Superdome Officials Plan for a Saints Season Like No Other
NEW ORLEANS – Doug Thornton, executive vice president of ASM Global – the venue and event management company that operates the Mercedes-Benz Superdome – told board members of the Louisiana Stadium and Exposition District during a meeting today that the company is planning for multiple scenarios regarding the upcoming NFL season.
“Everyone knows there are no definitive plans yet except that they plan to have a season,” said Thornton. “It could be everything from starting without fans, migrating to limited capacity in the early part of the season and maybe increasing that capacity if things go well. All of those thoughts are being explored now. We do know that whatever the NFL decides to do, they’re going to adhere to the local restrictions and laws that may be in place.”
Thornton said the NFL and NBA are both hoping to provide guidance to teams and venue operators sometime during the month of June so they can begin ramping up for the season with or without fans. He said the consensus in the industry, however, is that venues are ready to manage events with fans in attendance under a six-foot social distancing guideline.
“Every protocol and procedure we put in place has been with that in mind,” he said. “We think we can get people in safely, move them around safely and create a seating manifest that lets them sit apart. It won’t be the same experience they would have had if there’d been 70,000 people in the building with free-flowing concessions but we think there’s a way we can do this.”
Thornton said the capacity issue is the most important one facing the entire event industry.
“A lot of people in the industry have been looking at this, but the Saints in particular have been good at using their business intelligence models to help us create a seating manifest that allows us to adhere to the six-foot distancing rule but also increase capacity,” he said.
“If we just took the six-foot rule and applied it on its face, without any sort of creativity, you’d be limiting capacity to about 17 percent, which would be about 13,000 fans in the Superdome. And we’d like to have higher. So we’re exploring creative ways, like sitting people in pods of four, six or eight in what we call the ‘associated guest’ model. We could allow people who know one another … to sit together. That is critical because it dictates the level of staffing we require and dictates the ingress and egress patterns, the circulation patterns, how we stage the sequencing to get people in but most importantly, it creates a better opportunity for the fans.”
Cancellations hurt income
Questions about the upcoming NFL and NBA schedules aren’t the only challenges facing the overseers of the Superdome and Smoothie King Center.
The other big problem is that numerous event cancellations – from Essence Fest to the NCAA Women’s Final Four – have caused a precipitous drop in income. Another source of funds – tax revenue from area hotels – has largely evaporated since hotel occupancy in the city is so low. To reduce expenses, ASM has furloughed staff and made other cost-cutting moves – including scaling back some of the work that was to be included in the first phase of a $450 million renovation that began earlier this year.
In other words, Superdome officials are revising budgets and planning for the unknown – just like everybody else in the COVID-19 era.