From Wi-Fi to HVAC, Connecticut arenas will likely see changes as a result of COVID-19

STORRS, CT - DECEMBER 18: A view of the XL Center court prior to the game as the Drexel Dragons take on the UConn Huskies on December 18, 2018 at the XL Center in Hartford, Connecticut. (Photo by Williams Paul/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

STORRS, CT - DECEMBER 18: A view of the XL Center court prior to the game as the Drexel Dragons take on the UConn Huskies on December 18, 2018 at the XL Center in Hartford, Connecticut. (Photo by Williams Paul/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Icon Sportswire / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

It began with the Ivy League canceling its basketball tournament March 10, 2020 and spread over the next few days, from the NBA pausing to the NCAA shutting down its lucrative March Madness tournament.

Just like that, COVID-19 turned the world upside down. And for many, it took the cancellation of sports to amplify the seriousness of the pandemic.

“It just was kind of a snap of fingers and everything shut down,” said Joe Dolan, general manager of Bridgeport’s Total Mortgage Arena. “We were basically the first industry to go and one of the last to come back.”

Indeed, the era defined by social distancing has not been easy for an industry that sells the communal experience of live sports viewing.

The challenge of managing crowds — whether at an NFL stadium or at a Friday night high school football game — has been daunting for those who run events. Yet as live sports re-emerged over the past year, venue managers have seized an opportunity.

Paperless tickets and grab-and-go food? Cashless transactions with mobile payment apps or credit cards, from the parking garage to the souvenir shop?

All components of the live sports experience for years as venue operators steadily reshaped the game-day experience. But it may have taken a pandemic to accelerate the process.

“There’s a combination of things that were already in the pipeline,” said Kimberly L. Mahoney, who has worked in venue management and operates a Connecticut-based facility and event management consulting company. “The process was just sped up. … A lot of that was just the enhanced technology, reducing touch points, touchless technology, those types of things. For now that only applies to venues with the resources to implement those things. But ticket scanning, not having hard tickets anymore, using all mobile tickets that fans hold up their phone and scan themselves, pedestal scanners, that’s happening everywhere.”

None of this is new, of course. Ticketing has been mobile for years, but there are still people who prefer the paper airline boarding pass or the physical movie theater ticket.

Sports venues continued to cater to that demographic, but it is shrinking and there is a generational divide. Those who have grown up with smartphones are accustomed to using mobile options. Those who spent years buying paper tickets at a box office are perhaps slower to embrace the technology.

So the process as COVID protocols loosen is for those staging sports events to, as Dolan says, be “nimble.”

“It’s incredibly important for us to make this as frictionless experience as possible, because at the end of the day, we are here to provide a source of entertainment, a source of enjoyment,” said Dolan, who became the GM at Bridgeport’s arena in June 2021. “We don’t want to put up obstacles if there are people who aren’t as familiar with technology or aren’t as comfortable with technology. ... So it’s not like if you don’t have a smartphone, that you’re just not going to get into events anymore. We have to accommodate those guests. But I do think that there’s been a wide embrace of a lot of these things because they see it not just for the convenience but also, they understand the safety and security reasons.”

Dolan and Ben Weiss, the general manager of Hartford’s XL Center and East Hartford’s Rentschler Field, estimate that over 95 percent of patrons now scan tickets on their phones.

The pandemic allowed these facilities to make touchless transactions more prevalent, but there was a need to over communicate with ticket-buyers as events returned to buildings.

In Hartford, there were some issues with the AHL Wolf Pack fans early in the season. Weiss calls it a “learning curve” as fans adjust to mobile ticketing.

“That was a concern going into some of these events, depending on the demographics, because you want to make sure that we communicated very much in front of the events,” Weiss said. “It was, make sure you download your ticket, put it in your (smartphone) wallet or make sure you’ve got you’ve got it in advance. Because the last thing we need is 6,000 or 7,000 people trying to access a cell tower or trying to find a WiFi signal, standing at the door.”

A reliable Wi-Fi signal is at the core of this shift toward smartphone transactions. That’s an issue for older buildings such as the XL Center or UConn’s Gampel Pavilion.

Newer venues — and venues being constructed — include concession stands that allow fans to order purchase food from the an app and retrieve the items without interacting with a facility employee.

Seattle’s newly renovated Climate Pledge Arena uses Amazon-developed technology for “just walk out” concession stands and palm-scanning technology that allows fans to pay for item by waving their hand. Construction on the arena began in December 2018, well before the pandemic nudged the industry into the touchless transaction world.

Climate Pledge Arena was redeveloped by Oak View Group, which also runs the building and is the operator of Total Mortgage Arena. The company is also taking over management of the XL Center after merging with Comcast-owned Spectra and is expected to invest in renovation for the arena.

Dolan said the company focuses on technology when building new facilities or renovating existing venues.

“It’s kind of science fiction but it’s it’s amazing and and it’s increasing the speed at which a consumer can get the product that they’re looking for,” Dolan said. “It’s limiting the amount of time people have to congregate. It’s limiting face to face interaction, where you’re having to check out and things like that. Those are examples of where we’re headed.”

Said Mahoney, “The core issue that needs to be addressed is availability of Wi-Fi. Because all of these tickets scanners that are at at all the entrances all run off of that. ... Certainly a new venue or a newly renovated venue where they’re been able to address that infrastructure from the beginning is certainly easier.”

In Connecticut, the XL Center opened in 1975 and reopened in 1980 after renovation following the roof collapsing. Total Mortgage Arena and Mohegan Sun Arena both opened in 2001, while Gampel Pavilion opened in 1990.

And Wi-Fi is just part of the issue with older facilities. The pandemic made venue operators aware of space. New facilities have wider concourses and more room in rows — all the better for social distancing.

There’s also the flow of air. The XL Center is making upgrades to the HVAC system that will improve the quality of air filtration through the building.

If that maintenance was done, say, 10 years ago, the thought of a virus may not have been at the front of the planning.

“Now it’s at the forefront,” Weiss said. “That’s a perfect example of something that is now being seen as not just a convenience but now a an actual opportunity to improve the safety and security of our guests.”

That’s not something fans see. Nor is the increased focus on cleaning. If ports venues post-Sept. 11 became defined by safety protocols, the pandemic’s impact may be focused on sanitization and cleaning standards, Dolan said.

In fact, building managers have made a point to make those workers more visible in an effort to show patrons that the facility is safe. “That used to be a service that was kind of operating behind the scenes, not necessarily part of the customers experience ... but many venues have switched to making that service more visible so guests see that the building is being cleaned and taken care of,” Mahoney said.

That’s part of the overall re-evaluation that venue operators experienced as the live entertainment industry was halted. The people who operated Rentschler Field, notorious for parking issues, have attempted to expedite that part of the game-day process with a cashless system. There’s been a renewed focus on signage as a means of manage crowd flow at all venues as building managers were advised on how the virus spreads through crowds.

Have fans seen a difference? Mahoney said industry estimates show a drop in attendance — not in tickets sold, but in actual customers attending — over the past six to eight months. But she has also seen crowds returning to buildings across the country.

Dolan said his building had a stretch of 58 events in 62 games. The NCAA women’s basketball regional is in Bridgeport this month and tickets sales are brisk, with the anticipation that UConn will be part of the field.

“People are coming back,” he said. “All indications are that we’re heading back as an industry to sort of our new normal and that’s great.”

paul.doyle@hearstmediact.com