Stadia & Arenas: The roadmap back to reopening

Following on from the recent Ungerboeck Stadia & Arena Summit, which saw industry experts from Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Allen County War Memorial Coliseum, BC Place, KC Chiefs and Sports Venue Business discuss the roadmap back to reopening, this article shares insights from numerous industry executives.


Ahead of speaker duties on the Ungerboeck Stadia & Arena Summit, Sports Venue Business CEO, and ALSD International Executive Director, Katie McIntyre, spoke with a variety of industry executives from clubs and teams, stadia and arenas, to hear about their preparations ahead of potential reopening and thoughts for the future.


QUESTION 1: Based on what’s known today, can share some details on how you’re preparing for the possibility of reopening?

Borja Gonzalez Bilbao, Stadium Business Manager, Athletic Club:

We will finish this season behind closed doors and I am afraid that almost 100% that will be the case until there is a vaccine. I don’t think we’ll see stadiums at 100% capacity until next year. I have some hope in the medium term we can start having partial admission at San Mamés.


Tom McCann, Premium Experience & Venue Director, Arsenal FC:

We are still waiting for an official position from the Premier League, but our working assumption is that the remainder of the current season will be played behind closed doors – it’s possible that the start of next season may also be impacted. We are planning for a number of scenarios, including the potential for limited capacity attendance, but at this stage it’s speculative as we’re waiting for guidance from the Premier League as to what the future looks like.


Mark Kelly, Managing Director, Ashton Gate/Bristol Sport:

It’s clear that sport for the remainder of this season will go behind closed doors, this will be the base level for re-opening. If restaurants and bars are allowed stagger opening in July then we will follow. Ashton Gate is a big part of the community in Bristol and it is important we stay part of it during the phased re opening and support all of our community in the meantime.


Craig Power, Business Development Executive, Munster Rugby:

In rugby terms, we will be opening up in September with a series of interprovincial games played behind closed doors in the Aviva Stadium, so both our own stadiums (Irish Independent and Thomond Park) will not be opening back up until late 2020. It remains to be seen whether or not social distancing will apply at games, limiting our maximum occupancy from 25,000 to less than 5,000. We would presume that things will not go back to normal for sometime and that stadium entry will be permitted once fans have their temperatures tested.


Jeroen van Iersel, Marketing Manager, Johan Cruijff ArenA:

We plan to reopen our stadium tour June 1, albeit all now self-guided, under social distancing, with stewards positioned along the tour to ensure crowd management and that those taking part are abiding by the social distancing rules, etc. 


Christian Lau, Chief Technology Officer, Los Angeles Football Club:

We’re running preparations for two scenarios, with the MLS looking at running a tournament at the Walt Disney World Orlando complex from June onwards, then with California reopening from early June, it may be that we can run games at Banc of California Stadium. We are also involved in a number of working groups, liaising with the other major sports and entertainment facilities in Los Angeles, including STAPLES Center and AEG. We’re trying to understand the technology that can get us back to business; from reimagining the stands to contactless payment. The Guest Experience post pandemic has been a key focus.


Allianz Arena in Germany, and tenant FC Bayern Munich, reopened their stadium tours and museum earlier this month, with the Bundesliga having got back to business, albeit behind closed doors, and securing enormous global TV viewership figures, highlighting just how much live sport has been missed during lockdown.


The Spanish LaLiga is set to restart next month, with the English Premier League (EPL) and many other European leagues looking likely to follow suit. To date, only the French Ligue 1, EuroLeague Basketball and Scottish Premier Football League have decided against continuing the season.


EPL clubs started to return to small-group training from Tuesday 19 May after it was agreed to introduce Step One of the Return to Training Protocol. It is part of the first phase towards restarting the Premier League, when it is safe to do so, and enables squads to train only while maintaining social distancing. Contact training is not yet permitted. Premier League Shareholders then voted unanimously on May 27 to resume contact training, marking another step towards restarting the Premier League season, when safe to do so. Squads are now able to train as a group and engage in tackling while minimising any unnecessary close contact.


NB: On Thursday 28th May, the Premier League Shareholders agreed a re-start date of Wednesday 17 June, provided that all safety requirements are in place.


QUESTION 2: What effects are you projecting on attendance and revenue?

Borja Gonzalez Bilbao, Stadium Business Manager, Athletic Club Bilbao:

All of this will have a great impact on attendance and income also when the attendance to the stadiums is allow. On the one hand people will be afraid attend to crowded places and on the other the economic status will not be the best…however, it is also true that people want to attend matches after such a long time without games.


Tom McCann, Premium Experience & Venue Director, Arsenal FC:

I think there will be huge demand for football when fans are able to return to stadiums safely, but until then our match day revenue will suffer. Attendances will be impacted if we’re required to introduce social distancing within Emirates Stadium and our challenge is to try and mitigate that challenge as much as possible.


Mark Kelly, Managing Director, Ashton Gate/Bristol Sport:

My personal opinion is that the business we left back in March will not return 100% until there is a vaccine – we are already looking at new ways of engaging with commercial clients, fans and advertisers.


Craig Power, Business Development Executive, Munster Rugby:

It’s very hard to gauge attendance and revenue for the coming season until we have a better idea of what attendance we will permitted to have, but even best case scenario there will be a huge hit as sponsors, advertisers and season ticket holders will be expecting reduced prices.


The Virtual Formula 1® Grand Priz Series has proved hugely popular and been a really good way to expand the sport into a new demographic


QUESTION 3: What kinds of new and interesting ways, outside of the traditional avenues, have you considered/are embarking on to drive revenue? 

Craig Power, Business Development Executive, Munster Rugby:

Our new hospitality at home product will allow us maintain a partial level of hospitality income, as well as create new activation opportunities for our current sponsors, this will also allow us to do some form of hospitality for away/international fixtures. The relatively low cost of our hospitality at home product will be suitable for some fans who could not usually afford on-site, match day hospitality.


There are also provisional talks being held of doing a drive-in concert/movie in the stadium, with food & beverages being served to cars (via contactless payment).


Tom McCann, Premium Experience & Venue Director, Arsenal FC:

Our focus right now is on protecting our existing revenue streams as best we can and trying to ensure we can return to football on the pitch as quickly as possible, when – and only when – it is safe to do so. We are looking at various new initiatives linked to the ‘at-home’ experience but these are in their relative infancy at the moment – ultimately it’s about making our fans feel valued and connected to the club despite the fact they may not be able to come and watch us in the stadium for a period of time.


One of the keys for me is that, as industry peers, we keep talking to each other – we can learn so much from one another and this is exactly the time we should be sharing best practice. As an industry, we will bounce back together so we need to be together in this challenging time, too.


Mark Kelly, Managing Director, Ashton Gate/Bristol Sport:

It’s clear that TV revenue in sport will be key, however we’re also looking at creative ways in which we can use the large space in the stadium to support smaller businesses within our community as well as diversify to a new form of distance entertainment.


Borja Gonzalez Bilbao, Stadium Business Manager, Athletic Club:

We have a specific plan for this “no people in the stadium” period, which consists of a battery of activities and new business units, some related to tech, others to experiences adapted to what current restrictions allow.


Matt Roberts, Director of Research & Analytics, Formula 1™:

The Virtual Formula 1® Grand Priz Series has proved hugely popular. The challenge we have that others don’t, is that you can’t play F1. But esports is perfect to bridge that gap; it’s a great way to engage younger fans. 80% of people watching our esports/Virtual GP series, are under 35 and that’s a difficult profile to attract in live sport. It’s been a really good way to expand the sport into a new demographic.


F1 is an ageing sport, in Europe the average age is 40+, so we needed something to make us fresher. Esports has been v positive; it’s been a great entry point to get younger people who maybe wouldn’t have become an F1 fan otherwise. The Netflix series has also been the number 1 entity to help us improve engagement across a younger profile.   


QUESTION 4: Are there any industry success stories you would like to share?

When it comes to success stories from the industry, despite the current pandemic, many clubs, leagues and venues have thought outside the box. We’ve seen The SSE Arena Wembley run a virtual concert, F1 has turned to e-sports and has been delivering a hugely successful Virtual GP Series, the German Bundesliga has got back to the business of playing, albeit behind closed doors, securing quite staggering TV viewership figures, plus we’ve seen a huge increase in the utilisation of technology.


Danish club AGF is set to play their first game after lockdown with a world premiere of a new digital football experience that is set to bring the fans and the community together via Zoom


One particularly interesting use of technology is being pioneered by Danish club AGF, who will play their first game after lockdown with a world premiere of a new digital football experience that is set to bring the fans and the community together. The new digital initiative is being run in collaboration with the international digital video platform, Zoom, a platform everyone has become accustomed to during lockdown.


It will be a kind of virtual stadium to which you pick up a free ticket – and as the match begins, you gather with those who have a ticket to the same virtual grandstand section within the club’s home stadium, Ceres Park. (There are 22 different sections to choose from.) The digital initiative will see screens set up all around the pitch, where the fans watching from their ‘virtual grandstand’ section will be shown, meaning that the players will be able to see and feel the support emanating from the fans’ living rooms directly at the stadium.


It’s been reported that West Ham United is also considering bringing fans into the action using Zoom.


In terms of other interesting stories:

Tom McCann, Premium Experience & Venue Director, Arsenal FC:

The pandemic has created a real challenge for everyone in our industry, but I am particularly proud of how we, as a Club, have come together to address this challenge. There is a greater sense of connectedness now than in my time at Arsenal. I’m also particularly proud of the amazing work Arsenal in the Community has done to help those less fortunate.


We all have similar challenges and are looking at ways to stay connected with fans, ensuring we bring them along with us on the journey and ensuring that when we come through it, we’re in the best possible position to kick on. More than anything, this is the time to be together with our fans. Now, more than ever it’s becoming imperative to make current customers feel valued, and to see value in what you’re offering, this will be the kickstart the industry needs to start becoming more innovative.


Rob Wicks, Commercial Director, Aberdeen FC: 

Venue partners, Sodexo, have transitioned from providing catering in the stadium to running a COVID-19 testing facility at Aberdeen Airport. We’ve also had great success with our RedTV partners Stream Digital, who agreed to open up the platform free of charge to all season ticket holders. We’ve also been hosting partner and corporate webinars with players. 


Mark Kelly, Managing Director, Ashton Gate/Bristol Sport:

The short term success is the use of stadiums to support charity initiatives – at Ashton Gate we have already delivered 10k meals to children who are exposed due to the closure of schools.


John Drury, Vice President & General Manager, The SSE Arena Wembley:

We recently ran a virtual concert, called Unity 2020 for Women’s Aid, which was curated by Abbie McCarthy from the BBC, together with Future Agency and Metropolis Music. It drew some 18,000 separate views and reached 46,000, and was shown on 4Music last weekend.


QUESTION 5: Anything you’re hearing in general in the industry?  

Craig Power, Business Development, Munster Rugby:

Now, more than ever it’s becoming imperative to make current customers feel valued, and to see value in what you’re offering, this will be the kickstart the industry needs to start becoming more innovative.


Mark Kelly, Managing Director, Ashton Gate/Bristol Sport:

A lot, but my own personal feeling is that we are not yet in a position to strategise anything longer term than looking at diversifying revenue streams and managing costs aggressively.


QUESTION 6: Are there any other topics near and dear to your heart that you would like to highlight?   

Mark Kelly, Managing Director, Ashton Gate/Bristol Sport:

I am very keen for Ashton Gate Stadium to be a leader in the new world of events, we have an incredible safety and operations team and I will ensure that we return to a new delivery of sport and events as the medical advise allows.


A sentiment echoed throughout all of those interviewed, was that we have to work together, sharing best practice, ideas, innovations and know-how to ensure that the industry we love is returned not only to a new normal, but to an enhanced, new world level, that puts the experience and the fans at the heart of everything, all while respecting the new rules and regulations, and that means thinking outside the box!


Look out for an interview coming soon with Christian Lau, Chief Technology Officer, Los Angeles Football Club (LAFC), discussing the roadmap back to reopening and the role technology will play in the post-pandemic guest experience.



In the coming days we will be bringing you a recorded version of the Ungerboeck Stadia & Arena Summit, with speakers: Tarena Smith, Senior Director – Stadium Events, Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Kim Kruse, Event Sales Manager, Kansas City Chiefs, Patricia Jelinski, General Manager, BC Place, Nathan Dennison, Vice President of Sales, Allen County War Memorial Coliseum and Katie McIntyre, CEO, Sports Venue Business.


Huge thanks to Athletic Club’s Borja Gonzalez Bilbao, Ashton Gate’s Mark Kelly, Arsenal’s Tom McCann, Formula 1’s Matt Roberts, Johan Cruijff ArenA’s Jeroen van Iersel, Los Angeles Football Club’s Christian Lau, Munster Rugby’s Craig Power and The SSE Arena Wembley’s John Drury. Robert Wicks, Commercial Director, Aberdeen FC and James Bisgrove, Commercial & Marketing Director, Rangers FC, were kind enough to provide input for this article ahead of the SPFL taking the decision to end the season early.


#arena #football #PremierLeague #LaLiga #SPFL #sport #sportstech #ungerboeck 


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ALSD International – Europe’s leading event for the Premium Seat & Sports Hospitality sector – taking place at Liverpool FC’s Anfield Stadium this October, 12-13, will examine how to increase revenue through new builds, renovations, service expansions and the latest technology, and how to recoup lost revenue post COVID-19.



The next edition of ALSD International – organised by the Association of Luxury Suite Directors and Sports Venue Business – will feature a high-level conference, an exhibition hall showcasing the latest products, services & solutions, tours of Anfield, Everton’s Goodison Park and M&S Bank Arena, and numerous networking events, ensuring optimised opportunities to knowledge-share, network and do business.


#ALSDInternational – Europe’s leading event for the Premium Seat & Sports Hospitality sector


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