Wrestling, graduations give Jaguars confidence they can safely host fans

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- The Jacksonville Jaguars believe they’ll be able to safely and efficiently host fans at TIAA Bank Field for Sunday’s NFL season opener against the Indianapolis Colts (1 p.m. ET, CBS).

And while the preparation for that involved going over thousands of pages of information and protocols, hundreds of hours of planning and a not-insignificant amount of money, so did several hours of watching professional wrestling and some high school graduations.

The Jaguars played host to seven high school graduations and studied what happened at three All Elite Wrestling events held at the Daily’s Place amphitheater adjacent to the stadium in the past several months amid the coronavirus pandemic, and it gave the Jaguars valuable information about how fans will react to the social distancing, mask mandate and safety protocols that will be in place Sunday.

“When we evaluated, could we do these graduations and could we pull it off in the communication and education, we knew there was a bigger picture to that,” said Chad Johnson, the Jaguars’ senior vice president of sales and service and chief content officer. “A, we provided some pretty cool experiences for these kids that actually had a graduation, but B, the learning from that was critical.”

They learned maybe even more from the wrestling events because it gave the Jaguars a glimpse at how fans would behave during a rowdy event. All Elite Wrestling is owned by Tony Khan, the son of Jaguars owner Shad Khan and the team’s executive vice president of football administration and technology, so it was easy for the Jaguars to study the three events held at the 5,500-seat amphitheater that is located behind TIAA Bank’s south end zone.

All Elite Wrestling put on multiple shows amid the pandemic without fans until late last month. When taping shows at venues without fans, anyone who was working -- wrestlers, staff, road crew, etc. -- was given COVID-19 rapid tests to ensure everyone’s safety. There also were several hand sanitizer stations, and every employee in the venue was required to wear masks.

All Elite Wrestling began allowing fans to attend shows again on Aug. 27 at Daily’s Place, which is an open-air amphitheater, and capacity was restricted to roughly 15%. All local and state regulations as well as guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention were followed. Fans were required to wear face coverings, remain with the people in their group and had to undergo temperature checks as a requirement for entry.

Tony Khan said AEW did a soft opening before Aug. 27, inviting a limited number of guests from around the area to attend an earlier show, and watching the way they behaved convinced him the promotion could pull off opening up a show to a real audience.

“It went incredibly well,” Khan said. “The people have been socially distancing. They’ve been sitting in their seats. We’ve got great fans and we haven’t had problems. They’ve generally been really agreeable about keeping their masks on and staying in their seats and going into the bathrooms in an orderly fashion. People police themselves on this stuff now.

“... The protocol ended up being a cool pilot program for the security and staffing of the stadium to get ready for Sunday.”

Johnson made sure he attended those events as well as the seven graduations held at TIAA Bank Field to see how it went.

“We’ll have at least 10 dry runs of watching fan behavior, compliance, how they congregate, how they move,” Johnson said. “AEW, I sat there and filmed and watched how everybody moved. How long they took from the time they entered to the time they got to their seat. Where did they go? Where did they not go? We were studying that all along so we could adapt to their behavior.

“When they were lining up and queueing, even when they were past where we had signage, people were following the 6-foot rule. It was perfect. They were so respectful of the process. I was really pleased. I was really pleased with how they kept their masks on. I was really pleased that they spent most of their time in their seats. They didn’t just go get a beer and hang out in open spaces. They really were respectful.”

The Jaguars are doing the same thing, minus the temperature check, though on a bigger scale. The Jaguars are the only NFL team that will allow fans to attend a game on Sunday. The Kansas City Chiefs had roughly 17,000 fans at Arrowhead Stadium for their season opener on Thursday night. The Jaguars are allowing only 25% capacity (roughly 16,800) for their home games this season.

The pod seating was the hardest thing to figure out. Johnson said it took more than three weeks to put together a seating chart. Fans could purchase a single seat or in pods of two, three, four, six and eight seats. There are 6 feet between pods, but because different seats have different widths, depending on their location in the stadium, someone had to be out there with a tape measure to ensure that criteria were met.

“We not only built it [the seating chart], we came out and tested it,” Johnson said. “Fixed the seats. Sat in them, measured, made sure that what was on paper actually happened in the stadium. A map on a computer screen or piece of paper is different. So we did that day after day after day.”

The Jaguars also are making the process nearly contact-free. The team increased entry points to the stadium and has more now than when it was operating at full capacity. Fans can keep their phones and keys in their pockets when going through the magnetometers during the security screening as they enter the stadium. They also will scan their own tickets at the gate, can order and pay for food and merchandise via an app on their phone, and all food is served in covered containers.

Johnson said there are 1,500 hand sanitizer stations throughout the stadium and there is a crew that will be continually sanitizing and wiping down high-touch areas (such as railings and bathrooms) throughout the day.

Everything the Jaguars -- and any other teams that will allow fans -- are doing is in compliance with NFL protocols. The league hired a third-party auditor to ensure that.

“Unless you’re willing to take massive precautions and really go the extra mile these days it probably is a bad idea if you’re not going to do the right stuff,” Khan said.