Aggression Unhinged: New Challenges in Securing Major Sporting Events in a Post-COVID Era

Dan Walsh

What a national surge in aggressive behavior means for security at major sporting events

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If you’ve enjoyed our blogs or engaged our services over the past 18 years – extending back to when we supported clients as Hillard Heintze – you know us as a thought leader in the U.S. on security risk consulting, with major sporting event security as one area of specialization among several dozen others. Over that period, we conducted over 200 comprehensive assessments of sports stadiums for the most recognized major sports franchises in the U.S. and the world.

When COVID-19 hit, most major sporting event clients had us stand down. In 2021, many of them brought us back to resume assessing and monitoring their security capabilities to align them with the most important risks, threats and vulnerabilities. While we were delighted to “get back to work” protecting our clients’ people, property, performance and reputation, we were also taken aback by what we uncovered.

Public Behavior Reflects A Troubling Trend

Have you been tracking the nationwide surge in aggressive behaviors so many Americans now feel they are entitled to express? Donut shop customers punching staff. Subway riders throwing public tantrums. Individuals hurling racial insults in fast-food restaurants.

In 2021, the Federal Aviation Administration investigated 1,099 cases of aggressive or otherwise unruly passengers onboard aircraft, up by a remarkable 753% in 2019. This year, gun violence is also on the rise. As of June 1, there have been 233 mass shootings in the U.S., according to the Gun Violence Archive, an interactive database tracking mass shootings in America. That’s one mass shooting every day and twice on Wednesdays. There’s no question that Americans are becoming more violent. So how does that play out in sports stadiums, and what does that mean for security efforts?

Post-COVID Major Sporting Event Security Is Different

Here’s what we found when we resumed our visits to stadiums, festival centers, and concert halls and sat down with stakeholders up and down the chain of command, from ushers and security officers to major event planning CEOs and their security directors.

  • A major surge in aggressive behavior and violence.
  • Game-day operational and security staff are unprepared to counter this type of threat.
  • Fans fighting each other in the stands and rushing the fields in large numbers.

Consider what happened earlier this year at a soccer match in Mexico. On March 5, 2022, a Mexican soccer league match between Querétaro Fútbol Club and Atlas Fútbol Club was going well when a fight broke out in the stands between the two fan clubs. Barriers separating the two groups were breached and fighting spilled onto the field as people tried to escape. The match was suspended as crowds swarmed the field, fighting and trying to escape the violence. The post-incident investigation concluded that the riot was the direct result of a lack of action by the company providing stadium security, the state police, and the club.

The company provided far fewer security personnel than necessary, while the police — who were not ultimately responsible for security — did not have enough presence to deter the riot. What were the fail points in this scenario?

  • Insufficiently trained security personnel screening fans and working the stands.
  • Lack of sufficient personnel numbers to handle the crowds.
  • Violent behavior from the fans.

Post-COVID Major Sporting Event Security Requires New Tactics

Now that wouldn’t happen in the U.S., right? Maybe. Maybe not. The standard range of risks still confronts stadium owners and operators – like severe weather, fires, HAZMAT spills, and mass-casualty events requiring extensive interagency planning and coordination.

In 2022, however, among the highest risks stadiums need to manage are aggressive, violent fans in the stands – particularly if they’re armed. These threats and vulnerabilities require new planning methods, updated policies and enhanced training. Here’s a sampling of the recommendations we’re now sharing with our clients during our security assessments:

1. Plan for major security events involving crowds of people as well as many concurrent incidents.

2. Train non-security staff on avoiding interaction with aggressive fans and engage security or law enforcement without endangering themselves.

3. Cross-train all staff to adapt protocols to streamline full-team coordination during a security incident. This includes everyone from ushers and vendors to security personnel and law enforcement.

4. Increase monitoring in parking lots for excessive pre-game drinking and at entrances for inebriated fans.

5. Strengthen game-day fan rules and intervene quickly and decisively when infractions occur.

6. Improve the protection of fans and their “friends and family” who typically sit in the stands.

7. Be prepared to extract at-risk personnel like players, coaches, referees and VIPs if something goes awry.

8. Consider enhancing the stadium’s security presence with high-visibility uniformed and armed officers postings.

9. Strengthen the consequences for aggressive behavior with new policies that automatically ban unruly fans for a defined period of time (even for life) if their actions result in a formal arrest.

I would like to think we’ll return to pre-pandemic levels of behavior in major event stadiums at some point soon. But hope isn’t a strategy. Entities that delay in updating their approaches to this new risk environment may experience consequences that can be severe, costly and lasting. Learn more about Jensen Hughes’ Security Risk Management Services.

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