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West Ham United footballers testing for Covid-19

The matchday experience comeback: getting fans safely into stadia

Image credit: West Ham United

The English football season is well underway and restricted numbers of fans are finally being allowed back into stadiums to watch matches. Could technology be the sport's long-term saving grace?

It was 20 October, the Champions’ League group stage. Ukraine’s Dynamo Kyiv lost 2-0 to Italian champions, Juventus, in front of 14,850 fans. That’s slightly less than 30 per cent of the Olympic Stadium’s 70,000 capacity; however, 30 per cent is the maximum currently allowed by European football governing body, UEFA, for European clubs and international football, subject to local coronavirus rules. For obvious reasons, away fans are not permitted.

Rennes from France welcomed 4,973 to their game with another Russian team, Krasnodar. Italian clubs Lazio and Inter Milan were allowed 1,000 maximum by their government. And in Germany, Red Bull Leipzig played Istanbul Basaksehir in front of 999 fans, whilst Bayern Munich beat Atletico Madrid 4-0 behind closed doors as Covid-19 cases increased in Bavaria.

Zenit St Petersburg drew the week’s biggest Champions League crowd – 16,682 fans for their 1-1 draw with Belgian club Brugge. On 17 October, 150 turned out for Zenit’s Russian Premier League match against Spartak Moscow, in Moscow.

In domestic leagues, since the beginning of the football season, home fans have been permitted by national governments in Germany (20 per cent) France (5,000) and Italy (1,000). Numbers have been subsequently restricted across the continent, as the virus has become more prevalent.

In England, however, football clubs have played in front of empty stadiums all season, much to the irritation of club owners, officials, managers, pundits and of course, fans.

Pilots for partially filled sports stadiums, due to start on 3 October, were postponed during Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s 22 September ‘rule of six’ missive. With coronavirus cases rising fast around the UK, it’s unlikely that fans will be back inside UK football stadiums in large numbers any time soon. If stadiums remain closed all season, bigger clubs will lose a lot of money, many smaller teams in the lower leagues will face bankruptcy.

During that 22 September speech, Johnson suggested that sport stadiums might be reopened to the public sooner, were stadium operators to show that they could take action – to keep things virus-free – at the stadium entrance.

Two days later, culture secretary Oliver Dowden also highlighted the importance of fan screening at the turnstiles. This was during the announcement of a new Sports Technology and Innovation group set up to explore technological solutions that might speed up the process of allowing fans back into UK sports stadiums, the government said.

Whilst Dowden’s taskforce deliberates, others have already devised technologies that they believe could have an impact.

West Ham United, who seem to be doing better this year behind closed doors than they usually do in front of their fans, have been trialling a sanitation tunnel at their academy training ground. For the moment, it’s being used to help keep young players safe from the virus, but operations and executive director Chris Smith, with the technology developers Gateway Personal Protection Tunnel, thinks the technology might soon be ready for use on a larger scale at stadium entrances.

“The technology looks a bit like a body scanner used at airports,” he says. “An infrared sensor activates the pump when someone walks in and breaks the beam. In the first part of the tunnel, a thermal imaging camera records the person’s temperature. If the temperature is too high, the system sends an alert to whoever monitoring along with a photo of that person.”

Smith adds that the person’s clothes are then sprayed lightly with a non-alcoholic, water-based sanitiser fed through the high pressure pump which compresses the liquid and creates a mist. This, he explains, neutralises bacteria and viruses, but does not irritate the skin or eyes. “You’re protected for several hours, even if someone with the virus sneezes on you,” he says.

Smith continues: “Tests show that with a three second blast with no external wind, the tunnel provides 97 -98.3 percent coverage. With a five second blast, the coverage is 99.4 -100 per cent. With external wind you get 5-10 per cent reduction in coverage.”

There are four tunnels on one system and Chris Smith estimates that to get a full capacity crowd of 76,000 into Manchester United’s Old Trafford ground, the UK’s biggest domestic stadium, would take two hours and forty of these tunnels, placed around the ground.

There are other sanitation tunnels. League One football club AFC Wimbledon is using one for site workers rebuilding its old Plough lane ground. There’s another at Tel Aviv’s Bloomfield Stadium. Misting tunnels are also popular in parts of Asia, where people enter and exit certain public spaces. In Russia, sanitation tunnels were installed at President Putin’s residence, outside Moscow and at the Kremlin, during the summer, after several Presidential aides contracted coronavirus.

The World Health Organisation, however, isn’t sold on this technology. The WHO website states that spraying people with disinfectant could be ‘physically and psychologically harmful.’ WHO officials believe that chemicals like chlorine could cause of eye and skin irritation; or if inhaled, bronchospasm, nausea and vomiting.

The WHO’s main complaint is that sanitation tunnel technology does not prevent an infected person from spreading the virus via expelled droplets. Chris Smith says this particular criticism misses the point. “The tunnel isn’t supposed to be a cure, just an additional line of protection,” he explains. “The mist is made of a combination of water and electrolytes which is safe for people.”

Rob Amphlett, a structural engineer from BuroHappold, who worked on the Spurs stadium, thinks that sanitation tunnels will help get people through the stadium doors, but wonders whether the technology would be able to withstand large crowds pushing, or exposure to high winds. “Can you do this with social distancing?” Amphlett wonders.

Ken Scott, head of the inspectorate at the Sports Grounds Safety Authority, thinks sanitation tunnels need testing before they are unleashed on the general public. “Consider the impact if something failed and it was this, on which we were basing all of our confidence?” he says.

Other new technologies are emerging as experts try to find a solution to the biggest problem currently facing commercial sports organisations. There’s a health passport scheme that would require fans to take a Covid-19 test the day before the game at a testing clinic, with only negative tests allowed in the following day. Contactless temperature scanning was trialled earlier this year and German club, Borussia Dortmund, have tried a device that uses sensors to count people entering the stadium. In the Netherlands, PSV Eindhoven have been looking at armband technology that works like track and trace to identify people with coronavirus and inform others who have been in contact.

“Clubs might look at repurposing areas surrounding their stadiums, to allow fans to watch the game, remotely, without actually stepping foot into the stadium,” says Christopher Lee, managing director at Populous. “In the future, stadiums will need extra space in and around the main building to accommodate this.”

Lee adds that Populous is also investigating escalator handrails that sanitise hands automatically and robot stewards to give directional information and operate food and beverage outlets. “Assist robots are already used for cleaning and could be repurposed,” he says.

For UK government ministers and public health officials, reopening sports stadiums is not just about fans mixing inside a stadium. Officials are just as concerned about the risk of virus transmission during the journey to the stadium. On matchday, even with reduced crowds, large numbers of people would be using the same public transport and approach roads. Social distancing in such places might prove difficult, but technology could help here too.

Modelling software could help local authorities and stadium operators predict the impact of new security and health checks at the stadium entrance and the flow of people into and around a particular stadium. Official venue Apps could be used to communicate with fans via mobile devices, on route to the venue. “A prescribed route could be sent to fans’ phones,” Rob Amphlett says.

Ken Scott adds: “The whole journey could be connected, from applying for a ticket to watching the game.”  

There is one obvious problem with relying too much on mobile phones, during a pandemic. Phones can easily carry traces of the virus on them, as can keys, coins and other objects. “People in public spaces wash their hands, but don’t clean their phones, which can harbour bacteria,” says Chris Allen, CEO of technology company iCleanse. “People then put their phones near their noses, mouths and eyes and become susceptible to infection.”

The company is one of a number of companies that design products which use ultraviolet light to disinfect surfaces, in their case small items like wallets, phones, tablets, radios and other electronic equipment. “At the moment the technology doesn’t work fast enough to be used with large crowds going into a stadium,” Chris Allen says. He adds that he’s looking at increasing the UVC dosage to speed the process up and aims to have something for larger scale use ready by Spring 2021.

Red Bull Leipzig, top of the German Bundesliga at time of writing, also use UVC technology to disinfect surfaces and indoor air at their Red Bull Arena. The Carolina Panthers NFL team use a robot to do the same in the players’ locker rooms, meeting rooms, offices, restrooms, suites and work-out areas.

UVC radiation kills viruses because it affects the structure of their DNA and RNA and prevents the viral particles from making copies of themselves, which viruses must do to survive. It’s been used as far back as the late 19th century to sterilise items in hospitals, airplanes offices and factories, and to sanitise drinking water, but since the pandemic, more experts have been looking at the potential effect of this technology on Covid-19.

In October, a study in the American Journal of Infection control found that nine minutes of exposure to UVC inactivated the virus. The previous month, researchers at Hiroshima University had discovered that far UVC light with a wavelength of 222 nanometres kills Covid-19 without damaging living cells. This, the researchers believe make it safer for humans and therefore ideal for disinfecting occupied spaces, To be effective, however, UVC requires direct light to fall on the surface and it doesn’t work as well on surfaces covered by shadows or dust.

There’s already a lot of technology around and more will undoubtedly emerge over the coming months. Ken Scott says he gets sent around ten ideas a day pitched to him at the Sports Ground Safety Authority. “Designers are looking at what is causing difficulty now and will look to build that into current and future stadium design,” he says.

Christopher Lee adds: “The lesson from this pandemic is about general cleanliness. We need to provide safer more secure clean and sanitised environments (for people to watch sport in).”

Unfortunately, whatever lengths stadium operators go to make their venues safe, and however clever the technology that is devised; at the end of the day, to steal a football cliché, fans will only come back into stadiums when politicians and their advisers decide that they should.

On 22 October, the UK government told English Football League Clubs that they couldn’t organise indoor socially distanced screening of their matches in hospitality areas at their stadiums, as this breached government hospitality regulations. On the same day, with more severe lockdowns in place in two of the UK’s biggest footballing cities – Liverpool, Manchester - and cases rising elsewhere; the government announced that the time was not right for the issue (of returning fans) to be put back on the table.

Next month, Parliament does plan to debate the issue. But returning fans to football stadiums doesn’t appear to be very high on this government’s list of what’s important at this stage of the pandemic.

In Russia, things are different. Since the beginning of August, football clubs have been allowed to fill their grounds to a maximum of fifty percent, subject to social distancing requirements. From September, away supporters have been allowed to make up five percent maximum, of the overall total.

Russia does have a considerably lower, recorded death rate per million population (171.56) than the UK (662.79). However, in Russia, major national corporations and figures bankroll some of the biggest football clubs – Gazprom at Zenit St Petersburg and Lukoil vice president, Leonid Fedun, at Spartak Moscow.

In August, Fedun, a former military officer, threatened to pull Spartak out of the Russian Premier League after Spartak’s opponents, Sochi, were given a penalty in the 90th minute of a game, which enabled Sochi to equalise and draw the match. On the very same day, vice speaker of the Russian State Duma Alexander Zhukov publicly announced that the game should be annulled. Zhukov, who is also the President Emeritus of the Russian Olympic Committee, openly called the referee biased and unsporting, and suggested he should be disqualified.

Glazer, Abramovich, Henry and the other Premier League club owners must wish that they had this sort of influence over British politicians.

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