‘COVID has brought sea change in stadia ops’

Video: Coliseum Global Sports Venue Alliance (YouTube)

The 68,500-capacity Levi’s Stadium is an American football stadium located in Santa Clara, California, just outside San Jose in the San Francisco Bay Area (US). It has served as the home venue for the National Football League’s (NFL’s) San Francisco 49ers since 2014.

The San Francisco 49ers are a professional American football team based in the San Francisco Bay Area, US. The 49ers compete in the National Football League as a member of the league’s National Football Conference West division.

Jim Mercurio, Executive Vice-President-cum-General Manager, Levi’s Stadium, US, in an exclusive to ‘Coliseum’ draw parallels between COVID-19 and 9/11 – both of which has shaken and stirred the whole of United States with the former devastating the whole world. COVID-19 is likely to become another 9/11 moment, one that will reshape the security and safety quotient in venues. He also asserted that spiffy stadium dotting the United States landscape does not mean that it is time to write the obituaries of the old venues.

Jim Mercurio comes across as a totally down-to-earth-person – a man who has risen from humble origins. He has worked his way up in life through the sweat of his brows – from a ball boy to the top brass of Levi’s Stadium – is no mean achievement.

Mercurio has not always lived the high life and he has attained his present position by dint of his hard work and has endured hardship and struggles.

He is not a person who just talks shop but gets down to brass tacks as he puts in, “What a year 2020 was when we were suddenly faced with ever changing health and safety guidelines, in some cases daily, if not hourly.”

As COVID-19 continued to cause ravages in the world with the United States facing the maximum brunt, Mercurio and his team had to work their fingers to the bone to ensure that the Levi’s Stadium was maintaining the highest standards of cleanliness so that fans could walk into the facility calm and relaxed.

The National Football League is a professional American football league consisting of 32 teams, divided equally between the National Football Conference and the American Football Conference.

With the National Football League (NFL) 2021-2022 campaign having started on September 9th, 2021, Mercurio informed that the Levi’s Stadium had four home games in full capacity and “I think people are getting back into the swing of things and we are back into it.”

He said that it was quite a bit of an “undertaking as far as the changes that we have made since the pandemic from the operational standpoint and the amount of sign-ins we had to put up and kind of remind people what the COVID rules and regulations are.”

He further stated that it “kind of took a toll on a lot of stadium staffs” who had to remind people over and over again about disinfecting protocols, cleaning protocols and the safety and security protocols – an exercise repeated several times.

As coronavirus continued to clobber the United States, the 49ers was forced to move to Arizona in the last part of 2020 and played four or five games on the road.

The top shot informed that it was only in August this year – the first time in 18 months – that the doors of Levi’s Stadium reopened to 70,000 fans. He patted his team on their backs for tutoring thoroughly the fans as regards the COVID-19 guidelines.

360 degree change

Coronavirus has brought about a 360 degree change in the venues’ operational strategies. The key mantra these days for venue operators in a COVID-struck planet is to keep the facilities squeaky clean. And it was no different for the Levi’s Stadium as Mercurio affirmed, “The cleaning procedures, the disinfecting procedures will definitely be something which will stay with us for quite sometimes. Everything in Levi’s Stadium has been made frictionless as part of the no-touch policy and the frictionless kind of opportunities that we looked at is also here to stay. We looked at investing in self-service turnstiles for the ingress point and I think that will stick around and stay and we also made the shift from food and beverage to the grab ‘n’ go concept and this is another one that I think will stick and stay for a while.”

Just before COVID-19 struck the world, the Levi’s Stadium was ready to unveil an all-inclusive food and beverage concept which is almost similar to the grab ‘n’ go all-inclusive package.

He informed that Levi’s Stadium wanted to introduce the concept in 2019 but could not do so due to the pandemic – “We want to do that now and it definitely involves a lot of challenges but once we attain perfection in it I am sure a lot of other venues would like to follow suit.”

Points of comparison

The September 11 attacks, also commonly referred to as 9/11, were a series of four coordinated terrorist attacks by the militant Islamist terrorist group Al-Qaeda against the United States on the morning of September 11th, 2001. More than 2,000 people lost their lives in these deadly attacks.

9/11 was the most serious trauma to beset Americans on US soil. But COVID-19 has unfolded a human tragedy of even more severe degree the world over and the United States has been impacted the most with the country still grappling with the Delta variant. More than 40 million coronavirus cases have been confirmed in the United States, and there have been over 700,000 deaths from COVID-19.

COVID-19 is a lingering tragedy. The comparisons between 9/11 and COVID-19 can be made in the sense that 9/11 changed air travel and airport security and also brought about a total transformation of global security while the outbreak of COVID-19 has led to venues, offices, malls, and any place where people congregate laying down strict coronavirus protocols.

As Mercurio puts it, “COVID-19 and 9/11 have had different impacts. We certainly lost more people in our country and in the world as a result of the pandemic. Prior to 9/11, as operators we looked at faint code of conduct violations, alcohol consumption and things of that nature. You prepped for everything you could and the focus then was more on ejecting unruly fans out of the venue.”

He added, “9/11 taught us that we have other bigger potential concerns – to save fans from terror elements who actually wanted to come to your venue to cause harm. This led to a total overhaul of the security set-up and that’s when you went from screening to magnetometers and hand-held devices and pat-downs. All transitional kind of phase in the security piece.”

Coming to the pandemic, he stated that, “COVID-19 has kind of taught us that we have that same kind of threat, but it is an invisible threat in some cases and has again brought about operational changes in venues – all the cleanliness phase and the disinfecting phase as part of strategies and policies and procedures that are ever-changing. In case of 9/11, it did not keep changing and the rules were pretty strategic and quick and the changes made are here to stay.”

He made it clear that in case of coronavirus, every day we are learning new facts about the fatal virus and having to counter it with the policies and procedures -“Both COVID-19 and 9/11 has had distinct impacts on the sports venue industry and frankly speaking, it is hard to determine which is worst. But, I personally feel that COVID-19 is worse because it has taken a huge toll on lives.”

Taking the bull by the horns

An industry veteran, Jim Mercurio is in his 30th year with the 49ers. He has many a plumes to his beret and is ready to take up any kind of challenges.

Talking about challenges on gameday and non-gameday, he stated that he did not view it as challenges but rather as “Opportunities in many cases. But the workforce today is a little bit different than it was in years past. Trying to explain to the staffs why we are taking so many measures to beat the germ on a gameday can be a little bit of a daunting task – trying to get them to understand why we do or what we want them to do can be challenging at times. The buy-in is a little bit different than it was in the past and as leaders we have to explain a little bit more why we are trying to do and what we are trying to do to accomplish in order to get the buy-in with the workforce.”

Mercurio is a person who believes in taking the bull by the horns as he affirmed, “But that’s also one of the things that keep me going – working with people and being able to provide greater opportunities and experiences for fans on a gameday is what really drives me and my team.”

Tech-smart fans

In a world driven by futuristic technology, everything is available at the push of a button. Gaming is the name of the game these days and the rise of esports arenas holds testimony to it. A lot of fans today while walking into the venue are more bothered about a robust Wi-Fi connection rather than enjoying the game of football per se. In such a scenario, a stadium full to the brim is a tough scenario and Mercurio and his team understands this fact well as he observed, “With respect to technology and connectivity, everybody has to be so programed that we have to be connected. So, having a facility that can keep people engaged through Wi-Fi systems, your ability to multitask, is the need of the hour.”

He continued, “Gone are the days when people just came to a sporting event and watched football, baseball or basketball. Now they are checking their sports updates or scores, they are posting their live feed-in, they are streaming, they are doing all these different things, multitasking more so than ever. So, IT professionals are tasked with making sure that the connectivity inside and outside the facility are top-notch and these are the things we have really tried to focus on. Now, when you look at the connectivity, it is not just about being able to get the scores but also potential betting being allowed in the State of California at some point of time or throughout the country.”

He acknowledged that people are looking for connectivity and content all the time – “But, from an operator’s perspective, having the ability to communicate with your staff from a security perspective, from a medical standpoint, provide resources is pretty paramount. That’s why you start to see these new stadiums that pop up are constantly enveloped with technology and trying to be the first of the next generation.”

Garnering revenue

He well understands the fact that just holding the NFL and pre-season games is not enough for Levi’s Stadium to keep the cash registers jingling and the facility holds varied events. Talking about the events calendar, a full of beans Mercurio informed, “Certainly, prior to the pandemic, I think we opened up the building and we had 20 large-scale events – 10 NFL events and 10 non-NFL events – concerts and soccer games and things of that nature. And not to mention all the special events business which is very instrumental in providing business job opportunities, profits and things of that nature. The past 18 months have not been much but I do see in 2022, the calendar chock-a-block. People are starting to book again, in 2022 and 2023, the entertainment business will be huge – bands are getting back and concerts are being scheduled and booked. I think the private and catering business will be right along with that. In mid-2022 and 2023, it is kind of going to be great here.”

Toast of the town

When the 49ers launched the Levi’s Stadium in the year 2014, it became the talking point of the sports industry and was the toast of the town. Now, the venue has tough competition in the form of spectacular venues like the 65,000-seat Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas (US) and the 70,000-person SoFi Stadium in California (US).

Moreover, venues these days are competing for content and for fans. To remain on the top of the game, Mercurio knows how to step up to the plate as he said, “I think we were at the time kind of compared to a mid-sized convention center when you look at all the different spaces that we can utilize here at the Levi’s Stadium to book different types of events. Not just large-scale full-stadium events but cater to events and special events in and around the building. Well, it is one of the greatest buildings designed and built. The different types of opportunities that this building can provide in the customization of the types of events that we can do for folks make Levi’s Stadium one of the top stadiums in the country, if not the world.”

Referring to the cream of the crop Allegiant Stadium and SoFi Stadium, he added, “I will like to look at some of these new buildings that are coming on. We are hopeful that these new stadiums will constantly make improvements along the way. But, just because it is a newer building in the showcase does not mean that the one that was built two years ago can’t keep pace. I think this is one of the things that we did with Levi’s Stadium – we future-proofed it the best we could and we continue to do that, continue to invest in this building and making it one of the best buildings in the country.”

Mercurio strongly believes in the clean as a new pin concept as he put in, “Well, I am always a believer of maintaining the building. You walk into Levi’s Stadium – it’s clean, it’s well-maintained and we invest in it and I think that’s one of the lessons we learnt part back in the day when the building was almost in a dilapidated condition. It was then and there we realized that the amount of capital improvements you make to the building it is important to have a plan, to have a capex plan that lasts more than a year, throughout the lifespan of the building and maintain the building in order to keep it a mint condition. You need to have the finances, the dedication and the mindset to do that and your building is sure to stand out. One will have to invest in such a manner that the structure stays relevant even 20 years later and we intend to do just that.”

Setting up shop

He justified the decision to build the stadium in Santa Clara (California) rather than in San Francisco. Mercurio stated that there were reasons behind the decision to set up shop in Santa Clara as he affirmed, “We are proud that we have been able to accomplish it in Santa Clara and will continue to do that. If the stadium did not come up in Santa Clara, fans would not have been able to savor the exhilarating experiences that we have been able to provide to hundreds and thousands of spectators if not a million by now. I think Santa Clara is a great place and people put their hair down when they visit our facility.”

Eager beaver

Jim Mercurio is a strong-willed person who has touched dizzying heights in life today by dint of his hard work. Starting out as a security guard, today he is in an exalted position in Levi’s Stadium and calls the shots. But, power has not proved to be intoxicating for him and he remains a grounded person. He did face a lot of challenges while climbing up the career ladder and also learnt valuable lessons.

His pearls of wisdom – “It’s not an absolute requirement that you do all the jobs that I have done or all the jobs you may be responsible for but it does give you some perspective. When I was working as a ball boy or as a net guy or a water boy or in the locker room picking up socks, it gave me a perspective of a whole bunch of things. When I started to climb up the career ladder, I did not forget my roots. It pays to remember where you came from, pays to understand what it felt like to be when you were working in the searing heat outside or getting drenched in the rain -working on despite the weather vagaries. Nobody was bothered whether I needed a break – that compassion was missing.”

Since Mercurio has gone through the hardships of life, he always gives a thought for the grounds level staffs, people who are the spine of the sports venue sector as he concluded, “One of the greatest lessons I have learned is take care of your employees (irrespective of the fact that whether he is a ground level worker) and they will take care of you. And don’t forget that not everybody works at the same pace. Just because I burn the midnight oil does not mean that every other individual will do so. After all, every individual works at different pace.”

Success has not gone to the head of Jim Mercurio and he has learnt in the journey of life that one should always spare a thought for others. It is not just the top guns who maketh an organization but the grassroots workers also count.

Though Jim Mercurio came from a humble background that did not stop him from chasing his dreams and pursuing success. Hard work and perseverance are his open secret to tasting success today.

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