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USA Today Story- featuring our advisory board member Stacey Hall

Leagues, clubs deal with perception of rise in fan violence

By Robert Klemko, USA TODAY 8/30/2011

After a near-fatal beating in baseball and this month’s mayhem at an NFL preseason game, experts warn the perception of a rise in fan violence will give Americans reason to attend fewer games if leagues and clubs do not take action.
Of 69,732 fans at this month’s Oakland Raiders-San Francisco 49ers NFL game, 70 were ejected from Candlestick Park, 12 were arrested, two were shot in the parking lot — and one was savagely beaten in a restroom.
Images of the violence, proliferating through social and news media, struck a foul chord with fans and with stadium operators, many setting security policies without uniform guidance.   
“The viciousness, the escalation of the violence is what is so striking,” said Marc Ganis, president of Chicago-based SportsCorp, a sports business consulting firm. “It’s escalated, perhaps, as a reflection of society.”
Last season, the NFL averaged three arrests and 25 ejections per stadium per week, framing the recent events in San Francisco as a startling deviation.
“After Saturday, I heard so many people say, ‘I’m not bringing my kids anymore,’ ” former 49ers president Carmen Policy told the San Francisco Chronicle. “That’s a real problem for the NFL.”
The NFL has noticed. Monday, the league and the Raiders released photos showing fans, including families, enjoying themselves at Sunday’s game against the visiting New Orleans Saints. “Perception + reality, often not the same,” NFL spokesman Greg Aiello wrote on Twitter.
Problem? Or perception of a problem? Factors to consider:
•Rivalry games spark animosity among fans.
“It derives from proximity,” says Andrei S. Markovits, professor of sociology at the University of Michigan. “Civil wars have been shown to have much higher casualty rates than non-civil wars.”
Add in tailgating and the accompanying uninhibited alcohol consumption and incidents can happen.
“They have to cut down on the alcohol consumption in the parking lots,” Steve Ives, a 55-year old truck driver from New Haven, Conn., said at the Aug. 22 NFL game between the Chicago Bears and New York Giants. “Those fans are too intoxicated to control themselves. Then you get the violence.”
•That can spawn the mob mentality.
“Negative actions can become viral when one event — a limited act of violence occurs in the stands — triggers similar events in other areas of the crowd,” said Don Forsyth, professor of social psychology at the University of Richmond who has written extensively on fan behavior.
•Not to be overlooked is fallout from a stumbling economy.
“People are seeking opportunities to escape this horrible economy through sports,” said Drexel psychology professor Charles Williams, who has studied group behavior. “But it doesn’t address what lies beneath — anxiety, depression, feelings of hopelessness, fear.”
•Rising ticket prices can create troublemakers out of haves and have-nots alike.
“Fans have been priced out of going to the games,” said Ken Reed, sports policy director of Ralph Nader’s League of Fans, “So in order to get some of the fan experience they tailgate and party the whole game, and some of the incidents in the parking lot can be attributed to just fans that haven’t even gone into the games.”
Those who pay can have an inflated sense of self-worth, said Earl Smith, professor of sociology at Wake Forest and author of eight books, including Race, Sport and the American Dream in 2007: “Fans feel they have an entitlement. The ticket prices are high enough so they come to games with a chip on their shoulder.”
Adding alcohol, Smith said, doesn’t help. Reed agrees.
“I think owners are playing with fire in that they want all this revenue from alcohol sales yet they don’t want to deal with the responsibility of what alcohol does to their consumers,” Reed said. “So I think they’ve got to step up a little in terms of keeping things safe if they want the revenue.”
Each league’s reliance on beer and liquor sales varies, Ganis said. By his count, an NFL team’s alcohol revenue generally falls below $1 million in a season. Likewise, the parking revenue, derived in part from tailgating, maxes around $500,000.
In baseball, alcohol is a major slice of the revenue pie due to summer heat and the number and length of games, Ganis said. “Baseball counts on its beer money. It’s meaningful revenue in baseball, and to a lesser degree, hockey and basketball, as well.”
Ganis cites the rash of postgame drunk driving and lawsuits in the late 1990s as why clubs implemented stricter ID policies and seventh inning sales cutoffs — up to a point.
But no matter what teams make from alcohol, the real money, Ganis said, is in providing a safe and enjoyable environment.
“Further limiting alcohol would be another way of reducing fan enjoyment,” Ganis said. “You want to let the fans who want to have a couple beers do so as part of their fan experience without having the excessive drinkers ruin the event or make it feel unsafe for everybody else.
“There’s a balance that needs to be found there.”
Reaching a ‘tipping point’
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has been searching for that balance since his appointment in 2006. The league introduced a fan Code of Conduct in 2008 with an evolving list of best practices for stadiums, and a committee to oversee it.
They perform fan surveys and weekly audits of every franchise and issue grades at the end of each season. Since 2008 the league has seen incident reports and ejections rise and arrests drop, indicating the problem is being “nipped in the bud” said Jeffrey Miller, the NFL’s director of strategic security services.
But this month’s violence in San Francisco was “a clear sign that even though we do a lot, we need to do more — and we will do more,” Miller said.
Officials with the 49ers decided that a healthy balance cannot be struck when the team meets the Raiders, at least not for now. Team president Jed York requested an end to the annual preseason meeting with the cross-bay rivals. Taking Miller’s advice, the security presence has been increased at Candlestick Park and its parking lots, and the team has banned tailgating after the game has begun.
It was the kind of immediate action the 49ers had to take to restore confidence in their brand, said Jason Maloni, a senior vice president of Levick Strategic Communications, a Washington, D.C.-based crisis management firm that works with athletes and sports clubs.
“What we saw in San Francisco is what’s called a ‘tipping point,’ ” Maloni said. “When folks see that, they might think the problem is greater than it actually is. Or, they may be seeing a problem that’s been there all along, just not staring at them on their television and computer screens.”
Social media makes us more aware of these incidents, Maloni said. After the Raiders-49ers fiasco, dozens of videos emerged on YouTube and other websites depicting fans trading blows in the stands, stadium corridors and parking lots.
“In the short term, this increased exposure via social media to violence at the games will deter the fringe fan who may be concerned about their or their families’ safety,” said Erik Qualman, author of Socialnomics: How Social Media Transforms the Way We Live and Do Business in 2009. “Long term, it will result in a safer environment. The teams and leagues will be forced to confront an issue that they may have hoped would go away or take care of itself. The power of social media is it forces necessary change.”
Although their “best practices” are not mandatory, the NFL said they are followed strictly by the franchises, with some taking extra steps to curb violence. The NFL Giants have cut alcohol sales altogether at some night games, with owner John Mara citing a desire to do “whatever it takes” to preserve a safe environment for fans.
Miller said some of the measures taken in East Rutherford, N.J., and San Francisco aren’t necessary in other markets, and won’t be part of the league’s best practices.
“Obviously, some of the new measures are reactionary to the latest incidents,” Reed said. “But generally, these problems aren’t new and these measures need to be done proactively and to a greater extent across the leagues. Commissioners should be coming down on the owner of each franchise to come up with stronger safety policies, and then enforcing them.”
Crowd-control issues
Dr. Stacey Hall, associate director of The National Center for Spectator Sports Safety and Security at the University of Southern Mississippi, said U.S. leagues can do more to be proactive. She points out the difference between crowd management and crowd control.
“Crowd management is the proactive,” she said. “It’s making sure that folks get in and out in a safe manner. Crowd control is more reactionary. … Something has already gone wrong.”
Hall said U.S. venue staffs are lacking in both areas, especially compared to their counterparts in the United Kingdom, where fan violence stemming from hooliganism has produced national mandates for fan safety.
“They are ahead of the game in security only because they’ve been forced to. We have been fortunate enough to avoid major crowd problems,” she said. “But with the increase in violence, stadium operators (must) take a closer look at safety and security.”
In baseball, there is no such league-wide fan code of conduct or best practices committee. Most clubs voluntarily train with the non-profit Techniques for Effective Alcohol Management (TEAM Coalition), which is also involved with the NBA, NHL, NFL, NCAA and NASCAR. TEAM Coalition certifies stadium staffers in such training as recognizing the warning signs of impairment and enforcing underage drinking laws.
New York Yankees first baseman Mark Teixeira has noticed improvement across the board: “If anything, I’ve actually seen less fights in the stands. But obviously, I’m not in the parking lots after games.”
More than 70% of baseball venue workers have completed the program, the highest rate of any of the major leagues, said Jill Pepper, executive director of TEAM. “Anything better than 0% is a very big commitment from a franchise because this training is not mandated by the league.”
Hall expects that to change, after the recent extreme violence, with the industry “headed towards some type of standardization. All of these tragedies are opening the eyes of folks in the industry and they’re saying, ‘Are we doing what we’re supposed to be doing?’ “
The confrontation factor
Atlanta Braves third baseman Chipper Jones said he doesn’t bring his family to many road games because of the verbal abuse they endure, with alcohol consumption an added factor.
“At some point you’re going to have to address the alcohol intake,” he said. “I know you can’t really regulate anything before they walk through the gates … but it just seems like you’ve got to do something to keep some sense in people. We know what liquid courage does.”
He’s not sure increased security is the answer.
“I don’t know that increased security would do anything,” Jones said. “I’ve seen people throw things right in front of a security officer and the guy looked the other way. I think they’re as scared of confrontation as most people.”
Hall points to several technological measures that teams can take to help fans regulate themselves. In the NFL, every stadium has a text-messaging program so fans can notify security of a dangerous situation. In baseball and hockey, most but not all clubs have such technology in place. NBA spokesman Mark Broussard said the league does not make its security plans and policies public.
Certain fans, however, will still make trouble.
“These are fans who really revel in the confrontation with other fans and drinking,” said Daniel Wann, psychology professor at Murray State who has researched and written about fan behavior. “They don’t want to be nice. Part of what they like about a sporting event is the confrontation and the trash-talking and vulgarities.”
That attitude is still baffling to Jones, even after his 18 seasons in the big leagues.
“All of this is spurred by a sport,” Jones said. “This is supposed to be fun.”

Contributing: Mike Dodd in Chicago, Michael McCarthy and Tom Pedulla in East Rutherford, N.J., Bob Nightengale in Baltimore, Steve Wieberg in Lawson, Mo. 

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