Can sport’s response to Covid-19 accelerate a shift towards ‘healthy venues’?

Can sport’s response to Covid-19 accelerate a shift towards ‘healthy venues’?

As a collective of sports properties and the IWBI develop a safety rating in response to Covid-19, there’s hope the pandemic will be the catalyst for more sports facilities putting health and wellbeing first

When will you feel comfortable enough to go and watch a game among your fellow fans? To enter into a sports venue with tens of thousands of other people?

Something that seemed natural, exhilarating and comforting six months ago will now fill a large proportion of people with dread. 

A Morning Consult poll conducted in April found that almost a quarter (22%) of sports fans will only feel comfortable going into a stadium in January 2021 or later. That was the second largest proportion after the 30% who answered that they didn’t know or had no opinion.

Sport, in the short term it seems, will have to continue without physical spectators. German Bundesliga matches have been played for two weeks in front of no fans (or cardboard cutouts in the case Borussia Mönchengladbach).

In the medium to long term, sport must be prepared to open up its doors to fans because of the huge economic and cultural impact that live sport has. But until the threat of coronavirus has been eradicated (which, optimistically, could be years and, pessimistically, could be never), sport will lose part of the dynamic that makes it so special.

Even if you decide to brave the venue once it has been reopened, how confident will you be about eating and drinking among groups of people? Using the bathroom? Those natural moments of human contact to celebrate your team scoring a point, or consoling the person next to you when your club loses.

Research conducted by sports fan psychologist Daniel Wann found that there are eight motivations for people following a sports team. One of those motivations was that it gives them a sense of connection and belonging. However, if we struggle to get to a place where the sports venues are safe, it’s inevitable something will be lost until that is reconciled.

In an effort to get to that place, the International WELL Building Institute has brought together dozens of high-profile sporting organisations to form an advisory council that will work together to make sure sport and entertainment venues are putting policies in place to smooth the safe return of spectator sport.

Al Guido, the president of the San Francisco 49ers, Scott O’Neill, the chief executive of the Philadelphia 76ers and New Jersey Devils, and TD Garden (home of the Boston Celtics and Boston Bruins) president, Amy Latimer, are part of an advisory group that includes organisations such as the WNBA, the Cleveland Cavaliers, Inter Miami CF, the Detroit Red Wings, and architects HOK, Populous and Gensler, among others.

At the heart of the initiative is a group of co-chairs, headed up by the former US surgeon general, Dr. Richard Carmona, and a new rating (dubbed the WELL Health-Safety Rating for Facility Operations and Management) to help the venues tackle the complexity around Covid-19 head on.

‘Abundantly clear’

The first thing to say that this is part of a wider trend. When the IWBI put together its Covid-19 task force, individuals from a number of disciplines got involved to guide the process. Virologists, mental health workers, designers, engineers were all part of a process that involved around 600 participants.

But, according to IWBI president Rachel Gutter, it became “abundantly clear” that certain types of buildings had specific challenges, with sports and entertainment facilities “emerging as a major area of need”.

“These venues employ so many people within a community, typically hourly workers who are not considered essential and aren’t working right now and struggling to feed their families,” she tells The Sustainability Report.

“But beyond that, sport is what holds us together and we’re all craving some degree of normality right now. We’re trying to create the best cases possible so these venues have a roadmap for getting back to business.”

To do that, the IWBI has set up an online portal for advisory board members to discuss challenges with each other, as well as liaise with the organisation’s standard development team. On top of that, in-house experts for each of the IWBI’s 10 concepts – air, water, nourishment, light, movement, thermal comfort, sound, materials, mind, community, innovation – will be available to help develop solutions.

After 30 days of conversation and collaboration, a WELL Health-Safety Rating for Facility Operations and Management scorecard will be developed so that venues can benchmark their progress and see where the gaps are in terms of making their venue as safe as possible. There will be features around cleaning protocols, emergency preparedness, and sport venue specific features, such as ticketing, entry and interacting with various surfaces.

And Gutter explains that the rating will have strict criteria to match the severity of the current situation.

“Unlike our (standard) WELL certification, which is a series of optional features alongside a handful of preconditions, on this scorecard everything will likely be treated as preconditions,” she adds. “You must have a policy on this.”

Allen Hershkowitz, the environmental science advisor for the New York Yankees and one of the group’s co-chairs, agrees that vigilance is the best policy because of professional sport’s high-profile, highly-visible place in modern society.

“Sport is a signifier,” he says. “The effort to bring sport back is a signifier to societies about the direction we are moving in with regards to addressing the pandemic challenge. When the NBA cancelled its season it saved lives. There’s no question.”

Hershkowitz adds: “They have been behaving extremely responsibly in this sector. Their actions are going to be very informative for society at large.”

The co-founder of Sport and Sustainability International acknowledges the “complicated” nature of getting things back up and running again, even in stadiums with no spectators allowed. In the case of the Bundesliga, around 200 playing and support staff are present during every game. Despite regular testing, the threat still remains.

Athlete health is a core part of the conversation. Hershkowitz says that an industry based on “tens of thousands of people getting together in close proximity with some of the most valuable personnel assets in the economy” can be an uncomfortable thought for team owners, even if, in economic terms, getting back to the status quo would be the preferable option.

Many athletes themselves have spoken about their concerns going back into a close quarters environment with teammates and rivals while a solution to the virus is still being explored.

An article published by the New York Times last week, written by James Wagner and Mark Stein, showcased a number of high-profile sportspeople voicing their concerns about returning to action too quickly and putting their health, performance and life at risk, particularly those with underlying health conditions.

The article states that, in Major League Baseball alone, there are several players with “Type 1 diabetes, a history of cancer treatment, colitis or heart conditions”. 

Premier League footballer Troy Deeney publicly stated that he would not go back to training for fear of catching the virus and passing it on to his young son, who has difficulty breathing. His Watford FC teammate, Adrian Mariappa, was one of a handful of Premier League players to test positive for the virus during recent examinations.

Deeney also referenced the fact that the disease appears to have a more adverse effect on non-white individuals. Early data collected in the US suggests that 33% of Covid-19 hospitalisations are African American, despite that ethnic group making up 18% of the total population studied. In the UK, 63% of the health workers who have died from complications related to the illness have come from non-white backgrounds.

This complicates the picture further. A 2018 study conducted by the Institute of Diversity and Ethics in Sport found that 42.5% of MLB players, 80.7% of NBA players, and more than 70% of NFL players are non-white. That is without factoring in the supporting staff and, further down the line, spectators who will come from black, Asian or Latino backgrounds.

‘Second wave’ of sustainability

While the immediate future will be consumed by thoughts and actions around Covid-19 response, and the catalogue of challenges that are yet to be defined, both Hershkowitz and Gutter hope and anticipate that the pandemic will act as a catalyst for major sports venues to incorporate more features that facilitate good health and wellness for athletes, staff and spectators.

In 2018, 134 million square feet of buildings registered for the IWBI’s WELL Building Standard, but Gutter concedes that sport, to this day, is “by no means a major sector” for the organisation despite working on a handful of projects.

The US Green Building Council has had a lot of cut-through in recent years, with many large US sporting facilities applying for and achieving LEED sustainability certification, which focuses on materials, end-of-life, water conservation and carbon footprint.

Gutter calls IWBI’s work the “second wave of sustainability” and acknowledges that well and healthy buildings is a new concept for the sports industry. However, she’s optimistic that Covid-19 can help focus industry leaders’ minds and give them license to adapt their existing best practices to facilitate good human health.

“I think what these teams feel they have been doing is anything and everything to support the health and wellbeing of players, but the physical environment was off the radar,” Gutter explains. “They weren’t necessarily thinking of the deeper attributes of a healthy building.

“For example, sports arenas have always thought about acoustics, but not from a human health perspective but a game winning perspective. Sports facilities thought about food from a revenue perspective more than a health perspective. It’s putting a different filter on priorities already in place and, in the end, long-standing practices that are appropriate in perpetuity could have performance-enhancing effects on our athletes, but could also be hugely influential for motivating healthier behaviours in the fanbase.”

Improving athlete performance could be a key motivating factor for sports team owners incorporating healthy building components beyond the Covid-19 crisis. In an article written by Kristen Fulmer for this publication last year, she referenced a Seppänen and Fisk study that revealed for every degree deviating from optimal indoor temperature, work performance decreased by 1%. An increase in air quality reduced sick leave by roughly 10%.

It stands to reason that, after paying millions of dollars in transfer fees and salaries, sports team owners could spend a fraction of that investment to make sure that asset (albeit a human one) has the conditions to work at its top level. That’s before even factoring in the duty of care around the athlete’s health and wellbeing.

According to Fulmer, sports facilities could do worse than follow the path of commercial real estate, which sets baseline deliverables around air quality, temperature, light and nutrition.

There are some sports organisations out there demonstrating good practice in this area. The New York Yankees (represented on the WELL Advisory on Sports and Entertainment Venues by co-chairs Hershkowitz and Doug Behar, the senior vice-president and director of stadium operations), for instance, has for many years partnered with PlanLED, which provides the Yankee Stadium with lighting that is not only energy saving, but allows for an “enhanced visual environment” for players and fans.

When conceptualising its new training facility, NBA franchise the Atlanta Hawks partnered with Emory Healthcare to construct a “first-of-its-kind” training and sports medicine centre, giving the team the opportunity to offer players on-site care and to conduct sports performance and health research.

“We had the momentum of healthy buildings even before the pandemic,” Hershkowitz says. “It was shifting towards that direction. I know this is true in sports because certain organisations have been paying a lot of attention to make sure their locker rooms and clubhouses were healthy. 

“In fact, some have communicated that in their efforts to attract A-list players, one of the things they demonstrate is taking care of the players’ health better than other teams do. Being a healthy venue is now a competitive advantage.”

Gutter agrees, and articulates three ambitions for sports venues in the aftermath of Covid-19. The first is for teams and leagues to adopt the WELL Health-Safety Rating before adopting full WELL Building Standard certification. The second is for companies and individuals with more than one facility to scale the WELL programme and benefit from the efficiencies that brings. And the third is to leverage sport to raise mainstream awareness and shift consumer demand for healthy buildings.

Any sports organisation can get involved in this new movement, Gutter says, adding a simple yet definite call to action: “Raise your hand and let us know you’re ready to contribute.”

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  • Jack
    June 12, 2020, 2:07 pm

    Well done article Matt, Thank you. We will be representing the National Football League (USA) in upcoming advisory meetings on building health and safety. As you can imagine, there is tremendous work going on right now across the NFL to develop procedures to protect health of athletes, fans, stadium staff and officials. This is a difficult time for all of us and I appreciate your work to keep us informed.