‘Technology cannot steal stadia thunder’

Video: Coliseum Global Sports Venue Alliance (YouTube)

The COVID-19 pandemic has put people’s lives worldwide on the edge – the world is almost at the crossroads today. The global economy is bleeding white. The pandemic has upended all areas of life – and sports are no exception. The sporting calendar has gone totally topsy-turvy.

Professional leagues everywhere have suspended their activities to limit the spread of the virus. Even the Summer Olympics, typically one the world’s most-watched sporting broadcasts, has been pushed back a year. Question mark still hangs whether the Olympics will be held at all in 2021.

Johan Cruijff ArenA (formerly Amsterdam ArenA) is the home of AFC Ajax football club and is the largest sporting stadium in The Netherlands. Located at the south-eastern part of the city, the stadium is open to the public for various guided tours. It was one of the stadiums used during Euro 2000, and also held the 1998 Champions League and 2013 Europa League finals. Both international and Dutch artistes have given concerts in the stadium, including Coldplay, Take That, Celine Dion, Madonna, Michael Jackson, André Hazes, David Bowie, AC/DC, One Direction, The Rolling Stones, Beyoncé and Rihanna.

It was known as the Amsterdam Arena but was officially renamed in honor of legendary Dutch footballer Johan Cruyff who died in March 2016.

AFC Ajax is a Dutch professional football club based in Amsterdam, which plays in the Eredivisie, the top tier in Dutch football.

Coliseum’ catches up with Henk Markerink, CEO, Johan Cruijff ArenA, Netherlands, and he says though coronavirus has thrown down the gauntlet right on people’s face, mankind has also learnt lessons from this greatest health and human crisis.

Henk Markerink is holding the position of the head honcho of Johan Cruijff ArenA since 1995. Henk was the Project Manager for the Design and Construction of the ArenA from 1991 till 1995. He has been actively involved in the development of the ArenA Boulevard Area into a new Sports, Leisure and Entertainment destination. Since 2012, Henk is also actively involved in the World Cup projects of Qatar 2022.

Henk Markerink, CEO, Johan Cruijff ArenA, Netherlands, is a Member of Coliseum’s Strategic Committee.

With the Dutch Eredivisie’s season canceled due to the novel coronavirus, Henk Markerink said that “everybody is working from home since mid-March and tours of the stadium have stopped”. In fact, COVID-19 has applied a brake on every sporting activity globally and the same applies for activities in Johan Cruijff ArenA.

Like Henk stated, “Congresses and seminars that we had organized has stopped, concerts have stopped, and everything stands canceled.” The ArenA was all geared up to hold Euro 2020 in June, but that also stands canceled.

Euro 2020 was originally scheduled to take place from June 12 to July 12, 2020. However, on March 17, 2020, UEFA announced that the tournament would be delayed by a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic which has struck Europe hard, and proposed it take place from June 11 to July 11, 2021.

The head honcho said that basically since March there have been no activities in the stadium and this scenario will remain till August “for sure”. He informed that the Dutch Football League will start somewhere around September 1, 2020, or “can be a bit earlier, can be a bit later”. It will start sans spectators.

“We are working on all types of scenarios to get back to full stadium step by step. First, with less people in the stadium,” the top sports official commented. He said the Dutch Government is still “very strict” and has not allowed holding of football and concerts. One of the minister said last week that concerts and matches will be allowed in The Netherlands when a vaccination is available for everyone.

Henk observed that for a vaccine to come out “may take even a year and this is not a very positive outlook for the future. Our business is going through a very difficult period and we do not know what the future holds, when everything will be back to normal.”

Going by the Dutch people’s nature of reinventing themselves, Henk and his team are making alternative plans to bring in some amount of revenue. They will start with the stadium tours on June 1, 2020, for which they have obtained the licence – “We are planning congresses and seminars with a lot of social distancing rules in place. In a normal scenario, it would have been a gathering of around 800 people, but now we cannot allow more than 100 people. We are working on several ideas to bring in at least a little revenue.”

The CEO admitted that their cash registers jingle only with the big events as he says, “We are built for a full house”. To drive home his point, he said with a Boeing 747, one can fly from Amsterdam to New York with 20 people on board, but, the income will be less and the expenses will be massive. In the same manner, Henk asserted that the small events will not bring in “substantial amount of revenue”.

He said they were closely examining several scenarios – how to get back into business in a safe way and how fans could enter the stadium again feeling safe and secure. Henk acknowledged that the biggest challenge was to make spectators feel safe and follow strict sanitation and hygiene protocols in the ArenA for which “we are working in close collaboration with people from the medical sector so that everybody can be together in a safe way”.

The top official stated that if the mouth is covered and hygiene methods adopted, it would help, but, in large events where there is a huge congregation of people, the risk of the virus getting transmitted is much higher than if one is walking in the park. He admitted that they were in a “risky business” and the “one-and-a-half-meter scenario which we are working out for the stadiums is fine, but fans will travel by metros, trains and buses, and the risk of contracting coronavirus remains high”.

Henk said they are doing an analysis of the whole customer journey with all its touchpoints and how people can maintain a safe distance even when queuing up outside the venue which is “quite complicated”. The CEO said they are in talks with the Dutch Government and are trying to devise a strategy to get back to normal – “the thinking machine is working a lot but, we have not found the egg of Columbus as yet. There are sort of two camps – there is one camp which is the medical sector who is very scared. On the other side, there is the economic sector – which wants everything to open up. We have to maintain the balancing act and cannot restart things in a rush.”

But, it will not be an easy proposition to sustain things financially without any activities happening for a long time. Henk said that though they are a “solid organization” and is also helped by the Government, yet, they would have to delay paying taxes and some other payments for a year to keep the organization afloat. He was hopeful that things would come back to normal in a year and they have the perspective “to go back to full business. If we have that perspective, I would be more relaxed”.

Henk revealed that they have a very interesting events schedule lined up for 2021 as the Johan Cruijff ArenA – which opened on August 14, 1996 – will be celebrating 25 years of existence. He hoped that they would be able to celebrate the occasion in a “normal way”. Nevertheless, he maintained that in the COVID-19 world, the uncertainty quotient was so high that everything looks very hazy – “We are working on different scenarios. I mean optimistic, pessimistic, whatever possibilities there are we are searching – we have a full vision on everything – from strategic to very practical, from pessimistic to optimistic – for holding concerts and matches.”

He hinted that AFC Ajax might start training and exercising sessions in the stadium and they are weighing in a lot of options which is “keeping me busier than ever before”.

The first phase is resuming the league without spectators, the second phase is the 2021 season with restrictions in place, and the third phase is the 2022 league. Henk said that one must think in steps and phases – “We also think short term, midterm, long term, but, for the time being, we still hope that 2021 will be sort of the same as 2022. We hope that in 2021 we will be able to go to the matches and the concerts again and in a normal way – maybe with some medical measures, maybe with some hygiene measures in place.”

Hope floats and Henk hopes that a year later, 55,000 fans will be enjoying matches and concerts in the ArenA. “The league starts in September without spectators, the league hopes that somewhere we will start again allowing people in and by the end of the league next year this time we will be fully back with a full house,” he said trying to paint a positive picture.

The horror scenario is that if “we will sit idle for another year then we will have to take very drastic measures and shut the doors on everybody and just sit back home and read a book,” the CEO stated.

Henk asserted that fans do have a lot of options before them today, thanks to cutting-edge technology, but, not even futuristic technology could take away the charm and excitement of watching live games in the stadium, the electrifying atmosphere which it creates. Watching from home is like giving a cook a virtual kitchen and in reality he just has one cook in place.

He said looking at the present coronavirus situation, something is better than nothing – “At the moment we are watching matches of 10 years back on television which is getting to be quite boring, but, we are left with no choice. When it comes to football and concerts, fans want to catch the action live, they want to be in the midst of the action. Football is like a religion.”

A game of football, he said, is like a social event – “People meet each other, group of friends meet in the stadiums. Football is more than just a game. It is a social gathering and it is a social outlet for people. We can see each other’s body language and feel the emotion, which is not possible while watching games on television.”

Henk maintained that COVID-19 has made people realize how important the sports venue sector is because for the time being, we can do all the fake things, but everybody is longing for the real match or the real concert. The whole entertainment and sports industry, he added, was very important and powerful speaking in terms of turnover, in terms of employees. Henk said that if one looks at the whole pyramid – it is not only the artiste, it’s also the steward, and the technicians, and it is the one who builds the podium, and the sound and light people – everybody is facing the unemployment heat.

However, the head honcho lamented that, “Our industry is not very good united, we do not have this one voice. But, this crisis has taught us that we should all work unitedly.”

Henk wrapped up on an optimistic note stating, “We are still hopeful that we can go back into business and a lot of creative ideas are going around now and we will definitely build up again to 50,000 in the stadium.”

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