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Fighting Bombs And The Bombed

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NFL security has been tight since 9/11. Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images.
NFL security has been tight since 9/11. Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images.

In the wake of the Boston Marathon attack, sports writers across the country are asking two questions:

Could it happen here?

What is the team/league doing about it?

The short answers are “yes,” and “a lot.”

Large gatherings of people always make for good terrorism targets, whether it’s a sporting event, a parade, a shopping mall or, as we now know, the finish line of a major marathon. None of this is news to the security staffs at the leagues and arenas around the country. Especially since September 11.

The NFL went through an entire review of their security measures post-9/11. You may have noticed changes at your own venue, from vehicle barriers to more serious bag searches. Every major sports league knows that the one thing that will keep fans away is not feeling safe at the stadium.

But while the major sports leagues have done a good job at keeping al Qaeda out of the stadium, they’ve done a relatively poor job at keeping Al Loudmouth out. You know the guy. He’s probably sat in your section a time or two. He’s either too drunk or too obnoxious (sometimes both). He literally ruins your day.

One of the worst places to watch a game in the NFL is Buffalo. I attended a Monday Night game there a few years ago and it was, without a doubt, the drunkest crowd I’ve ever seen.

This unruly behaviour hasn’t gone unnoticed by the NFL, which regularly gathers and shares best practices in crowd control. Among the league’s findings is that there’s a direct correlation between season-ticket subscription rates and fan behavior.

“If a team has a 10-year waiting list for tickets, most fans don’t want to risk losing their season tickets,” said one NFL team spokesman.

Teams have also found that making season-ticket holders accountable for any bad behavior that occurs in their seats – even if it happens when someone else is sitting in them – works.

“If we get a bad report, we call the ticket holder and tell them that if there’s another problem, regardless of who’s sitting in the seats, their tickets will be revoked,” said Houston Texans President Jamey Rootes. The team has never had to make a second call. The Bills have started to do the same thing.

The NFL’s stadium-building boom over the past decade has helped, too. Personal seat licenses and premium seating tend to price out some of the thugs. Philadelphia’s Veterans Stadium was long considered the worst in the league for fan behavior. Cops used to walk through the stands in visiting team jerseys to bait miscreants who preyed on visiting fans. Things were so bad that there was a courtroom right in the stadium to arraign the worst offenders. Things have gotten better since the Eagles moved in 2003 to Lincoln Financial Field, which has new luxury suites and nearly 11,000 Club seats that cost $800 or more a game. “The more expensive the experience, the less inclined fans are to ruin it,” Rootes said.

These trends partly explain the general state of fan behavior in Buffalo. Ralph Wilson Stadium was built in 1973 and holds 74,000, but there are only about 48,000 season ticket holders. That means about a third of the attendees have nothing to lose if they misbehave.

The Bills have tried to change that by actually starting to arrest people. The Bills have also started using the old-fashioned method of public shame as a deterrent. The Orchard Park police publicize the names and addresses of people arrested at games. Chris Clark, the Bills' security chief, credits the policy for cutting the number of arrests in half.

The quality of play is also a factor in crowd behavior.

“If fans are focused on the game, there tends to be less time for troublemaking,” Clark said.

Unfortunately, despite earnest efforts by football teams and the league, talk to most any NFL fan and he has a horror story to tell. Larry Becker, a Long Island oral surgeon, stopped taking his kids to New York Jets games because of the drunkenness and foul language they were exposed to. When Becker made the mistake of asking some fans to watch their language around his children, he was told to buzz off — in language that can’t be repeated here.

“Their attitude is they’ve paid a lot of money for these tickets and they’re going to do whatever they want to do,” said Rick Bonadeo, a Jets fan from Boonton, N.J.

In Buffalo, the unruly behavior often spills over into the luxury suites, prompting Clark to post guards outside each one.

“Fans would just walk in and use the bathroom,” said Bills suite-holder Ed Shill. “In the warm weather, when the sliding-glass windows were open, they’d dive in and grab food and beer. In the winter, when it’s 20-below outside and we’re in our shirtsleeves drinking hot chocolate, they’d throw things at the windows and give us the finger.”

Night games are the worst.

“They drink like it’s a one o’clock start,” Mr. Shill said.

But some teams have been able to make remarkable changes in fan behaviour. Carl Scalzo, a lifelong Philadelphia Eagles fan, sat for years in the notorious 700 section of Veterans Stadium. The 38-year-old police lieutenant from Easton, Pa., never knew quite what to expect.

“One year, a guy sat in our section with an Oakland Raiders jacket on,” he said. “By the second quarter, he was getting pelted with hot dogs, beer. People were calling him all sorts of four-letter names. It was pretty rough.”

So what did Eagles security do? According to Scalzo, they removed the Raiders fan.

“They couldn’t move the whole section, so they got rid of him.”

For decades, folks visiting Philadelphia to root for their home NFL teams didn’t receive much in the way of brotherly love. Not only did the Eagles’ fans torment visitors, but they once famously booed Santa Claus.

That all changed in 2003 when the Eagles moved into the $500 million Lincoln Financial Field. Typical of the new upscale NFL stadiums being built around the country, the Linc has a luxury club level that charges $800 a ticket and features gourmet dining and mahogany bars serving top-shelf liquor. The Eagles also instituted a new security policy that has become a model for the NFL.

“We set the bar very high from the first year we opened,” said Mark Donovan, the Eagles’ senior vice president of business operations. “As a result, we not only saw a sharp drop in incidents the first year, but have seen a steady decline every year since.”

The Eagles declined to release arrest figures and other stats, but Scalzo and others say the atmosphere at the Linc is completely different from that at the Vet. “Because the stadium is so new and nice, it’s lost some of its grittiness,” said Scalzo, who has had season tickets since 1999.

It’s also a function of economics. The NFL has found that these newer, more upscale stadiums price out some of the more boorish fans. Because tickets in the cheap seats can cost $100 or more, even diehard fans like Scalzo don’t go to every game. He sells about half his season tickets to family and friends to offset the cost.

“I didn’t miss a game at the Vet,” he said. And neither did other season-ticket holders, he noted. “As a result, it became a mob mentality because you had the same people sitting in the same seats every game.”

But the biggest factor in the turnaround has been the new security procedures. Before fans even enter the Linc, they go through three layers of scrutiny. If the ticket-taker suspects the fan is intoxicated or has other concerns, he raises his hand and a second usher makes an assessment. If there’s still a question, a “black shirt,” usually an off-duty police officer, pulls the fan aside and questions him. If the black shirt thinks the fan is unfit to enter, he walks him over to the ticket booth, gives him a full refund, and says, “Have a nice day.”

“They’re still a guest, and we treat them with respect,” said Leonard Bonacci, director of event operations. “But we make it clear that they’re not welcome here today.”

One continuing problem, he said, is that about 45,000 of the Eagles' 70,000 fans come through the gates in the 45 minutes just before kickoff. Obviously a few troublemakers get through, so the Eagles have two systems to help corral them.

The Linc was the first NFL stadium to have a text-messaging system that allows fans to anonymously report trouble. They simply text their section and seat number and security comes down.

“I have 3,000 people on my staff, but with anonymous texting I have 70,000 eyes that can help me, as well,” Bonacci said.

Ushers have a four-button pager that alerts staffers to anything from vomit in the aisle to a fist fight. It also sends a signal to a control room atop the stadium that’s equipped with a camera that can zoom in on the trouble spot and dispatch more help.

The Eagles aren’t alone. Many NFL teams -- the Denver Broncos, Pittsburgh Steelers, Houston Texans, and others -- have already instituted many of these policies. But the NFL still felt it necessary to create its first-ever league-wide fan-behavior policy to counter a widespread image of out-of-control fans and to nudge teams that haven’t made security a top priority.

While the Linc is a far cry from the Vet, the Eagles still have challenges. One is night games against fierce rivals like the New York Giants.

“No matter what you do, you’re always going to have a few knuckleheads,” Lt. Scalzo said. According to the NFL, that’s the problem it faces.

“One unruly fan can ruin the experience for 25 others,” said Milt Ahlerich, senior vice president of security for the league. “Multiply that by a couple hundred fans and you ruin it for a lot of people.”

Yes, they do.