We’re getting back to some semblance of normal.
For sports fans, that means being able to go back to games – in a limited capacity, being socially distanced, and wearing a mask.
This is a huge step for teams that have lost loads of money over the last year without fans in the stadium. Of course, that’s hardly the point with a bunch of rich owners. The concern here has always been safety.
The Minnesota Timberwolves had their first game with real fans present on Monday, April 5, against the Sacramento Kings. There were 1,500 fans in attendance (insert your Timberwolves fan attendance joke here), and I was lucky enough to land some free tickets to the game.
It actually felt pretty normal. People were properly spaced out, and the team clearly did intense planning for this moment.
This has mostly been led by Timberwolves vice president of fan engagement Jeff Munneke. Munneke loves people, so you can imagine how difficult this has all been for him. We were lucky enough to have Munneke on a recent 10,000 Layups Podcast. It’s an interesting conversation about what the team has done up to this point to keep fans safe, and what the future could look like.
Here’s the transcription from our conversation:
KR: Did you ever think that testing people for a virus in the middle of a pandemic would be part of your job description?
JM: You know, I tease about that, I’m always thinking I know way too much about saliva. I never thought I’d know this much about saliva. It’s one of those situations when you go through … you start thinking about the different things that we’ve had to adjust to … for our players, to keep them safe, to get fans back, which we did Monday night. Saliva testing, not one of the things I went to school for.
KR: Just being there, it felt weird in the sense that I was at a public event again, but at the same time it felt normal because it felt really safe. There was never anybody that was too close, or never a situation where I felt uncomfortable. For those people who are thinking about getting tickets to a game or just kind of testing when they want to come back to Target Center, what is Target Center doing to make things safe for fans to attend games?
JM: Earlier this year I referenced it a little bit in having zero fans come down other than just essential staff. We’re in our red zone, which is in and around the court. Those staff members that were allowed to come down there and work had to take a negative test before they were allowed to work, so it was really interesting.
Our fan-experience area was in charge of the game-night staff and the testing protocols. Once we were done with our reporting to the league office, we were kind of done. I’ve never been able to watch intros. I’ve never been able to watch the starting lineup. Usually, we’re out in the concourses making sure everything is smooth and getting our fans in the building. We took advantage of that in a weird way … that was kind of fun for us.
Obviously, though, on the flip side, we dearly missed our fans. So now that we have fans back we feel really good about the steps and protocols that we’ve put in place — a whole extensive Know Before You Go campaign that you got on your phone before you arrived. Anything from the health questionnaire that we ask you to fill out, you’re going to see the six-foot spacers that you see at the supermarket or retail store — we have those at Target Center just to keep people separated a little bit as you come in the building. You have the sanitization stands where you have the stuff to put on your hands. We have those all throughout the building.
We’ve gone cashless and contactless in ordering food. I don’t know if you got the chance to utilize this the other night, Kyle, but it’s pretty cool. Much like everybody’s done through COVID … everything’s digital, it’s right off your phone. You can do that when you enter the building. Go watch the game for a little bit and then you decide that you wanted to have a beverage or some snacks. You order from your seats and your phone will ping when your order’s ready to go so you won’t wait in a line like you used to in our concession areas.
We feel really safe. We are spaced out. We have seat straps on the seats that we are not utilizing…. If you look amongst the crowd, it feels safe. It’s nice to have a little bit of a vibe in there. The players were excited, we’re excited. … We certainly welcomed back all of the season ticket members and fans that were there on Monday.
You can listen to the full conversation with Munneke below: