An Athletic Facilities Manager’s Guide to Upping Your Fan Experience Game


What makes for a great sporting event? The competition and level of athleticism, sure, but you can get that on TV. Attending an incredible sporting event has something else. It’s the chance to get away from your normal, everyday life and spend time with your community. If you’re a young college student, maybe it’s a date night. If you’re a family of four, the Friday night soccer game is a fun time to spend with your kids and see them aspire to be like those players on the field. For an older couple whose children have left home, maybe the season’s tickets are your new tradition.

As Coordinator of Athletic Facilities, Game Operations and Champions at Duke University, I spend my days thinking about what makes for a great sporting event. Someone once described this work to me as being like a wedding planner. It’s maybe a funny comparison, but it makes sense to me. The same way a wedding doesn’t just “happen,” a football game in a stadium of 40,000 people requires massive amounts of work that most of the public never sees. 

An Investment in Our Fans

People with a Master’s degree in sports administration can go down multiple paths, most commonly professional or collegiate athletics. I think there’s something special about the collegiate athletic model that professional sports can’t duplicate. That special quality is an opportunity. College athletics is about giving someone access to an education they might not otherwise receive, whether for academic or financial reasons.

Add to that the passion these athletes bring, because for most of them they know this is the highest level they will ever play, and I believe the experience of watching college athletics is unmatchable.

There’s a real community that rallies around and supports these athletes. That’s why I was excited to be offered this role at Duke, because the team here looks at every aspect of a great game day experience. That began three years ago with the building of the new football stadium. When you invest millions in a project like that, it’s an opportunity to take a step back and not only completely rethink the physical space, but to revamp your operations as well. So now, starting from the parking lot to concessions, we look at every interaction. Because that’s what fan experience is really about: the interaction of people.

Fan experience starts in the parking lot and doesn’t end when the whistle blows.

One area where we recently considered how to improve fan experience is in our game day medical spaces. Our games with the largest number of potential interactions are football and basketball, since those are the ones that draw the largest crowds. Our football stadium has a capacity of 40,000 and our basketball arena fits a little over 9,000. This led our medical team to ask that we look into options to improve patient privacy in these medical spaces.

Creating Flexible Medical Spaces

Our medical rooms don’t often see true emergencies. For those, we send people to the hospital. What we do see is several people who need a cool, calm space where they can be taken care of and monitored by a medical professional. Maybe it’s a hot day and a fan got a bit too much sun. Perhaps someone had a bit too much to drink. Many people have ailments they manage day-to-day that can unexpectedly flare up.

For these instances, we have three concourse-level medical spaces. Two of those spaces are smaller rooms, but the largest room—which currently has three exam tables—is spacious enough to treat many more people, as needed.

One of the ways I think we can constantly improve the experience of our facilities is just by listening. You won’t know the pain points without hearing what people have to say. But it’s still up to a facilities manager to interpret that feedback. One of the things I heard from the medical team is that it would be nice to give patients more privacy when they’re in our care. Our fans are in these rooms at a vulnerable moment, which is when fan experience matters the most. Since multiple people can be treated in these larger rooms, we needed to find a way to still help many fans, yet provide them with comfort. 

Want to improve your fan experience? It all starts by listening. You can’t fix what you don’t know.

One problem in this space is that we need to use it in a variety of ways. For example, in addition to hosting football games in this stadium, this is where we hold graduation in May. This year, we saw an abnormally high number of patient treatments in this room during graduation ceremonies. This required us to use more of the space than we normally would. Any solution couldn’t limit our ability to have an open room. 

One option we considered was installing curtains that slide along tracks in the ceiling, similar to what you see in a hospital. But this just seemed like a softer version of building a wall. Again, it would limit us to some extent in what we could do.

The question became: How could we create an individualized space in a large, open area? Duke invested a lot of money in this wonderful stadium, but how could we refine what was already here, while providing ourselves the flexibility needed for future events?

It was our football game day Medical Director who came across a product that seemed to fit the bill: KwickScreen. When I looked into their solution, I instantly liked the portability as well as the ability to change the screen length and height. It seemed like this would help us divide up the room in any way we could imagine. 

The fact that KwickScreen rolls up also meant it could get out of the way when we needed open space. We also loved our ability to customize the look. Just because we deliver care comparable to a medical clinic doesn’t mean we want to place you in the ambiance of a medical clinic.  

We decided to try out KwickScreen by ordering five screens. They were customized in Duke blue and co-branded with the Duke athletic logo, what we call the Iron D, as well as the logo of Duke Life Flight, our game day medical operations partner.

Applying Success to Other Venues

We are still in early days of using these screens, but I hear the fans love them. For someone who’s just overheated, they likely just want to lie down in an air-conditioned space and sip on some water. For them, the added privacy is a nice bonus. For those individuals being treated on the exam tables, though, privacy is a much larger concern. The look and feel of these screens essentially create individual rooms. This space isn’t made to be a hospital, but we’re trying to make it as patient-friendly as possible.

And I’ve had only positive reviews from the medical staff, who have been impressed by their ease of use, and the ability to pull them out and put them back in as needed.

The mobility of the screens has me thinking about how we can use them at our basketball arena on game days. Our setup in the medical rooms at our football stadium is much more static, but basketball is an application where we could use the portability of KwickScreen. 

Over the years, there have been a few cases of major cardiac incidents on the court, so we are considering how we could use them there. Right now, if there is a medical issue on the court or in the stands, that person might feel that they have thousands people watching them. Of course, in a stadium setting, you will never be able to block all eyes off courtside, but we think using KwickScreen is a step in the right direction. We can give an athlete a greater sense of privacy if they have a medical issue on the court, or for fans in the stands.

Creating Moments of Delight for Your Fans

Every sports venue wants to believe they provide a great fan experience. There isn’t a sports facility manager who will say that isn’t their focus. And you can build out a great deal to facilitate that, but then what do you do on top of that? Changes like the one we made with KwickScreen might seem small, but it’s the little things that fans remember. 

Fan experience is in the details. Go the extra mile.

Don’t think any one thing is too small to make a difference. Search out all the potential pain points fans might experience in your venue and explore with your team all the ways you could solve those ahead of time. Look at it from all angles, get creative. It doesn’t have to be a complicated solution to better the fan experience.

KwickScreen helped us provide that little bit extra, and it’s not a complex solution—its main feature is flexibility! It’s a little things we do to let fans know how much we value them. If you have a medical issue at a football or basketball game, your experience has already diminished somewhat, maybe a lot. You’re not having a great time. Our medical rooms weren’t constructed to be full clinics, but with KwickScreen, we are doing everything we can to provide you with the same level of care you would get at a hospital, within our facility.

Remember, You’re Part of a Team

My number one tip to increase fan experience is to work with your partners and give yourself enough time so you can build on feedback for the next season. There are a lot of moving pieces, but with the right planning and the right team, you can completely transform your environment. 

To bring it back to that wedding planner analogy: There are so many people who have to work together to make a wedding a wonderful day. Guests may actually enjoy the reception venue, but if the catering didn’t consider their dietary restrictions or the mic levels weren’t set properly and grandma couldn’t hear the speeches, all of those things color how people remember their experience.

People might not think of football as being like a wedding reception, but we are in the business of bringing people together to have a wonderful time. Whether this football game is the occasion for a reunion with friends, family night, a first date, or a date with your partner of 25 years, we want your time with us to be a great experience. You might not remember all of the little things, but you’ll remember how they made you feel.