Coronavirus: How technology could protect football fans in stadiums

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Steve Bardens / Getty Images

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A limited number of Brighton fans have been allowed to watch the club’s friendly against Chelsea


With the Premier League and EFL kicking off this weekend, eyes will not only be focused on the pitch, but also on the surrounding stands.

The 2019-20 season has reached its conclusion without supporters in the stadiums, and the news is about to begin without supporters as well.

Trials matches, supervised by the DCMS, such as the recent friendly between Brighton and Chelsea, were held in small numbers, with only 2,500 at the Amex stadium with a capacity of 30,000.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Wednesday that plans to send supporters back to stadiums from October 1 would be reconsidered, as part of broader restrictions aimed at tackling the spread of Covid-19. Pilot test events in September will now be limited to 1,000 fans.

Football clubs have been working with the Sports Grounds Safety Authority (SGSA) and the Department of Digital Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) to address the health, safety and social distancing issues that need to be addressed.

The government is also believed to be considering setting up a sports technology innovation group.

So in what ways could technology protect the game day experience?

Different solutions

Will Durden is a Director at Momentum Transport Consultancy, which works with West Ham United Headquarters, London Stadium, Wembley Stadium and the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.

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Transport Momentum

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Will Durden says social distancing needs to be built into game day


Their experts are examining foot traffic around stadiums and looking to reduce wait times and overcrowding – major issues after Covid.

“The stadiums are used to doing things in a way that is now going to be very different, and they will have to use software to look at different game scenarios.

“Their main question and challenge is, what can be done to safely integrate social distancing into the functioning of match day? Each stage is different and each needs different solutions. “

Test events on Saturday September 12

  • Aberdeen v Kilmarnock and Ross County v Celtic in the Scottish Premiership will both have up to 300 fans

  • Women’s Super League match between West Ham United and Arsenal will have a maximum of 1,000 supporters

Clubs not belonging to the seventh tier league of English football and below may also admit fans as a distinction has been made between recreational sport and elite sport.

Q&A: What will the 2020-21 season look like?

For example, Momentum software can examine whether bottlenecks are caused at stadium entrances by new safety and health checks.

It can also model what might happen if searches and bag searches were replaced with airport-style security scans.

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William Heubner / Momentum Transport

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A dynamic model of Momentum crowd heat of a security check area in a stadium


“We work on an operational plan for each building,” says Durden. “It may be that to speed up the entry of the fans, we were running a scenario to use the stadium exits as entrances.

“Our software can show us if it would work or if it would cause some other problem elsewhere in the stadium. ”

Mr Durden adds that stadiums can make a big difference by introducing digital tickets.

“Many rooms already have the capability to do this, such as smart card subscriptions,” he says. “Operating costs could also be reduced if there were industry-wide use of digital tickets. “

Data analysis

Dr Aoife Hunt is a mathematician and associate director at Movement Strategies, who has worked with DCMS, SGSA and EFL.

The company takes all available data, including previous ticketing information, future ticketing data (including the number of people who want to sit together in groups of friends and families), stadium arrangements, as well as – where GDPR rules permit – historical video surveillance footage of fan movement.

The team also has data compiled from the physical count and recording of the movement of people in places such as London Stadium and Wembley.

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Movement strategies

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Dr Aoife Hunt worked with the Athletic Field Safety Authority


Ms Hunt’s team worked at this year’s World Snooker Championship, where the number of spectators was limited.

“If you can imagine something like a video game with a 3D stadium, you can change the number of people, their behavior, their movement within the stadium, and we can run a number of different scenarios.

“The element of social distancing is something new that we are taking into account. “

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This allows them to find an optimal attendance count, depending on the stadium and how easily each fan bubble can be safely moved away from the next.

The team also examines how each computer-generated viewer might interact with the others.

“This shows us if there will be any potential for interactions with other fans outside of their designated social distancing bubble for an unacceptable amount of time,” she said.

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Movement strategies

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Movement strategies can simulate different seating arrangements


“So if we find that X number of viewers will be interacting with others for too long, we’re looking at how this particular issue can be addressed in terms of reducing fan movement or numbers.

“There may be potential points where fans could get too close, be it lobbies, food and drink stores, restrooms.

“If our simulations cannot find a solution, for example around food and drink, then a decision may be made that catering cannot open. “

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While Movement and Momentum are concerned with managing and predicting spectator movements, software company Crowd Connected is looking to track fans on match day.

The company works with several sports organizations, including UEFA and the European Tour Golf, as well as with music festivals.

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Bill Wilson / BBC

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Spectator rules have been relaxed at lower levels of English football


“Our technology works by taking advantage of the fact that a major event usually has an official application,” says director Mark Maydon. “It serves as a guide for the event, for example during a cricket or football match.

“Because people arrive with mobile phones, by integrating our code into the app, we can then track their movements around the place and use it to improve the experience. ”

But he would like to stress that they must have the explicit permission of the fans for their software to be activated.

“Maybe the stadiums will be strictly separated in the future,” he said.

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Mark Square

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Mark Maydon says fans need to give permission to sign up for Crowd Connected tracking features


“The app can be used to direct you to your stadium ticket entry point on a pre-determined route, and then to make sure you don’t stray from your designated area when inside the stadium.

“We can also use it to inform people of the entry process, telling them, for example, that they are approaching security, then health checks, then ticket gates. “

Collection points

One of the main challenges in the stadiums will be communication, says Maydon.

“For example, if large queues form in a food court, we can let them know if there is a quieter one nearby.

“Or if people buy food or drink through the app, they can be directed to a specific collection point. “

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Connected crowd

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Crowd Connected can trace where people congregate in large groups


Attendance data can also show that fans use some parts of the stadium more than others, which could inform things like cleaning regimes.

But there is a limit to the technology – it relies on the registration of people.

“We need people’s permission to follow them,” says Maydon. “But if it was billed as ‘help us help you,’ it might encourage people to sign up. “

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