Sports venues across Arkansas plan for the future amid pandemic
August 10-16, 2020
By Krishnan Collins
Sporting venues across the state continue to adapt to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic while planning to host events in new ways during an unprecedented time that means a peculiar game day experience for fans, coaches and players alike. As facility directors and athletic departments face new challenges in conducting what would usually be standard game day procedures, new techniques and ideas must be applied to operating concession stands, letting fans in the venue and day-to-day operations.
By simply arriving at the Jack Stephens Center on campus at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, one dives into new COVID-19 procedures straight away. Currently, everyone who enters the arena must go through the back-loading dock door as it is the only open entrance. The prospective entrant must wear a mask before approaching a table at the loading dock and then must answer several questions concerning COVID-19 symptoms and travel. Access is not yet granted into the Trojan’s 15-year-old but nevertheless young-looking arena.
The plight continues as the entrant’s temperature is taken and if he passes this final test, he is then furnished with a wristband sporting a specific color to illustrate he is granted access to facilities across campus on that given day.
University of Arkansas at Little Rock (UALR) Director of Facilities and Game Operations James Ericson walks down the corridor away from the loading dock, mask on face, before taking his place in a socially distant media room. Everything from extra sanitation, halftime acts and concessions must be planned for the upcoming season.
Ericson noted a silver lining of the situation – there has been a lot of collaboration and communication between different programs across different conferences about what each program is doing to tackle the challenges COVID-19 produces.
“What we are trying to do is make sure that A: people that come are able to enjoy concessions and that sort of thing,” Ericson said. “We are looking at different options. Are we going to have a full menu or a scaled back menu? Are we going to have people come up to the concession stand or are we going to do something more along the lines of having hawkers? Right now, we are throwing out a lot of ideas.”
Prepackaged food seems like a very possible option for concession stands at any venue and Ericson said it is something the Jack Stephens Center is considering. UALR operates its concession stands in-house, meaning profits usually produced from sales and going to the department could be affected by the pandemic. Ericson said he does not think the new procedures will affect sales but said the COVID-19 enforced attendance decrease at games could pose a threat.
Across town, Arkansas State Parks Public Information Coordinator Meg Matthews said War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock already started talks with a supplier about prepackaged food.
“A lot of the things that are [usually] sold are things like hot dogs, popcorn and nachos,” Matthews said. “Clearly that cannot happen. We had a meeting with one of our suppliers talking about selling prepackaged food. More the kind of foods you would see in a convenience store. They would still be snack items and something you could enjoy at an event here.”
Matthews also said drinks would be sold in bottles. War Memorial Stadium owns its own concession stands but gives back to the community by allowing volunteers to operate the stands and take home the profits.
Matthews gave the example if the student body of a high school playing a game at War Memorial put together a group of students to operate concessions during the contest, the school would have to pay the wholesale price of concession items to War Memorial but then would keep the profits.
“We think it is a wonderful way to give back to the community,” Matthews said. “However, since so many of the concession stands are run by volunteers, we do not know how many volunteers there will be. In the COVID-19 world volunteers are everywhere. However, this is a very specific situation where you are in close quarters and maintaining that social distancing is so important to us. We are really trying mathematically to see how it would work.”
Showcasing how different venues and programs vary in their concession stand operations, the First National Bank Arena (FNBA) on the campus of Arkansas State University has an outside vendor, Sodexo, run its food and drink sales.
FNBA Director Jim Brown said there has not been much concrete communication between Sodexo and the arena regarding new procedures, but they have discussed that procedures should follow Arkansas Department of Health guidelines. Brown also said if there was an event like a meeting with a buffet, Sodexo would have to serve the food because no self-serve is allowed.
The Stephens Center, known locally as the Jack, FNBA and War Memorial all host a variety of events, not all necessarily related to collegiate athletics or athletics in general. Although people can still schedule events at the Jack from mid-March through July, no outside events took place inside the Trojan’s arena as everything was canceled.
“People have been reaching out saying ‘Hey, I would love to be able to get on your calendar for this time,’” Ericson said. “Which is fine, I will go ahead and schedule them with the caveat of we do not know where we are going to be in October. But, clearly based on what the chancellor puts out, the Arkansas Department of Health, that sort of thing will guide us in determining whether or not we will be able to host those events here.”
Back in Jonesboro, the FNBA lost its monster truck show when the pandemic started and postponed two more events. A Lauren Daigle concert was rescheduled for March 27, 2021, and Toby Keith for Aug. 14, 2021. MercyMe slots in March 13, 2021.
“There are a lot of other events that I have had conversations with and we have got them on the books that we are working with right now,” Brown said. “We are just not at liberty to discuss what those events might be.”
As of right now and under ADH large indoor venue guidelines, no matter what the event, the FNBA can only allow a maximum 66% of its capacity to be filled by fans. Brown said FNBA staff and the A-State athletic department will have to collaborate to get a better idea on how many tickets will be available for the public.
“From an athletics perspective, they are going to have tickets they will have to set aside for student athletes and their parents,” Brown said. “Once you do that, then we would have to sit there and say this is how many tickets are available to be sold to the general public. That is why I said it has to be a collaborative effort.”
War Memorial typically hosts a variety of small events throughout the year, but COVID-19 has created a new normal.
“[General operations have changed] obviously a lot,” Matthews said. “We used to have many smaller events here that maybe people did not know about. We would rent out the stadium for birthday parties. We cannot have that right now.”
While Ericson said the plans at UALR for events like halftime shows are a little bit further down the line, it is yet another aspect venues have to plan for in the future. Whatever act is scheduled would need to participate in procedures on their end to make sure they enter the Jack COVID-19 free and as safe as possible. Game days and events do not stand as the only things affected by the coronavirus at these venues, he said. All three venues have changed their day-to-day operations since the beginning of the pandemic.
“I do more sanitizing now,” Ericson laughed. “And more enforcement of mask wearing. That is one the of main ways our operations have changed … With my responsibilities working closely with campus and our facility maintenance partners on campus just getting the necessary equipment and products we need to sanitize these different areas.”
Practice courts, weight rooms and even media rooms are sanitized after every use at the Jack. Employees throughout the arena are responsible for keeping their own offices sanitized as well. Ericson is responsible for getting schedules from coaches about what voluntary workouts and events are planned in the arena. He then knows what he needs to plan for in terms of sanitizing. If there is a meeting scheduled for a certain room, Ericson sanitizes the room both before and after the meeting.
In the FNBA, arena staff and the A-State athletics department work together on sanitation measures. “For example, athletics would be responsible for taking care of their locker rooms,” Brown said. “Right now, with practices going on, they are responsible for making sure the incoming team, whether men’s basketball team, volleyball team, women’s basketball team, they are responsible for cleaning the chairs and scorer’s table they use for practice.”
Matthews said since War Memorial Stadium does not often have events back-to-back, there is plenty of time to sanitize the venue according to U.S. Center for Disease and Control (CDC) guidelines. She also said it is too early in the game to know if these extra sanitation measures have put any strain on the stadium’s budget. Being a state park, War Memorial is funded by a one-eighth cent conservation tax.
“We are lucky compared to other states that we have this secure funding source, so we do not have to go to the legislature every year and ask for specific amounts of money for our budget. Because of that one-eighth cent sales tax it allows us to use our money wisely because we can plan ahead,” Matthews said.
COVID-19 hit during a time when War Memorial would typically be hiring a large amount of temporary labor. Since events were not happening and that labor was not needed, that, among other factors, has also allowed for some wiggle room when it comes to budgeting.
Many venues have been facing challenges of unprecedented measure throughout the pandemic. Brown emphasized the mystery surrounding the coronavirus and how so many aspects of the virus are unknown. He sits in on two-three industry calls a week, he said.
Back in Little Rock, Ericson noted the challenges ahead in a pandemic that has already seemed to stretch an eternity. “It is a challenging time, it is a different time,” Ericson said “We just want to make sure anyone who enters this facility, any of our facilities, that we are being as safe as we possibly can. We want to make sure that we are doing what we can to slow the spread and stop the spread of the virus.”
(Photos courtesy of ASU)