When the Titans traveled to Denver for their Week 1 game against the Broncos on Sept. 14, Titans president Burke Nihill said he felt confident Nashville Mayor John Cooper’s office was trending toward approving a plan to bring fans back to Nissan Stadium in October.
But nothing was final at that point.
Nihill arrived at Empower Field at Mile High for the season opener and was taken aback by the atmosphere – or lack thereof.
No fans meant no natural energy, no real cheers or boos, no semblance of what an NFL game-day experience should be.
Nihill left the venue with even more conviction: “I was going to drag that baby (the plan to bring fans back to Nissan Stadium) across the finish line after being in Denver and just seeing what the experience was like,” Nihill told The Tennessean on Sept. 28. “It just became that much more important, having seen the alternative in person.”
Lo and behold, on Sept. 16, Cooper, with Nihill near his side, announced the reopening of Nissan Stadium to fans beginning with 10% capacity for the since-postponed Steelers game and gradually increasing from there.
Even with a cloud now hanging over the organization after the Titans were struck by the NFL’s first teamwide COVID-19 outbreak – 13 players and 11 personnel have tested positive since Sept. 24 – the show will go on thanks to a newly implemented Safe Stadium Plan.
Gil Beverly, the Titans’ chief marketing and revenue officer, told The Tennessean that Nissan Stadium would host the originally planned 12.5% capacity for the Buffalo Bills game, which was postponed from Sunday until 6 p.m. Tuesday.
“The Titans plan, the Nissan stadium plan is excellent,” Dr. Michael Caldwell, director of the Metro Public Health Department, said Friday. “We can never provide a zero risk environment, but this is about as low a risk as you possibly can get. It’s outdoor, face masks are required at all times unless you’re actively eating or drinking, social distancing is really well enforced, and there are limited alcohol sales. So… I have no concern about any attendance moving forward.”
Collaboration on a large scale
The key was being proactive.
Before any official word from the NFL on COVID-19 guidelines for fan attendance, before talks with Metro Nashville Public Health Department had even begun, the Titans assembled a safe stadium committee.
The group included more than 30 people who met weekly via Zoom. That group was broken into smaller subcommittees – with targeted focuses such as concessions, security and media – that would meet throughout the week as well.
The NFL sent the Titans an early draft of their safety protocols in June, at which point “we took the work that we had been doing, unique to our stadium, and blended it with the resources that the NFL provided, to start to create what has now become the basis of our Safe Stadium Plan.”
Then, in early July, Nihill and the Titans began meeting with Caldwell and the Health Department as the Safe Stadium Plan began taking its final shape.
Key components of it include:
- Socially distant seating pods accommodating parties of one to a maximum of six people;
- Mobile ticketing and parking, to eliminate physical contact while scanning passes;
- Mandatory face coverings at all times, except when actively eating or drinking;
- More than 300 hand sanitizing stations throughout the stadium;
- Individually wrapped food items at concession stands;
- Elimination of all smoking and vaping areas in the facility;
- Health screenings and personal protective equipment for all Nissan Stadium employees;
- A comprehensive cleaning plan during events for bathrooms and near concession areas;
The biggest factor: enforcement. The Safe Stadium Plan could be immaculate, but if not properly enforced, “the plan really isn’t worth the paper it was written on,” Nihill said.
The goal, Nihill said, is to deliver a 20 to 1 fan-to-enforcement personnel ratio. Per fan, that represents a much higher percentage of enforcement personnel than normal, Nihill said.
Many of those security personnel will be focused primarily on health and safety.
“You will see security personnel walking up and down aisles with signs, reminding people to put their mask back up if they’re taking their mask down,” Nihill said. “They’ll be walking by concessions stands and being sure that people are maintaining a safe distance between their group and the group in front of them.”
A finely sculpted seating map
Determining the seating layout for a socially distanced crowd took some math, some art and some magic, Beverly told The Tennessean on Sept. 26.
With 6 feet of social distance in between pods – “Meaning clusters of seats, of people that know each other or who come to the game together,” Beverly said – as the guiding principle, the Titans estimated a max capacity of “somewhere between 20% and 22%,” Beverly said.
Pod sizes include one, two, three, four or six fans.
“And the magic comes in with figuring out how many of each that you want to have,” Beverly said. “If you’re clustering people in groups of six, you probably can get more people in the building, but that’s not really how people want to buy tickets right now.”
It was a learning process, Beverly said. By the end of it, they determined the highest demand was for pairs of tickets.
Beverly said 10% capacity would fill the lower bowl of Nissan Stadium “pretty much relatively evenly.” As the percentage gradually increases through October and into November, the upper section will become utilized.
Adjusting on the fly
Before the COVID-19 pandemic took hold, Ginny Needham was the Titans’ stadium events manager, a title that is self-explanatory.
How she also became the Titans’ stadium infectious control officer requires a bit more of an explanation.
It’s a role that the NFL has required of every team in 2020. Nihill approached Needham about it at the onset of the pandemic, and from there, she took some classes.
One was a detailed course in contract tracing by Johns Hopkins University.
“It delved into what contact tracing was from a very integral level,” Needham said, “but it also really broadened it for you to show how your contact tracing could really affect the community around you.”
Quickly, Needham was operating at the center of the Titans’ efforts to get fans back in the building.
She led all the weekly committee meetings, assigned all the subcommittees and was essentially responsible for keeping things moving on a daily basis. She also was involved in all discussions between the NFL and our team.
“I think it’s worth mentioning that this whole process has taught me, and I hope others within our organization, about the word grace,” Needham said. “Because we have come through and worked through many challenges for this … It truly has helped me personally, and our organization, work together. And that’s a big thing.”
Reach Erik Bacharach at [email protected] and on Twitter @ErikBacharach.