EVP/COO Dave Jenkins and VP of Finance and Administration Greg Rush (9.15.20)
FirstEnergy Stadium Restart Plan media availability with EVP/COO Dave Jenkins and VP of Finance and Administration Greg Rush:
Jenkins: “Thanks everyone for being with us today. Before we really dive in, I just want to recognize what an important role local media plays in communicating with our fans, especially on a topic like this. I know it has been a trying year for all of us. We understand you have had to adjust to even how you cover the team this year. On behalf of our organization, thank you for your efforts and we appreciate working beside you guys.
“We are excited to be sharing our return to stadium plan, which (Director of Community and Corporate Communications) Rob (McBurnett) called our Responsible Restart, which means we are hosting fans – limited in numbers but hosting fans on Thursday night. We are really excited. It has been a long several months, but it is exciting that it is finally here. Throughout, our organization has really tried to remain focused on the priorities that we set very early on, which are No. 1, the health and safety of our players, our employees and our fans; No. 2, ensuring that our football function has everything it needs, the resources facilities and environment to execute; and then lastly, ensuring our facilities, both our Berea practice facility and FirstEnergy Stadium, are safe and clean environments for again, our players, employees and fans to come to. We have been really fortunate to work with some great partners this year. University Hospitals, everyone knows, is our medical partner. They have been right by our side the entire time. The NFL and their group of experts. Vocon and Populous, two architecture firms that have really helped us evaluate our facilities as we have looked for ways to incorporate appropriate measures to keep them safe. Then lastly, just local and state government and health officials who again have been there by our side as we worked to develop a plan that we are confident, if executed properly and complied with, will create an environment that is as safe as possible for all participants, meaning players, officials, media, etc. and attendees, fans, employees to make the event as safe as possible on Thursday night.
“We are excited to be hosting fans, even in limited numbers. They are such an important element to the gameday experience and creating a home field advantage. We were in Baltimore this past weekend, and no fans, you definitely feel not having fans there.
“It really is important, though, to reiterate that compliance is key. We have to execute as an organization, and our fans also have a responsibility and a role to play, and that is really to adhere to the requirements of the plan – wear the mask, properly socially distance and do not come if exhibiting symptoms. Frankly, if you are not willing or able to comply with those plan elements, then they should not attend on Thursday night. Our hope honestly is to control what we can control, execute really well, demonstrate a safe environment and potentially grow the number of fans we can have at future games.
“We are excited to share our plan with you. I am going to turn it over to Greg Rush, our Vice President of Finance and Administration. He is going to share some plan details. Greg also as part of his role oversees FirstEnergy Stadium operations alongside Troy Brown, our Vice President of Stadium Operations. Greg is our gameday Infection Control Officer, which is a role that the league requires all clubs to have to No. 1, oversee the development of our stadium readiness plan but also, if there anything arises while we are executing, Greg will play lead on that. Greg is definitely the most appropriate person to walk you through the plan today.”
Rush: “Thanks Dave. Appreciate everybody being here today. I am just going to quickly go over our seven key principles of the Responsible Restart Plan. Many of these, everybody probably saw these before in our previous press releases, but they are pretty simple and we will go over here real quickly. First, social distancing and physical separation. This is important – obviously, everybody knows – but from ingress to egress, and we talked about our pod seating within the bowl. That is the easiest place to make sure that if you are sitting in the bowl watching the game you are always going to be six feet away from anybody else in another pod in the bowl. No. 2, the requirement of face masks or face coverings. Dave already covered this. It is really important. It is not only just a city and a state mandate but also an NFL and a team mandate. No. 3, health screenings. This is for all of our employees, both our partner employees and our Browns employees, and then also the Fan Health Promise. Before any ticket holder accesses their tickets on mobile this year, they have to sign off on what is called a Fan Health Promise. No. 4, robust cleaning and disinfecting. This is before, during and after games. Really, you will see a visible, noticeable presence of people out cleaning different areas – high-touch points, bathrooms, concourses, etc. Really a main focus on that. No. 5, extensive hygiene protocols, not only for staff and fans. Access to hand sanitizer, reminders to wash your hands before eating or drinking and just keeping good protocols in place for hygiene. No. 6, training, signage and communication. We are trying to do the best we can to just communicate not only to our fans, our partners and those coming to the games what they are going to be expecting. This is wayfinding as you come to the game and what gate to enter, what you will see on your ticket directing you to what gate and specific ideas and suggestions on gate times when you are supposed to come and enter the stadium. This is not only just for our fans bit for our partners internally so we can all speak the same language and communicate the same message. Finally, accountability and flexibility or adaptability. We all play a key role in this. We are going to hold ourselves accountable. We have certain auditing we have to do internally. The NFL is going to be here making sure we are following our plans and protocols, and then adapting to if any new health standards come out, whether it is state, locally, CDC or our partners, we will adapt to those on a game-by-game basis. If it is 6,000 fans we are expecting this game or if we are lucky enough to increase that number, we will be able to adapt our plan accordingly to keep everybody as safe as possible.”
On if the Browns are working on another variance with the state to allow more fans to attend future games, given the team has been initially approved for fans at the first two home games and Ohio Governor Mike DeWine said it was a ‘trial run’:
Jenkins: “There has technically been one variance filed, and that was a variance that would essentially give us permission – we feel really good about the plan we submitted that there are controls in that plan that would allow for if the building was fully open 17-24 percent capacity, depending on how the tickets were distributed. For Thursday night, we will not be opening the upper bowl so we will be able to accommodate and safely distance fans between the lower bowl and the clubs. It really is important to demonstrate that we execute as our plan says we will to then have the next discussion. No formal variants filed for beyond first two games but anticipate discussions No. 1, as the environment in cases continue to evolve, but also the new information we will have from an execution standpoint to hopefully make the case to continue to have the building open to fans and hopefully to more fans.”
On if the Browns want to ‘see how it goes before’ working on any new plans with DeWine:
Jenkins: “And I think he wants to see how it goes.”
On the reaction when finding learning approximately 6,000 fans could attend the first two games, given the team initially submitted a plan for approximately 20 percent capacity:
David Jenkins: “Certainly excited that we are able to have fans, but I think it is OK to say we were disappointed and that it was not quite what we were looking for, but also very understanding of all the data inputs that the Governor has to consider and what we have to demonstrate as an organization. Hopefully, that continues to evolve and we do achieve a higher capacity beyond the first two games.”
On steps the Browns have taken to adjust concessions stands and other points of sale:
Rush: “You have transitional spaces, which are places where people will be probably be within six foot of each other. The transactional space is what you are asking about within our concession stands. We have added Plexiglas on concession stands. These stanchions have been set up and you will actually see stickers on the floor that encourage everybody to stay six feet apart. One of the other things for this year is we are moving to a cashless environment at FirstEnergy Stadium so we do not accept cash and any of the point to sell throughout the stadium. We actually have what is called cash-to-card machines throughout the stadium, as well. If you do come to the stadium and weren’t happen to be aware of us being a cashless environment – we obviously encourage everyone out here to communicate that to our fans – there are kiosks where you can actually go convert cash to a card that can be used in the stadium – it is basically just a prepaid card – as well as outside of the stadium. There is extensive cleaning around of all concession stands. All condiments will no longer be in the pumps that you saw throughout the stadium. For condiments, they will be pre-packaged, and then the same for silverware. Silverware will all be pre-packaged individually. In the suites area, as well, you will see pre-packaged, not the old [buffets] where like in the press box for instance. Everybody will get pre-packaged meals versus the old days where you would go and get the popcorn, etc.”
On one or two of the biggest challenges encountered during the process and how the team was able to address those challenges to be able to accommodate fans:
Rush: “I don’t think there were any problems (laughter). I think for just all of everything that we have dealt with COVID is the unknown of what you are going to face. We built the plan to maximize how many attendees we think we could fit in the stadium socially distanced, as safe as possible. To the question before about 6,000 fans, we will handle 6,000 fans as safe as we can using the same plan so it is very adaptable. I think that is the biggest challenge is just being adaptive to what we are going to see as far as how many fans are allowed to come to our games. Where they come, we built a plan so that we direct everybody to the four main gates. Generally, everybody on this plan, on this call, probably knows that most of our fans in the past come via the city and they come to the two south gates. Communication, which is why it is one of our seven key principles is very, very important so that everybody who comes to the game knows all the changes they are going to see this year at the stadium.”
On communication with fans, including as it relates to the ticket sales process and how many games each season ticket member may be able to attend:
David Jenkins: “The sales process, all things considered – we did not really have a decision on what our capacity would be – it went relatively smoothly. First of all, we gave fans an opportunity to opt out of their season tickets before we actually knew what our capacity would be. Roughly, a bit more than 50 percent have opted out. We have sold over 60,000 season tickets the last several years so a pretty good number [kept their season tickets] but a pretty good number opted out, as well. When you think about having 6,000 fans to satisfy 30,000-plus fans, even if you say over two games that is 12,000 tickets, there are still a lot of discussions that have to be had with season ticket members. We prioritized our season ticket members based on PSL status or seniority, a combination of those two things, and then went out in waves and had direct conversation with our fans. We sent them links when their wave was up. They were able to sign on and buy. Unfortunately, it is really hard to accommodate every ticket demand with that type of limited inventory.”
On why it is so important to the Browns to have fans at games, given revenue will be significantly different and guessing the team could potentially lose money rather than profit by doing so due to the stadium operations costs:
Jenkins: “First and foremost, our fans really do create a home field advantage, and our players have been outspoken about how they feed off of our fans. That was really important to the gameday experience for all participants. To your point, although revenues will be impacted this year, safety is paramount so we have committed to our same staffing levels as if there we 67,000 people in the building, even though we are not even opening the upper deck. We are deploying all resources to ensure that the elements of the plan are upheld and we are creating as safe an experience as possible for everybody. Having fans there, we are really excited about it. Even if it is 6,000, we are really excited.”
On how the Browns plan to enforce wearing face masks or face coverings with fans:
Rush: “It is very important. Dave talked about it before, and we just can’t emphasize it enough. If you do not want to follow wearing your face mask, do not come. We want people to move forward and show that we can do this together. We have talked to our ushers and our partners on how to enforce that. You may get one warning towards it. It is very hard sometimes. You can take your face mask off when you are actively eating and drinking is what the guidance said. We actually have a prosecutor on site this year to help with fines or so forth for [not wearing] face masks and other incidents at the stadium. We are taking it very seriously and that training is as such for our partners and our internal staff.”
On if there is a benefit to playing Thursday night and having 10 days to adapt the plan prior to the next home game against the Washington Football Team:
Jenkins: “I think there are definite benefits the more we do this. We had the two scrimmages at the stadium that were open to a much more limited number of people. We opened MAPFRE Stadium to 1,500 fans last weekend for an MLS Crew game. You learn things. Also, we are one of six teams that are opening the facilities to fans across the league so we will best-practice share with others. The biggest learning right now, I would say, is ensuring that people uphold the elements of that plan from the moment they get to the stadium until the moment they leave. Even when the game is over and they are making their way out the building, you still have to have that mask on and you still have to do your best to socially distance. Like I was referring to earlier, we have three types of active states when you are at the stadium: No. 1 is you are stationary and you are sitting at your seat and we have a very clear plan on how to distance everybody within the guidelines; No. 2 is transitional, when you are moving spaces and you are really not coming into contact with people and maybe that six-foot gap is breached for a brief amount of time just to get from Point A to Point B; and then lastly, what Greg was talking more about, is the transactional interaction. That is kind of how we have been thinking about the plan and really what we are focused on from a distancing perspective. Again, upholding all the elements of the plan the entire time you are in the stadium is critical.”
Rush: “I just want to say thanks for everybody’s time today. I appreciate you jumping on the call and continuing to help us push out our message about the things that will be different at FirstEnergy Stadium this year. We are really excited to see fans down here again Thursday night.”
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