NFL Security Chief Cathy Lanier: Covd-Driven Tech Will Stay

Cathy Lanier NFL
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EYE ON THE GAME: The NFL’s Cathy Lanier speaks at a news conference before the Super Bowl in 2020.

The pandemic pushed the NFL to introduce new technologies for health and safety protocols at a high cost, but the additional protection will save money in the long run for teams and venues, said Cathy Lanier, the league’s senior vice president and chief security officer.

Lanier spoke on a panel with security personnel from other leagues during the Stadium Managers Association Annual Seminar, held virtually Feb. 9-10. Facial recognition, biometrics and access control, among other touchless and contactless systems, were incorporated by many NFL teams. All were driven by COVID-19 and the need to protect all parties to proceed with the 2020 season, Lanier said.
“Everything we did was with proper PPE in mind (and) embedded in everything we do, and to accomplish these things, we had to bring in technologies,” she said. “A lot of them we’ve been looking at, but for one reason or another, it was not adopted yet. In some cases, customers did not embrace them or it was a matter of trust.”

“They’re going to stay with us,” Lanier continued. “They will upgrade the customer experience and provide safety and security as well. Fans in our stadiums appreciate the speed with which they can enter and make a purchase and do all of these things without worrying about health and safety.”

The technology worked as intended. For two weeks after every regular-season game, NFL officials tracked data through contact tracing devices with local health departments and found no connections between fans attending games and the spread of coronavirus, Lanier said. Those investments were made with teams recognizing they couldn’t host crowds at full capacity, which cut into everyone’s bottom line. But they learned there are things they could do to offset some of those increased operating costs and decreased revenue on the event side, she said.

“What we learned from the virtual draft is there are streaming opportunities and ways to keep your fans engaged and merchandising and all those other sponsorships to keep you moving ahead,” Lanier said.

The 2020 NFL draft itself stood out as one example for how to be flexible and adapt in a COVID environment, she said. After the 2019 draft in Nashville drew a record 600,000, the league anticipated an even bigger number in Las Vegas, the site of the 2020 event.

That all changed after the pandemic hit in March, throwing 18 months of preparation out the window, Lanier said. The league shifted to a televised and virtual model and pulled it off with great reviews.

“The unexpected lesson was people loved it,” she said. “People were not only starved for entertainment but for some sense of normalcy. They loved the aspect of seeing the personal lives of football heroes and coaches such as (Bill) Belichick and his dog.”

As the virtual world of Zoom and Webex communications became the go-to method for conducting business in the general workforce, NFL officials knew they had to change and keep pace regardless of the challenges. By midsummer, with everything shut down and virus levels on the rise, the league was faced with getting people back to work that could not do their jobs remotely, such as its in-house broadcast and security teams.

They also had to get players and coaches back into training camp mode and form a plan for getting fans back into stadiums in the states and cities where mass gatherings were allowed during the 2020 season. Even with the virtual draft, the NFL was prohibited from having more than 10 people gather at one site, according to New York state law, Lanier said.

The NFL paid close attention to the NBA, NHL and MLB bubble formats to help determine how to get its essential employees back to work, players back on the practice field and fans into the venues. All told, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention served as the NFL’s “bible” for rules and guidelines for the pandemic, she said.

The league also followed World Health Organization mandates, eliminating international games for 2020. It kept up with state and local guidelines, which changed daily, along with Occupational Safety and Health Administration workforce stipulations and U.S. Department of Homeland Security rules for traveling across state lines with quarantine orders, Lanier said.

“To play all our games and keep the schedule (mostly) intact through the Super Bowl was an incredible thing to be part of and a learning experience,” she said. “While movie theaters, concerts and other entertainment were shut down, we had to carry on all activities around football and we did. Failure was not an option.”

The NFL did an excellent job of prioritizing play and training camp initially before addressing fan attendance, said Matt Kenny, the Kansas City Chiefs’ vice president of stadium services and events.

Kenny sat on a separate SMA panel with fellow NFL stadium operators Troy Brown and Zach Hensley. While there was uncertainty over the entire process, setting up an organized plan allowed facility operators to focus on the priorities at hand, knowing the league would provide guidance and support for taking the next steps when the time was right, Kenny said.

“Once the CDC put in the 6-foot social distancing rule, we knew what our capacity was going to be and it came down to square footage,” said Brown, the Cleveland Browns’ vice president of stadium operations. “When it came to hosting fans, it was led by the medical folks, not revenue.”

Cleveland Browns Fans at FirstEnergy Stadium

Cleveland Browns fans react during the fourth quarter against the Pittsburgh Steelers at FirstEnergy Stadium on Jan. 03, 2021 in Cleveland,

At FirstEnergy Stadium, the Browns kept game day staffing levels at 70% to 80% despite attendance restrictions of 20%. Cost wasn’t an issue. The driver was how to run the venue most efficiently with new protocols. There were some COVID issues with staff, but it was mostly related to bringing the virus from home, Brown said.

“There were a lot of moving pieces, but we did it,” he said. “We were able to host 6,000 fans for our first two games and then got state and local clearance to go up to 13,500 for our other six games. With a little bit of luck and strict protocols in place, we made it through without any fans tied back to COVID cases at our games.”

“The league led the charge and once we knew what we were up against, a lot of stress went away,” Brown said.

The communication between the NFL and stadium managers was the best it has ever been, said Hensley, the Seattle Seahawks’ vice president of venue operations and guest experience. The weekly and biweekly calls with all 30 facility operators discussing best practices had not been done before, Hensley said.

“It helped everybody get better,” he said. “One of the things that I learned is … we always keep something hidden because it’s like our little secret about how good we are. Everybody shared everything across every single sector. Whatever it might be, there was a sharing of resources to provide the safest environment possible.”