Feature Article - January 2015
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Ready for Anything

Improving Sports Facility Safety & Security

By Chris Gelbach

Keeping Fans in Check

For many facilities, ensuring good fan behavior starts with the parents, and often includes a primer on sportsmanship at the start of the season and the passing out of an athletic handbook. At Iowa City, Moran requires at least one parent of each enrolled child to take the Parents Association for Youth Sports (PAYS) program offered by the National Alliance for Youth Sports. It's a short video-based educational program that makes youth sports parents aware of their roles and responsibilities.

At Byram Hills, Gulino goes over the standards of behavior for parents in the auditorium at the beginning of the season before the parents break off to speak with the coaches. It includes things like a prohibition on approaching a coach before or after a game (you have to wait 24 hours) and behavior that's considered unacceptable when criticizing officials.

During games, Byram Hills has also recently implemented a no-return policy—if you leave, you can't come back in. If a parent is ejected for bad behavior, the district is considering requiring that individual to complete a webinar from the National Federation of High Schools on creating a safe social environment to get back into games. "The whole idea is that we're an educational institution," Gulino said. "We believe that through education, we can change behavior."

At games, Gulino stresses the importance of policing rules to keep fan behavior in check. "The big thing in event management is you have to establish yourself early," he said. "You have to be there a half-hour before the event. We don't allow signs or tailgating. As soon as you see something you've got to jump on it right away. Just like with kids, they're going to push it and see how far they can go before somebody tries to reel them back."

Hammes recommends having each member of the staff assigned to scan an assigned bleacher area every 30 seconds for suspicious behavior—like someone getting too angry, loud or critical of officials. "This way, you can catch it on the front end," Hammes said. "Because that anger, if you let it continue, it's just going to boil over." He stresses that it's not a time to start directing or correcting, but to diffuse the situation using choice theory.

"If someone were yelling and screaming, I'd go up and first I'd apologize: I'm sorry sir, or ma'am—I'd respect them—and I'd ask them a question. Can I help you? Is there something we can do for you?"

Depending on the environment, some managers also find it helpful to diffuse these situations with humor, as Moran's team does on occasion. "We'll have our staff down on the bench and if a parent yells at an official or something, they'll turn around and throw marshmallows at the person," Moran said. "And sometimes it's sort of a wakeup call. They'll say, 'Whoa, what are you doing this for?' And we'll say, 'Because you're being an idiot.'"

If he sees some fan behavior that's less than ideal, Gulino will sometimes also address it after the fact by sending out an e-mail blast to the parents of that team to re-emphasize the importance of sportsmanship and creating a positive environment.

During an amateur sports event, Hammes sees the parking lot and the concessions stands as the two most volatile areas. "If something's going to happen, it's going to happen in the first three to five minutes after the game or at halftime," Hammes said. For this reason, he recommends moving additional event workers to the concession area before halftime, and out into the parking lot before the game is over.

More and more districts and leagues are also moving their games to earlier start times to head off potential issues. "My experience is that you have more problems with night games than you do with day games," Gulino said.

In addition to taking these actions to enhance safety, the increasing affordability of security cameras, ID-scanning systems and other technologies are also helping make better security possible. Moran notes that Iowa City has been able to implement both without charging admission to their parks facilities. Sponsorships may also be an option for some of these items.

"People see things like lightning detectors and weather alert radios as tough on a budget, but a lot of times people will purchase those for you just for sponsorships because they want the kids to be safe," Moran said.

In many facilities, money is not the limiting factor preventing safety and security anyway. "It doesn't cost any money to develop a plan," Marciani said. "It doesn't cost anything to have a checklist. It doesn't cost them anything to have a safety and security team in their community. It doesn't cost that much to train somebody or put on an exercise. Really, money isn't the issue most of the time. It's taking the effort to make safety and security part of the culture of that department."