Shareholder/Founding Partner at Hart David Carson LLP, representing & counseling mid-market, pre-IPO companies
As society begins opening up again at this stage in the pandemic, there are naturally going to be some risks. Sports venues hosting events ranging from professional league games to amateur sports need to be well aware of the risks if they are to minimize liability and preserve the safety of their attendees, players and support personnel.
A number of states are allowing the return of sporting events with special guidelines in place to ensure safety and minimize the spread of the virus. Given that these guidelines — as well as long-established laws on liability — will vary by state, there are many items to consider before reopening stadiums, fields and recreational centers for these events.
The Risks Of Reopening
Among the risks that sports venues face when reopening are the following:
• Spread of disease: Naturally, the disease is a risk in and of itself. As people start gathering for events once more, the risk of contracting the virus only increases, making sporting events a public health concern. It’s not limited to attendees either. Your staff and players could also be exposed if stringent safety precautions aren’t put in place.
• Legal action: If someone gets sick at a sporting event hosted at your venue, you may face legal action. While there may be ways to mitigate liability in this area, the possibility of facing a personal injury lawsuit is still very real, especially if multiple people can trace illness to your events. It’s important to note that being able to win lawsuits brought against you isn’t enough. You’re best served by avoiding these lawsuits altogether since doing so will save you the resources it would take to defend yourself.
• Poor attendance: While there will undoubtedly be high demand for in-person sporting events once this all blows over, attendance — and ticket sales — could be limited if people don’t feel like it’s safe to gather. The end result could be a net loss if ticket sales don’t pay for the resources invested in preparing for a game.
Following CDC Guidelines
The CDC has set forth numerous guidelines that are geared toward controlling the spread of the virus and protecting those who are most at risk. As our understanding of the virus evolves, so too do these guidelines, which means it’s worth keeping up to date with new developments on a regular basis.
That said, the following measures can give sports venues a starting point when keeping in line with these guidelines:
• Promote sanitation. There are a number of ways sports venues can promote sanitation during events. These include: Installing sanitation stations with hand sanitizer, wipes, etc.; developing a policy on sanitation for those visiting; putting up signage with sanitation standards; eliminating self-serve condiment stations; and performing extra cleaning in areas that see lots of foot traffic such as restrooms and ticket booths.
• Have a policy on facemasks. It has been shown that facemasks may help prevent the spread of disease. Having a policy on facemasks can preserve compliance with local, state and federal guidelines while also helping your fans feel safe when attending.
• Limit seating. To help attendees maintain a distance of at least six feet from one another, consider limiting the number of in-person tickets you sell for events. Doing so will encourage people to space out more, so if you couple limited tickets with blocking off rows and visual social distancing signage, you can comply with social distancing practices.
Minimizing Physical Attendance
In order to comply with CDC guidelines and minimize spreading the virus, sports venues can find ways to minimize physical attendance. There are a few ways this can be done:
• Maximize the remote experience. Sporting events are commonly televised, but not everyone will be able to view events on their local channels. This is where out-of-market sporting events come in. Find ways to maximize paid remote experiences to help your fan base engage with your games and get the most value out of their subscriptions. Doing this can help you maintain profitability while limiting attendance.
• Limit ticket sales. Calculate how many people you can host in your venue while maintaining social distancing, and limit ticket sales to those numbers. This will have some ramifications for secondary ticket sales, so sound refund policies should also be employed.
• Take temperatures. Non-contact temperature scanners can check everyone coming into your facility for possible illness. If someone is ill, it’s safest for everyone involved to refund tickets and ask them to go home.
Following CDC guidelines and limiting in-person attendance can go a long way to prevent lawsuits. Not only can these measures minimize the risk of people getting sick at your events, but they also indicate that you are doing everything possible to limit the spread, making it harder to bring charges of negligence against you.
On top of these measures, these final tips can further shield you against liability:
• Don’t rely on waivers. Waivers can help minimize your liability, but they aren’t always enforceable. State laws may nullify waivers in certain cases, particularly where minors are involved.
• Notify attendees of the risks. While you want people to attend your events, you need to make sure they are notified of the risks. One way to do this is by printing information on the backs of tickets and including signage in visible areas. This, in connection with your physical efforts to limit the spread, can help make sure your attendees are aware of the assumption of risk they take when attending your events, keeping liability to a minimum.
• Be mindful of local and state laws. Finally, local and state laws will place limits on what you can and cannot do when mitigating risks. Certain rights simply cannot be signed away, and some safety measures may be required by current laws. By keeping yourself aware of what’s required in your state, you’ll be much better prepared to host sporting events without taking on too much risk.