NBA player Russell Westbrook talks to fans during an incident in Denver. (Getty Images)

Recent interactions illustrate the need to monitor crowds for potential misbehavior

Tennis pro Monica Seles was stabbed by a crazed fan of rival player Steffi Graf during a quarterfinal match in Hamburg on April 30, 1993, an incident that prompted a significant increase in security at major events like Wimbledon. More recently Jay-Z and Beyoncé were accosted by a

fan who jumped on the stage in August at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta during their On the Run II tour, only to be subdued by the duo’s dancers. 

Just last month, retired pro wrestler Bret “The Hitman” Hart was knocked to the ground by a fan as he delivered a speech while being inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame at Barclays Center in Brooklyn. NBA star Russell Westbrook was involved in a confrontation with fans in Salt Lake City in March, and in another incident in Denver in February, he stopped during a game to talk to a young fan and his father sitting courtside after the boy pushed Westbrook. 

“There’s too much leeway for the fans to be able to touch the players and get away with it,” Westbrook told the media after the game.

As venue operators and promoters work to keep their audiences safe, they must also make sure that their performers are safe from the audiences.

Mike Downing is a 35-year Los Angeles Police Department veteran, a deputy chief in charge of counterterrorism and special operations who joined Oak View Group as chief security adviser two years ago. (OVG is also the owner of VenuesNow.)

“You want to provide an environment where people can freely express their First Amendment rights,” he said. “But when it crosses the line into inciting violence or a riot, that’s when we have to demonstrate a show of force.”

Downing notes that most every major stadium and arena now routinely boasts a set of cameras pointed at every seat. “I’m not saying we should stereotype or profile people, but we have to profile behavior,” he said. “And if warranted, security has to be sent in to communicate — either verbally or nonverbally — that things have to be brought down a notch. When you have the excitement of competition, volatile fans have to temper their behavior.”

“We want the talent to interact with the guests, but it has to be limited and controlled, without having a bunch of security and a police presence in the middle of it,” said Dan Donovan, T&M Protection Resources’ vice president of sports and entertainment security, who has worked shows with U2 and Metallica. “It’s about having the right personnel in the right areas to sense if there’s something not right with a particular section of the crowd. It’s that awareness we need to defuse the situation, to prevent something from happening before it develops.”

That begins, of course, when the fan enters the venue — which includes a walk-through metal detector that has become part of the landscape at least since 9/11.

Damon Zumwalt is CEO of Contemporary Services Corp., one of the largest providers of crowd management in the world, working more than 14,000 events a year at over 1,000 stadiums and arenas, including the Rose Bowl, the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, the Hollywood Bowl, Angel Stadium of Anaheim and Dignity Health Sports Park in Carson, Calif. The 50-year security vet recalls working wrestling shows at the Shrine Auditorium, doing full body searches and pat-downs. “It was a place for people to release their tensions and participate in the action,” he said. “They literally wanted to attack the bad guys.”

The price of tickets to events “makes guests feel they’re entitled to act out,” said Tim Roberts, who works for Charlotte, N.C.-based Show Pros Entertainment Services as an account manager for Bank of America Stadium, home of the NFL Carolina Panthers, and BB&T Ballpark, home field for the Charlotte Knights, the Triple-A farm team for Major League Baseball’s Chicago White Sox. 

Roberts insists social media is another factor in fans’ misbehavior. “People are always looking to capture the moment and go viral on YouTube,” he said.

“It’s an opportunity for an ordinary person who wants that attention to act out,” said OVG’s Downing.

Emerging technologies, like digital ticketing and facial recognition software, help in the areas of crowd control, according to Downing. “The goal is to provide a pleasurable fan experience,” he said.  “You want people to feel like it’s a safe environment. These phone apps will help us optimize that, while allowing us to track past offenders.”

Roberts’ staff wears video recorders to monitor fan interactions. “It’s given our security personnel more confidence in dealing with an unruly customer,” he said.

Zumwalt favors matching the security personnel to the particular event, making sure his force matches up to the crowd demographic, employing what he calls “peer group security” dressed normally, rather than industrial guards wearing police uniforms. “It’s a different approach than in the past,” he said. “It’s more about crowd management.”

Stadium entrances are still crucial, because that’s where any dangerous weapons should be detected and confiscated.

“What has changed is the concern caused by 9/11 and the attacks in France and England,” said Zumwalt, referring to terror attacks at concerts in Paris in 2015 and Manchester in 2017. “The demand for security keeps getting bigger and bigger the more these incidents take place. Our business will double in size over the next year.”

“People should feel safe and comfortable, but also take some responsibility, have some skin in the game,” said Downing. “Whether it be a fan, a manager, a performer, a roadie or a security guard … you need to have that situational awareness.  Everyone must be vigilant.”