The familiar buzz was back in the air. Fans filed into parking lots with unusual ease. The warm summer evening was the ideal setting for a soccer match. Never had a half-empty stadium felt better.
Saturday night Louisville City FC won their first match at the brand new Lynn Family Stadium, where just three games have been played in 2020, thanks to COVID-19. Season ticket holders were welcome to attend all three home games, making it one of the only sports venues in North America open for fans.
KSR was in attendance for the 1-0 victory over Sporting KC II. To watch a sporting event unfold firsthand for the first time in what felt like years was invigorating. More importantly, the enlightening experience provided a preview of what attending a sporting event will look like in the not so distant future.
Located in the Butchertown neighborhood within sight of downtown Louisville, the $65 million Lynn Family Stadium was scheduled to open in April to more than 15,000 rabid fans. Like every other sport in America, coronavirus canceled those plans.
Shortly after the USL announced a plan to return in July, Lou City officials curated a plan to safely host fans in the stands of their pristine new stadium. To meet the requirements of the guidelines approved by Governor Andy Beshear, capacity was reduced to 4,850 season ticket holders. The fans that opted to keep their tickets during the break in action were rewarded with a new way to enter the game.
All attendants must wear masks (more on that later). Upon entering the stadium each fan is asked if they've been in contact with anyone who may have COVID-19 or if they're experiencing any symptoms. After responding appropriately, the person's temperature is taken with a forehead scanner. After that test is passed, their tickets are the next to be scanned, except it isn't a thick piece of cardboard. All tickets have gone mobile through Lou City's ticket broker, SeatGeek.
Once inside, signs are EVERYWHERE. Hand sanitizer stations remind you to wash your hands. Signs remind you to wear your mask at all times. Soccer balls on the ground designate where you're supposed to stand in line for an ice cream cone. Even the bathrooms have covered sinks and stalls to ensure people can socially distance.
Once you've taken care of business in the pregame, it's time to find your seat. It's never been easier. Instead of sliding past people through aisles and asking folks to move, every single group of season ticket holders has a significant portion of the stands to themselves. This way families have their own personal bubbles to avoid contacting others. Empty seats were taped off, even in the general admission "standing room only" end zone section.
In order to appease fans in every section, Lou City was still able to host patrons in suites and in boxes at the top of the lower level. Instead of spreading out individuals, a piece of plexiglass separated groups.
A rule is not a rule without a consequence. All of the infrastructure added to ensure the safety of fans would be useless if not for a vigilant staff canvassing the concourses to enforce the rules.
Wearing a mask is easy until you want to enjoy a cold beer on a hot summer night. Of course, there were more than enough vendors willing to sell cocktails and beer (credit card only). Drinking the cocktail was an Olympic event of sorts.
ASM Global, the operator of Lynn Family Stadium, created a task force specifically for stadium safety known as "VenueShield." In addition to the added signs and hand sanitizer stations, VenueShield workers are responsible cleaning surfaces and enforcing mask wearing. A careful observer could not let five minutes pass without seeing a person spraying down a handrail or table. In one end zone countertops line the entire width of the field, allowing for fans to lean up against the bar and give their drink a rest, just so long as they didn't give it a rest for too long.
One staff member in the end zone acted as the son of Sauron. If you removed your mask to take a drink, you better be drinking. If you took a drink, set it down and looked at your phone, he was there almost immediately to remind you to put your mask back on (or you could take another drink). To skirt the rule, I spotted one person walking to the bar with a can held near their mouth. In another instance, a boy tried to chase down his Dad as he was heading to the restroom. The usher stopped the six or seven-year-old and made him turn around to put on his mask before he could leave his seat. The stadium's mask police made sure faces were covered.
The examples above were simply reminders for fans. Some fans needed more than a reminder. Patrons receive one warning before they are removed from the premises for not wearing a mask
. Saturday night there were no reports of fans being forced to leave the stadium, but the rule was enforced multiple times leading into the most recent match. The mask-wearing rules at Lynn Family Stadium have consequences.
The Good and Bad for COVID Fans
Of the hundreds of thousands of sporting events I've attended in my life, there's never been a shorter beer or bathroom line. You don't need to leave the stadium early to beat the crowd because there isn't a crowd to beat. Those are just a few of the perks for members of the exclusive club that can witness a sporting event firsthand during the coronavirus pandemic.
Watching an event live provides a much different feeling than watching from home. Even without one-third of the stadium's capacity on hand, the juice was still in the air. The supporter section was still banging drums and chanting throughout the entire match.
Only once did I feel uncomfortable. Like Kroger Field, part of the concourse must temporarily close at times to let players walk from the locker room to the field. Of course, the area got congested for those few minutes. Aside from that instance, I left the stadium with reassurance because the entire audience bought in.
If Kroger Field or Rupp Arena holds sporting events this fall, fans will only get a chance to witness them from the stands if every single person abides by the rules
. Critics of mandated regulations often say, "Well, how are you going to enforce them?" If Louisville City FC can pull off the feat with a fleet of vigilant staff members, it can done in the SEC too.
Playing in a stadium that is nowhere near capacity is not ideal in any circumstance. The roars for a score aren't as loud and the few boo-birds echo after a bad call. Despite its drawbacks, even without stands full of fans nothing can replicate the fantastic feeling of being there to watch your team win.