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Notre Dame’s Home Field Advantage Hampered by Ongoing Conflicts Between Sitting and Standing Fans

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OFD talks to Notre Dame’s director of crowd control about how ushers resolve conflicts.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 02 Temple at Notre Dame Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

There is an undeniable tension between Notre Dame Fighting Irish fans who want to sit and those who want to stand — with Notre Dame Stadium ushers hopelessly trying to mediate two diametrically opposed positions.

That strain will exist this year and every year into the foreseeable future for several reasons, despite Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick’s stated intention in 2012 to “make Notre Dame Stadium a more difficult place for visiting teams to play.”

That was the year the “Take a StaND” initiative — a “subtle, yet pointed way of encouraging fans at all Irish events to become more participatory” — was launched.

Jim Smith, Notre Dame’s program manager in charge of crowd control, said last October that while “Take a StaND” isn’t officially dead, it’s been put on the back burner.

That’s a major blow to those who want to stand and need leverage when conflict with a sitting patron arises. In fact, Smith says the ushers will always side with the majority when a sitting/standing clash occurs. If your section is standing, the usher sides with the stander when a complaint arises. If your section is sitting, a standing fan will be asked to sit if an objection is lodged.

Notre Dame Stadium has its own harmony. Fans traditionally stand and yell for the opening kickoff, but then are seated until it’s situationally appropriate to get to their feet. That could be when an offensive player breaks free for a long touchdown run, a quarterback throws a deep ball toward the end zone or the Irish defense is trying to prevent a third down conversion or make a goal line stand.

Swarbrick wanted to disrupt that harmony, but likely didn’t think through what that would entail. Smith said “ushers do not create policies. They only enforce them, and those policies are in place to make certain the guests have a safe, fun, family-friendly experience.”

CONFLICTS AMONG DISPARATE GOALS

This is the Gordian knot.

Swarbrick asked fans to participate more and to help him create a less hospitable atmosphere for visiting teams while the university maintained policies that “make certain” that fans have a “safe, fun, family-friendly experience.”

The athletic director assumedly has the power to modify stadium policy and could theoretically ask the ushers to side with the raucous, standing fans in any scenario. That would be tantamount to opening Pandora’s box, as it would likely alienate older or less able-bodied fans who expect to sit throughout most of the game. While Notre Dame could likely fill its stadium with rowdy, standing fans for a game against the USC Trojans, it undoubtedly needs a healthy contingent of sitters to fill seats at less appealing games against the Bowling Green Falcons and Boston College Eagles.

Notre Dame takes enormous pride in its sellout streak, which is 268 games. But the university is sensitive to dwindling demand for live sporting events.

“We have an amazing, loyal fan base with season ticket-holders and those who make it a point to come back for their annual pilgrimage,” said Rob Kelly, associate athletics director, told the Chicago Tribune in 2017. “But we’re competing against the 65-inch television screen in your climate-controlled living room, a refrigerator stocked with your favorite beverages and a clean, private bathroom.”

If Notre Dame — through its actions — pushed for a more participatory, discordant stadium atmosphere, a fan who wanted to sit would need to contemplate whether it was worth standing for possibly an entire game or watch the game at home and avoid the hassle.

The snapping of the sellout streak may provide an impetus to reassess what type of fan Notre Dame wants to attract. But this is no time to upset the apple cart, so Swarbrick will likely need to continue enduring “visiting athletic directors tell[ing] him how much they enjoy bringing their teams to South Bend.”

INTERIM “SOLUTIONS”

Every fan should know the rules before they buy a ticket, but those rules aren’t readily available. Instead, we offer advice inspired by feedback we received.

If you are a fan that wants to stand and cause a ruckus in Notre Dame Stadium:

  1. Go to a night game. While Smith said he’s seen no evidence that those who prefer to stand are gravitating toward night games, our readers have said that evening kickoffs — which are typically “big” games — tend to draw more standers than sitters.
  2. Don’t give the ushers any reason to rule against you. Smith says possession of alcohol is grounds for immediate ejection, but that “removal should always be our last option” in conflicts between sitters and standers. “In most cases, the situation becomes volatile between guests of opposing viewpoints,” he wrote last October. “It is when this happens that a removal become more likely.” While Smith said reseating is “not always available,” our readers who like to stand during games said ushers are willing to re-seat either the stander or the person with the blocked view if at least one party is remaining calm. That means no swearing, no menacing fingers wagging in the other guy’s face and certainly no name-calling or other personal attacks.
  3. Address the situation before it becomes a conflict. Smith said ushers aren’t “the fun police”; they respond to patron complaints. If you want to stand, talk to those sitting around you about your intentions before the game kicks off. See if resolution can be reached before an usher needs to get involved.
  4. In game, try a little tenderness. Smith said most conflicts could be resolved “if courtesy reigned.” Standers can offer to switch seats with the aggrieved sitter or, failing that, negotiate instances in which both fans will sit and which times they will stand. (“I’d like to stand for every third down play on defense and...”)
  5. Be the change you want to see. It’s clear the university is constrained by its own policies. The only way Notre Dame is going to be a less hospitable place for visiting teams is if there’s a grassroots effort. There needs to be a fan-driven reboot of #TakeAStaND. Distribute stickers or buttons that express solidarity with standers and, most importantly, make sure that everyone wearing one doesn’t just clam up and sit on their hands when an usher is trying to mitigate a sit/stand dispute. The current dynamic is that the usher sides with the sitter because he or she looks around and everyone is sitting. If twenty people immediately said, “Let the fan stand!” that would shift the paradigm.

***

I requested an interview with Smith because I was surprised reading a tweet during last year’s game against Ball State Cardinals that a fan was kicked out simply for refusing to sit.

Smith didn’t directly answer my question of whether a standing fan can be removed simply for politely refusing to sit, but the above tweets and our readers’ feedback suggested that is the case.

The director of crowd control did answer many of my other questions last October. Here’s that conversation:

Smith: “Let me start out by saying, our goal, for everyone, is to have safe, fun, family-friendly experience while attending a Notre Dame football game. The stand vs sit issue is probably the most difficult for ushers to deal with on game day. Unlike some other situations, an usher should only get involved if he or she has received a complaint, or witnesses a conflict arising. Our goal is never to remove some without due cause. Guests should be given every opportunity to comply with stadium policies, with removal as the last resort.

“When rolled out, I believe the ‘Take a StaND’ initiative was intended to promote a greater fan engagement, and better home field advantage, especially during critical times during the game. Even in the video, the implication is that the defense is preparing for a big stand. In this situation standing is not only anticipated, but also encouraged, and the usher should respond according.

“Lastly, the stand versus sit debate is not unique to Notre Dame. I have spoken with colleagues at several other venues and all experience similar issues.”

OFD: When the Take a StaND initiative was introduced in 2012, it was billed as an effort for fans to become more participatory. The rollout included a video that depicted an Irish fan standing and being raucous in support of his team, although he was clearly blocking the sight line of the fan behind him. The solution is the video was straightforward: The man who can’t see stands. In reality, I believe it works much differently. Is Notre Dame still pushing the “Take A StaND” initiative?

Smith: “I believe ‘Take a StaND’ is still a phrase used on the video board during big plays and important downs.”

OFD: Do your ushers still wear the “Take a StaND” buttons?

Smith: “The button is not part of the usher uniform, thus it is not required.”

OFD: When did the initiative get phased out?

Smith: “I do not believe the initiative has been ‘phased out.’ I believe other initiatives have taken the forefront, such as the ‘green out’ initiative.”

OFD: “I’ve collected reports from a few individuals who said they’ve been ejected from the stadium simply for refusing to comply with an usher’s order to sit. Others say they’ve asserted their right/desire to stand when asked to sit and faced no consequences. What guidance or training do you give to an usher who has asked a patron to sit based on a request and that patron is (politely) refusing?”

Smith: “Ushers are instructed to assess the situation, and make a determination based on that assessment. As mentioned above, this assessment should be initiated by a complaint, or witnessing a conflict.”

OFD: Is there a warning -- either verbal or otherwise (like a card) -- that an usher is supposed to give to the non-compliant fan before they summon security or police to eject that individual?

Smith: “The usher has several options available them. The first step should be a conversation with the involved parties to try to achieve some common ground. If necessary, the situation can be escalated to a captain, supervisor and/or Game Management Team (GMT) member. The GMT member does have the option of issuing a warning card.”

OFD: Do fans actually get ejected from the stadium simply for refusing to sit or are there always other circumstances (they were being belligerent, using foul language or engaging other people in a physical way)?

Smith: “Other than possession of alcohol, which has a zero tolerance, removal should always be our last option. In most cases, the situation becomes volatile between guests of opposing viewpoints. It is when this happens that a removal become more likely.”

OFD: If a fan would like to stand and it’s causing conflict with those in his or her section, what advice would you give to them?

Smith: “My advice to all guests would be to be courteous to your neighbor. For those wishing to stand throughout the game, you may be blocking the view of someone not physically able to stand for extended periods.

“Two examples come to mind quickly. One is 1948 ND grad. He is 93 years old, was part of the V-12 program and served in World War II. He attends most, if not all home games, and bleeds blue and gold.

“Another is a gentleman, also a huge fan, was well on his way to recovery after a devastating auto accident. His wife had purchased tickets to the game to acknowledge how far he had come in his recovery. If courtesy reigned, the guest wishing to stand, would do so during big plays, and sit during less crucial times in the game. The same would be true for the guest wishing to sit.”

OFD: Should they be proactive and ask an usher to re-seat them?

Smith: “Relocation seats are not always available. As I am sure you are aware, Notre Dame home games have been sold out for many years. This makes relocation difficult at times.”

OFD: I don’t believe Alumni Alley exists anymore, but is there a section (or are there sections) where fans who want to stand are typically relocated if requested?

Smith: “I am not aware of an ‘Alumni Alley.’ There is no established relocation area for those wishing to stand.”

OFD: If I can draw out a constant from the reports I’ve received from fans, it’s that ushers tend to assess the situation and to side with the majority. For example, if a sitter is complaining about someone being in his or her line of sight, but most people are standing, then the usher sides with the stander(s) and tries to accommodate the sitter if possible. However, if someone is standing -- and they’re the only one of a few standing in the entire section -- the usher will tend to side with the sitters and ask the stander to sit down. Is that a fair assessment of how these interactions tend to go?

Smith: “Yes, I would say this is accurate.”

OFD: I’m going to guess that most ticket holders outside of the student section prefer to sit during the games. They may stand for big plays (goal line stands, third downs), but the majority of the time they are going to assert their right to sit -- and to see the field unimpeded by other fans. Would that be fair?

Smith: “Although I have no data to support this conclusion I would also guess this is correct.”

OFD: Would you say that the “Take a StaND” initiative -- assuming it’s still active -- has not resulted in a higher percentage of fans standing at games since it was introduced in 2012?

Smith: “I think it has helped create a better environment, especially during those critical times during the game.”

OFD: Some fans who like to stand said they have started to gravitate toward night games. Have you noticed a difference?

Smith: “I have not.”

OFD: Is standing more accepted during night games (which are typically against a higher caliber opponent) and less tolerated during day games?

Smith: “The standing vs sitting issue should be handled in the same manner, no matter the start time of the game.”

OFD: I’m wondering if postmortems are ever done after the season. Do the different departments -- athletics, marketing, your group, etc. -- ever get together to discuss what is working and what is not when it comes to fan experience?

Smith: “Absolutely. The university and the usher program are always striving to enhance the fan experience.”

OFD: Are ticket holders ever solicited for their feedback - either positive or negative - regarding their interactions with other fans during the game?

Smith: “I believe everyone who purchases a ticket from the university is sent a post-game survey, asking about their fan experience. These results are shared with stakeholders in the game day experience.”

OFD: Other related issues: Is it policy for ushers to intervene when fans in non-student sections engage in pushups?

Smith: “Yes. Ushers are instructed to requests non-students to refrain from doing push-ups.”

OFD: Is this for liability or insurance purposes?

Smith: “This is definitely a liability issue. We have had several guests injured when the person being hoisted for the push-up is dropped on a nearby guest.”

OFD: What is the percentage of ushers who volunteer versus those that are paid? (This 2015 Scholastic article suggests it’s about 50/50.)

Smith: “Currently, there about 800 ushers in the program, of those, about 225 are volunteers.”

OFD: Do all ushers undergo a training before they work a game?

Smith: “In most cases a new ushers would undergo training prior to working their first game.”

OFD: Is that training done once or done annually?

Smith: “Typically, there is a training session held once a year. There is also at game day newsletter with training topics, as well as game specific information.”

OFD: Is there an usher manual that offers certain hypothetical situations and offers advice on how to resolve them?

Smith: “There is a training manual, containing university policies.”

OFD: Is there anything else about the fan experience inside Notre Dame Stadium during football games that I haven’t asked that you think is important for fans to know?

Smith: “The ushers are not the ‘fun police.’ They are in place to help ensure everyone has the best game day experience possible. In addition, the ushers do not create policies they only enforce them, and those policies are in place to make certain the guests have a safe, fun, family-friendly experience.”