approximately 90 percent of venues included in the survey use a third-party service provider for security staff, with two-thirds of venues outsourcing upwards of 75 percent of their security team. Despite outsourcing, 95 percent of the security professionals surveyed said they experienced staff shortages over the past two years.

So why are venues short-staffed? Most security directors cited COVID-19 (86.8 percent), followed by staff simply not turning up for work (84.2 percent). Seventy percent of survey participants said absenteeism among security staff has increased since the start of the pandemic.

To try to mitigate these staffing challenges, 97.4 percent of security directors took action. To recruit more staff, security teams are increasing hourly wages, offering complimentary food or discounted ticket prices, and hosting staff family events at the venue.

To retain the staff they already have, security directors are also “investing in their professional development, opportunities for additional training and progression,” says Stacey Hall, executive director of NCS4. “Some have implemented referral programs. Some are also paying attention to costs such as gas to ensure wages cover time and effort and miscellaneous costs.”

While these efforts have helped, she says, venue security directors are still having trouble meeting pre-COVID staff numbers.

“While technology is not widely being used to replace staff, solutions are being leveraged to improve efficiency and performance,” Hall tells Security Management.



Technology

Some technology comes standard for venue security: all survey participants said they used video surveillance, electronic tickets, explosive detection canines, stationary bollards, venue signage, and walk-through metal detectors.

One of the main security measures considered and debated by venue security directors is patron screening. Approximately 87.5 percent of survey participants said their current entry screening checkpoints caused lines to form outside the venue (although for 75 percent of participants, the average wait time during the busiest time before an event was less than 10 minutes). But this venue screening area is often crowded, tense, and holds the potential for security incidents. About one-third of surveyed professionals said they had experienced security incidents between patrons waiting to enter the venue.



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If they had the budget available, security leaders would seek to acquire more advanced technology to get patrons into venues faster without sacrificing accuracy, to detect prohibited items more accurately, and to provide security staff with more intelligence about developing security situations. The screening technologies highest on the wish list were facial recognition systems (57.1 percent), millimeter wave scanners (37.1 percent), explosive particle detectors (31.4 percent), crowd counters (28.6 percent), and license plate readers (25.7 percent).

While security budgets are increasing, Hall says, “the level of service is largely remaining constant due to inflation, increased staffing costs, etc.”

Drone mitigation is also a challenge for security professionals—82 percent of venue security directors have detected unauthorized drone operations in the airspace above or near their venues. Over the past 12 months, the number of drone sightings per venue ranged from between 1 to more than 10,000.  



Fan Behavior

While some measures brought on by COVID-19 are here to stay—mobile ticketing, contactless ordering, and touchless patron screening—other safety and security policies are cause for dispute at the venue gates.

Most survey respondents said fan behavior is worse or much worse than it was 10 years ago, although 20 percent believe it’s about the same. Approximately two-thirds of participants said COVID-19 restrictions caused increased tensions between patrons and staff.

The most common form of inappropriate behavior was alcohol abuse (82.5 percent), followed closely by fights between patrons (80 percent). Other behavior lagged further behind, including property damage (35 percent), violence against staff (32.5 percent), and rushing the play area (17.5 percent). The most concerning behavior for venue security directors, though, was fighting, either among patrons or against staff.

Hall recommends addressing this behavior with a clearly communicated fan code of conduct and enforcing that code with ejection policies. Depending on the offense, fans could get a warning, be removed from the event, or be banned from future events. Ejection policies are most often communicated on the venue’s website, followed by signage, video boards, and announcements, as well as notifications on tickets and through the venue’s app or social media.

Cybersecurity

NCS4 also asked survey participants about their cybersecurity programs. Most participants (87 percent) said they have an active cyber defense program, and 85 percent provide basic cybersecurity awareness training for full-time staff.

In a partnership with the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), NCS4 developed a document that highlights areas of digital security concern for stadiums and venues, including connected devices like video board systems, automated lighting controls, point of sale systems, and stadium entrance equipment.

“Enterprise risk mitigation strategies should extend to securing connected assets (e.g., stadium kiosks, POS terminals, and EV charging stations),” the document said. “These strategies include updating device software and firmware, monitoring equipment, and securing physical access points to assets.”

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