Stadium and Venue Security

Crowd control is today both a challenge and a necessity, as demonstrated by the Beijing Olympics and this summer’s political conventions. The controls used, though, are often resented, and frequently expensive – but not as costly as a terrorist attack.

A terrorist walks into a football stadium on a beautiful fall day. He is wearing a heavy wool overcoat, but underneath the coat is a bomb belt loaded with plastic explosive and ball bearings that will rip through the flesh of everyone nearby within a 360-degree arc. 

The crowd is on its feet as the home team runs onto the field and the terrorist detonates the device.  There is a flash and a loud bang, then a puff of smoke.  In an instant, hundreds of people are cut down by the shrapnel.  Arms and legs are torn away from their victims, and there is blood everywhere.  At first, no one realizes what has happened, but then the crowd panics; hundreds more are trampled in the mad dash for the exits.

The following week, attendance at college football games throughout the country is down by ninety percent – and, of course, a number of games are cancelled. 

Fiction? Hardly.  It is amazing, in fact, that it hasn’t happened already.  Many of the nation’s top sports and entertainment venues possess only rudimentary security, and their design often aids terrorists more than it deters them.  Several well-known venues, for example, are built with glass overhangs where fans can stand underneath.  A single bomb in the parking lot or on an adjacent roadway could bring showers of jagged glass down on those waiting for tickets. 

From Munich to the Present

The vulnerability of such venues has long been recognized at the Olympics – more specifically, ever since Palestinian terrorists shot their way into the Israeli compound at the 1972 Munich Olympics and then died with their captives when the government of West Germany launched a botched rescue effort.

Despite ever more extensive, and expensive, security safeguards developed and implemented since then, the threat of terrorism at sports events has not diminished. In 1996, this author was the on-air security commentator for NBC Sports.  Generally, the security advisors to the 1996 Olympic Games had done a good and fairly comprehensive job, but we quickly identified the most glaring deficiency in the overall security plan.  Caving into pressure from local politicians, Olympic planners had set aside one site that not only did not require a ticket but also did not have thorough screening procedures in place: Centennial Olympic Park. At 1:20 a.m. on July 27, 1996, the largest pipe bomb device ever used in the United States detonated in Centennial Park; miraculously, only one person was killed, but 111 others were wounded.  Had the knapsack containing the device not tipped over at some point, dissipating the force of the blast, the casualty count certainly would have been higher.

Today, as a result of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the ongoing war against international terrorism, security at major U.S. athletic/entertainment venues and stadiums has never been more important.  There was, however, a strong spike in insurance rates after the 9/11 attacks.  According to one source, “insurance premiums for the Giants Stadium, Continental Airlines Arena, and other New Jersey Sports and Exhibition Authority’s holdings … increased 343 percent to $3.2 million in 2002, compared to $722,000 paid in 2000.”    

There are a number of steps that should be taken to secure event facilities.  First, threat assessments should be carried out on all proposed venues and stadiums planned for future construction to ascertain what actual security threats exist, and the findings of those assessments should then be incorporated into site planning and design functions.  Among the various threats that should be measured are crime, fire, terrorism, riots and hooliganism, natural disasters (tornadoes, earthquakes, hurricanes, and other “severe weather” events), hazardous materials spills and releases (particularly any in close proximity to nuclear plants and rail lines), and power failures.

Because threats change and evolve over time, similar assessments should be carried out on existing facilities on a regular basis. Sometimes a threat assessment produces real surprises. For example, we performed a threat assessment on a new major league baseball stadium and, in addition to our concerns about crime and terrorism, discovered that other stadiums in the same general area had a long history of deadly lightning strikes, and for that reason the architects of the new stadium needed to site it in a way that would minimize the lightning risk.

The Logical and Lower-Cost Sequence

The initial security assessments should focus primarily on how well prepared a facility is to meet all foreseeable threats and problems. This can be done both in the design stage and again later – after construction of the facility is completed.  It is always easier, more effective, and less costly to incorporate effective security elements in the design stage, if possible, rather than to retrofit existing facilities.  Good design, for example, can significantly reduce problems such as hooliganism, bomb vulnerabilities, and ordinary crime.  CAD (computer-assisted design) programs can be of great assistance to planners and architects in determining such measurable factors as the length of time it would take to evacuate a facility under various conditions, the placement of surveillance cameras (working out line-of-sight angles and other issues), sniper vulnerabilities, the location of explosives trace-detection systems, and vehicle security matters.     

With regard to existing facilities, it is generally recommended that security assessments be conducted every year, both to identify weaknesses and problems in the overall security program and to determine how well the facility is prepared to meet new and evolving threats.  The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has developed an on-line Vulnerability Self-Assessment Tool (VSAT) for stadiums possessing a large seating capacity.  The VSAT permits facility managers to conduct basic security assessments and to measure the effectiveness of the facility’s current security plan.

New technologies are increasingly available to assist security managers.  These include access control systems (including smartcards and biometric readers), high-definition CCTV (closed-circuit television) cameras, chemical and fire detectors, explosives detectors, public address warning systems, and crowd-control barriers.

Careful attention also should be paid to human-resource issues and security planning and procedures – including but not limited to the careful background screening of all employees and appropriate training, badging, special-event planning, V.I.P. logistics and protection, crowd management procedures, and both cargo and package checks. To complement these improved security measures, many facilities have restricted the types and/or sizes of the various items that fans can bring to the game.  Among the items banned or restricted (usually by size) by some facilities are food and drink, banners, backpacks, briefcases, cameras, laptops, umbrellas, and coolers, along with such obviously dangerous items as firearms, fireworks, laser pens, cigarettes and cigars, and knives.

Despite these and other restrictions, it is doubtful that, unless magnetometers are introduced, most bomb belts and/or well-disguised explosive devices will be discovered.  Managers should take special care to ensure that proscribed items also meet the “common sense” test; otherwise, fans may react with anger and outrage.  The most notorious example here, perhaps, is the flap that occurred this past summer at Yankee Stadium when stadium security banned and began confiscating sunscreen containers – on the alleged grounds that the bottles posed a “terrorist threat.” That ill-advised action seemed more likely, though, to have been aimed at increasing sunscreen sales at the stadium (at a hefty markup). As one fan suggested, the ban and confiscation of sunscreen bottles made the Yankees’ management look “pretty chintzy.”

In the past, very few U.S. sports facilities or other entertainment venues possessed their own built-in command and operations centers, and even today some university sports venues and performing arts facilities still resist the adoption of systematic and comprehensive security planning.  Moreover, according to recent research, virtually all university-level sports-management programs neglect or underemphasize “the security issue” in their curriculums.  However, the University of Southern Mississippi has created a new Center for Spectator Sports Security Management as part of its sports-management program, offering what is believed to be the only master’s degree in the nation where a student can concentrate on security issues.

In the final analysis, far more must be done to protect this nation’s great sports and entertainment venues.  In addition to the potential injuries and loss of life that might occur, a major terrorist attack at a concert or sports event would have a devastating ripple effect throughout the U.S. economy and could be profoundly demoralizing to the American people as well.

For additional information:
About the post-9/11 effect on the security of sports arenas, see: Russ Simons, Gerald Anderson, and the International Association of Assembly Managers, “Arenas, Sports Facilities, Convention Centers, Performing Arts Facilities: Safety and Security After September 11, 2001,” in Building Security, Barbara A. Nadel (ed.), (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2004). About the University of Southern Mississippi’s sports-management curriculum, see: Associated Press article of 25 December 2007, “Experts Worry About College Stadium Security.”

Neil C. Livingstone
Neil C. Livingstone

Dr. Neil C. Livingstone, chairman and CEO of ExecutiveAction LLC and an internationally respected expert in terrorism and counterterrorism, homeland defense, foreign policy, and national security, has written nine books and more than 200 articles in those fields. A gifted speaker as well as writer, he has made more than 1300 television appearances, delivered over 500 speeches both in the United States and overseas, and testified before Congress on numerous occasions. He holds three Masters Degrees as well as a Ph.D. from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. He was the founder and, prior to assuming his present post, CEO of GlobalOptions Inc., which went public in 2005 and currently has sales of more than $80 million.



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