Inside the Dolphins’ preparation to have fans at Hard Rock Stadium - Sports Illustrated

Inside the Dolphins’ Preparation to Have Fans at Hard Rock Stadium

The Dolphins are preparing to host 13,000 fans for their home opener. Here's how they arrived at that number and the precautions they've taken to keep everyone as safe as possible. Plus, where does the NFL's social justice movement go from here?
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MIAMI GARDENS, Fla.— This all started with Tom Garfinkel seeing an airline ad months ago, during which the carrier showed video of a flight attendant rubbing down seats, as the narrator touted its new policies to clean planes after each trip. The Dolphins president had plenty of resulting questions.

You didn’t clean it before? How do you know it’s cleaner than it was before? Are they just scrubbing the arm rests more vigorously?

So began Miami’s long journey here to late August, the eve of the season. The last college or pro stadium to host an actual football game is now preparing to reopen to fans. There is another game at Hard Rock Stadium scheduled for just two weeks from Thursday, when the University of Miami kicks off its season against UAB. Ten days after that, the Dolphins will have their home opener against the Bills.

Given where we’ve all been the last six months, and where Florida’s been the last six weeks, Garfinkel understands why there’d be skepticism over the idea of putting butts back in the seats this soon. But this will be a little more than taking out a tape measure and walking off six feet between groups of fans. Or a lot more than that.

And Garfinkel’s reaction to the airline ad is one example of that. Immediately, he and SVP of stadium operations Todd Boyan dug into how exactly you’d go about this process. First, they called the International Sanitary Supply Association—the global trade association for the cleaning industry—and asked the questions Garfinkel had watching that commercial. The ISSA people told them what a GBAC (Global Biorisk Advisory Council) Star rating was.

These ratings were launched in March as a way of confirming to the public that a place has been cleaned, disinfected and treated for infectious disease prevention at the highest level possible. Hard Rock Stadium got one July 1, becoming the first sports facility in the world to be awarded the rating.

“This GBAC Star thing, we got on board with that, and started learning about pathogen removal, and surfaces, and air quality,” Garfinkel said, from his office, donning a Dolphins hoodie and black mask on Tuesday. “We relied on them as experts for some of these things. And then started looking at every aspect of that customer fan journey, how to ensure we could keep them safe every step of the way.”

This isn’t just taking a shot at something for the Dolphins. It’s science every step of the way.

And if it works, starting next month, the path back to some semblance of normalcy could be charted for fans of all 32 teams.

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This week’s GamePlan is here, and there’s a lot of stuff, on and off field to get to. Inside the column, you’ll find …

• A preliminary draft ranking of the college opt-outs.

• A look at where the NFL goes forward with another uprising in sports.

• The very well-defined path of the rookie quarterbacks.

But we’re starting with the idea that pro football could help to lead fans of all sports back into the stands in the coming months—and all the work that went into that idea.

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The “fan journey” that Garfinkel referenced was one Boyan was nice enough to take me on, via golf cart, on Tuesday afternoon. And I’ll say this—the Dolphins seemed to have thought of just about everything. Some highlights of the hour-long trip around Hard Rock Stadium.

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• At the gate there are the six-foot markers that you might see at the Walgreen’s down the street. But the Dolphins were realistic about this, too, understanding that ingress and egress presented a huge challenge that wouldn’t be solved by laying stickers on the ground. So three principles guided the pregame plan: mask-wearing, a ban on tailgating and staggered entry.

Miami won’t open its lots until two hours before kickoff (it’s normally four). From there, fans are welcome to enter, for a 1 p.m. game, at any time from 11 a.m.-12:10 p.m. If they come in after that, they have to enter at an assigned time printed on top of their ticket (12:10-12:20, 12:20-12:30 and so forth). That, they hope will kill bottlenecks at the gates.

• To further ease crowding, the team converted solid fencing into additional swinging gates, upping the total of swinging gates from 80 to 125. The team also bought new metal detectors that won’t require fans to take their phones or keys out of their pockets. They have fewer of those, for spacing, but the detector-to-fan ratio is knocked way down with capacity cut to 20% of the stadium (65,000-13,000). It’s now 104 fans for every metal detector. It had been 394.

And this was done with another three things in mind: cleanliness, touchless entry (Miami had already gone to digital ticketing) and social distancing.

• Likewise, there are fewer points of sale in the stadium, but a better ratio—it had been 85 fans per point of sale, now it’s 47. And mobile pick-up stations have replaced some concession stands, so fans can order food and drinks on their phones, then come and pick up their orders without needing someone to hand it to them.

Also, in those concessions areas, you see the GBAC Star ratings.

• In the stands, the seats closed off for distancing have covers with the Hard Rock Stadium logo on them, keeping them snapped in place. And how the pods will work is visible, with a 6-foot radius of empty seats around every group—that 13,000 number wasn’t arbitrary, the Dolphins actually modeled out the size of each season-ticketholder’s group, then placed them into the seating bowl to determine the new capacity.

• The suites are another place where the science comes into play. The Dolphins upped the AC filter rating from MERV 10 to MERV 14, which is hospital grade, and increased the volume of outside air ventilation from 30 to 45 percent. And this was one area where Garfinkel himself said he was surprised to see exactly what they could do. "I was just blown away by the attention to detail and the amount of diligence that went into it,” he said, “and that we could effectively change the quality of air in those spaces.”

• Smaller changes were pretty apparent too. In the men’s room, every other urinal has a royal blue cap over it with the message, Thank You For Practicing Social Distancing. And the team will cut off alcohol sales at halftime, rather than at the end of the third quarter, because, well, that should help with fan compliance. For obvious reasons.

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The natural question here, and one I had at the top of my list going into this, is how the road back to full stadiums will go from here. And to answer that, Garfinkel went all the way back to the start of the process, in March, when he’d gathered team leadership and started looking to local government officials and health care professionals for guidance.

“They were consistent about one thing, and that was that it wasn’t likely that we’d have a vaccine or a treatment anytime within a year, at the earliest,” he said. “So the prospects for having a full stadium in the fall, from my viewpoint, looked improbable. Not impossible, but unlikely, given that information. So, OK, is this binary—full stadiums or empty stadiums? And then the question, is there something in between?’ Can we create an environment for people to come where they’re socially distant and socially present at the same time, and feel safe?

“And if so, what does that look like? And we got to work.”

Really, the Dolphins found five potential scenarios to prepare for, from a business standpoint: Having to forfeit/call off games, playing in an empty stadium, having a socially-distant crowd, having a half-full stadium or having a full stadium. The plan the team is putting in motion is square in the middle, and the Dolphins actually have had some form of a dry run, too, in that they’ve hosted movie showings in their parking lot.

Garfinkel says the team probably wound up losing money on that endeavor, but to him it was worth it to have the 600 or so people out there. One, it gave the Dolphins a chance to see a mask-wearing, socially-distanced crowd that was eating and drinking, and what worked and what didn’t. Two, Garfinkel says, was that “people were just so happy to be outside, feel safe, but to go to a movie, just to be around other human beings, take their family, get out of their house and come experience something.”

Also key: That the people at the movie showings conducted themselves the right way.

“I’m confident in the environment that we’ve created, that it’s possible to keep people safe,” Garfinkel said. “I can’t control people’s behavior. I can encourage it, I can pull people’s tickets if they’re not behaving appropriately, there are things I can do. But ultimately, and that’s why we sent out a video to season-ticket members, where I’m asking them, pleading with them, we need your help, we need you to be respectful of these protocols.

“And if you are, we can create a safe environment. But it’s up to you now. I’m hopeful and optimistic they’ll be respectful, and the people at risk will stay home, and the people that woke up with a sore throat will stay home, and the people that come wear their masks and keep their distance. … First and foremost, if you’re at risk, don’t come. If you don’t want to wear a mask, don’t come. Because, ultimately, the behavior will dictate it.”

Which brings us to the top concern Garfinkel has heard from fans: scale.

Simply put, he says, “13,000 people is still a lot of people.” And in saying that, he acknowledged the type of crowd the Dolphins are planning to welcome in wouldn’t have been possible to host at several points over the last six months, and remains contingent on factors outside the team’s control.

In fact, Miami’s here because things are improving in Florida. Which means, in a way, all of those in the area can do their part in keeping the train on the tracks.

“Everything here was shut down in April,” he said. “By about May 15, the numbers had started to improve. By early June, they’d improved dramatically, because everyone literally just stayed home and shut it down. But then when it opened back up, people were like, ‘Woo! It’s over!’ And they went back to their lives, and the protests happened and Fourth of July happened and there were these big spikes, and there’s a lag effect.

“So by the end of July, positive rates in Miami-Dade County were above 20%. One out of every five people had it. If we’d had to make a decision, we’d have had no fans at that point. It’s steadily improved since and continued to trend down to where the last week we’ve consistently been in single digits. Broward County is under 5%, and if it continues to trend in a positive direction to where you would expect, by Sept. 20, it’ll be even better than it is today. Which is why we made the decision we did.”

And while Garkinkel says that, this year, “a full stadium’s not probable,” he did add that positivity rates dropping under 2% would likely lead to a conversation about going to half-capacity.

That’s a conversation he didn’t see as realistic a month ago—and I didn’t expect to hear about when I got here. That we were having it? That qualifies as really good news.

Of course, for now, it simply means a course is being charted. It’s obvious that choppy waters could be ahead, and those might throw everything off that course. But for now, and for where we are and have been, this all feels like a pretty good piece of progress.

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POWER RANKINGS

Things have settled down a little on the opt-out front. So here’s a quick ranking of how the college players who did opt out might fall in the draft order in April.

1) Micah Parsons, LB, Penn State: This scouting report I got on him from an AFC scouting director a few weeks back probably sums it up best: “He’s a bad dude now.” Already really good, potential to get a lot better, and a lock to go top half of the first round.

2) Greg Rousseau, DE, Miami: He’s probably not the second-best player on this list right now. But his athletic potential is off the charts, and he plays a premium position, which puts him squarely in play to become a top-10 pick.

3) Caleb Farley, CB, Virginia Tech: The comp I got for him is Clemson CB A.J. Terrell, and he’ll probably go right around where Terrell did (16th overall). Farley’s a long, athletic corner with a ton of upside. How the medicals come out on him will be big.

4) Rashod Bateman, WR, Minnesota: Hearing about him reminds me a lot of what I’d hear on LSU’s Justin Jefferson last fall—super productive, super polished, with the questions surrounding his overall athleticism.

5) Rondale Moore, WR, Purdue: Man, he’s going to be an interesting test case. Most of his tape comes from his true-freshman year. He only played four games last year. He’ll play none this year. But his comp? Tyreek Hill. So …

And as a final note, I’d say that Moore just edged out Northwestern OT Rashawn Slater and Michigan OT Jalen Mayfield, with USC DT Jay Tufele also getting mention and Pitt DT Jaylen Twyman garnering a little too.

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THE BIG QUESTION

Where does the NFL’s social justice movement go from here?

I think the Colts have started to distinguish themselves as leaders in this area, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Indy players were aggressive in the aftermath of NBA players choosing to strike, rather than play in their own playoff games. The team’s player leadership council summited with coach Frank Reich on Wednesday night, in what became an emotional meeting, and set the course for Thursday morning, when most teams were just getting down to addressing this all.

First on the agenda: Reich had his staff and players all register to vote, an idea that backup QB Jacoby Brissett, a driving voice in all this, helped spearhead. And that, to me, is where this is all going.

Now that teams have given players the forum to speak their mind, and have shown a willingness to sacrifice what normally would be football time to address issues in the outside world, the next logical step would be to bring power to their voices. One way to do it, for sure, is by not only encouraging them to vote, but leading them through the process, which in turn should set the example for others to do the same.

For better or worse, a lot of people take cues from professional athletes, and this is a good place for that to happen.

Also, it’s great to see how the team—and they’re just one example of this in the league—has followed through on what they were saying back in late May and early June. At the time, GM Chris Ballard was very forward in saying he was “ashamed” of how he’d not taken the problems Black America faces more seriously earlier than he did.

“We can't go back into our bubble, because that's what we've always done,” Ballard said then. “We've always gone back into our bubble. We haven't listened. We haven't listened. I haven't listened. We as a country haven’t listened. White America refuses to listen, we want to keep things the same. And it can't. …

“I can’t sit here and remain silent, because that’s exactly what we’ve done every time our Black community screams and yells for help. We have to end social injustice and racial inequality. We have to end the police violence against our Black communities. Black lives matter. I don’t understand why that’s so freaking hard for the white community to say. Black lives matter.”

More than two months later, we’re seeing that the Colts really feel that way.

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WHAT NO ONE IS TALKING ABOUT

How the quarterback competitions we anticipated have mostly fizzled.

The one in Chicago, between Mitch Trubisky and Nick Foles, is real. The rest? Eh, not so much. Or at least not as I view them. Here’s a quick rundown …

• The Cincinnati competition wasn’t much of one from the start. The Bengals have been preparing Joe Burrow to start on Sept. 13 from the minute they placed the call to the quarterback’s parents’ house in Athens four months ago.

• The Chargers are getting Tyrod Taylor ready to start against Burrow in Week 1.

• The Dolphins are clearly fine with Ryan Fitzpatrick guiding them early on.

• The Patriots are starting to skew, predictably, toward Cam Newton.

So why is it like this? It’s easy—teams really are getting a three-week training camp, where it’d normally be a five- or six-week run-up. They’re getting no preseason games. They’ve had no spring. And no one’s getting mulligans for looking unprepared on the second weekend of September. Those games will, indeed, count.

With that in mind, what’s most fair to the other 10 guys in any offensive huddle is to do all you can to build the offense you’ll be running on the 10th or 13th or 14th of next month. It’s hard to do that if you don’t know the quarterback will be. An offense built around Tua Tagovailoa, for example, will look different than one ideal for Fitzpatrick, just the same as a scheme intended for Newton will look different than one constructed for Jarrett Stidham.

And, yup, coaches have to make players believe that everyone has to earn his place, and that especially goes for a position that every guy in the locker room will look to as a bellwether. But if we’re being real about this, 2020 isn’t a normal year, and a coach’s job is to look out for the good of the whole team, not just one player.

In this case? What’s best for the whole team is to have a quarterback that’s as ready to roll as possible, with a scheme built to get the most out of him and, by proxy, the guys around him. This year, that might mean making some decisions earlier than you might’ve otherwise liked to.

By the looks of it, some of those decisions may have already been made, even if the guys in charge won’t come out and say it quite yet.

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THE FINAL WORD

Two weeks til the opener, and the prospect of how pregame might go is only getting more interesting.