NFL American football team the Green Bay Packers remain “hopeful” that fans will return to Lambeau Field this season, and have categorically ruled out the prospect of taking games to other stadia as the local community continues to deal with COVID-19.

The Packers this month announced that due to the “concerning increase” of COVID-19 cases and hospitalisations in the Green Bay area and across the state of Wisconsin, an indefinite hold will be placed on hosting fans at Lambeau Field this season. 

In August, the Packers said Lambeau Field would not host fans for the first two home games of the 2020 regular season, with a view to changing this approach from that point onwards as part of an “incremental” strategy. However, the team believes that in order to host fans at the 81,441-capacity stadium, the area will need to see a “marked improvement” in the rate of hospitalisations, as well as the community infection rate and positivity rate. 

Packers president and CEO Mark Murphy recently said on an NFL call that Green Bay was singled out as being one of the worst hot spots for COVID-19 in the US. The weekend’s 14 Week 6 matchups saw nine games with fans in attendance, with 18 of the NFL’s 32 teams permitted to have spectators in their stadia.

Commenting on the current thought process behind having fans back at Lambeau, Packers director of public affairs, Aaron Popkey, told TheStadiumBusiness.com: “We are hopeful to host fans at some point this season.

“We are monitoring the infection level in the community; when it decreases, we’ll re-evaluate. Protocols put in place by the NFL/Packers have been approved by local healthcare partners and county health department officials. So, it’s really a matter of the infection level being too high currently.

“We’ll continue to enhance our plans based on the best practices we’re learning from stadiums that are hosting fans.”

It emerged last week that the New Orleans Saints had held talks with Louisiana State University (LSU) over holding games with fans in attendance at Tiger Stadium, as the Mercedes-Benz Superdome remains out of bounds for spectators. However, the Packers have ruled out following a similar path to reunite fans with their team. “The Packers have not considered and will not consider another stadium,” said Popkey.

The absence of fans at Lambeau comes with the Packers having become the latest NFL franchise to transition its stadium into a cashless venue. The Packers and hospitality partner Delaware North this month announced that Lambeau Field has switched to entirely cashless payment systems throughout the stadium on gamedays and non-gamedays.

This transition affects food and beverage stands, the Packers Pro Shop, the ticket office, 1919 Kitchen and Tap, the Packers Hall of Fame and Stadium Tours and other points of sale throughout the building. All Packers-operated businesses at Titletown, the mixed-use development adjacent to Lambeau, are also now cashless.

Originally planned to take place over the next few seasons, the transition to cashless points of sale has been advanced in order for the Packers to introduce it this year as the pandemic continues. Popkey explained: “The expedited reason was the pandemic. It’s not accurate to describe us as holding back, this was simply a matter of phasing in.

“We’ve been undergoing some phased renovations in our concourses and had planned on it to be further completed before this was rolled out so all of the stands could be faster due to their new layouts and going cashless.”

Gameday parking is initially set to be excluded from the cashless switch. Popkey said: “Our Wi-Fi systems are not set up in our outer parking lots and we did not have the time to set up the system on cellular devices. This also is an example of how it initially was to be phased in over the next couple years.”

Working in association with Delaware North, Popkey states that installing new hardware and software has been the main challenge in transitioning Lambeau to the cashless experience. He added: “Regarding hardware, we needed to purchase new payment devices which allow for a variety of contactless payment methods to be accepted.

“We also needed to find a cost-effective solution for fans to exchange their cash for cards. Regarding Delaware North, they have managed a lot of this for us by helping identify partners for both the reverse ATMs and the more manual cash-to-card conversion stations which will be available in the concourse on gameday.

“They’ve also been a resource to help on best practices from their contacts around the other facilities they work in around the country.”

The Packers are also preparing for a 5G future after US telecommunications company Verizon last week announced Lambeau Field among 19 new US stadiums and arenas that employ its 5G Ultra Wideband network.

Commenting on the potential to harness 5G technology, Popkey said: “When 5G is available in Lambeau Field, it will boost the ability of fans to engage in the online platforms they’ve come to enjoy on gameday at an even more robust level. As we’ve been enhancing our cellular and Wi-Fi capabilities at the stadium in recent years, this adds to that effort.”

While fans currently can’t be present at Lambeau Field, the constant evolution of the fan experience is still front and centre in team considerations in what is a hyper-competitive NFL marketplace. “We are always evaluating opportunities to improve, based on our own experiences as well as best practices from other facilities,” Popkey added.

“We’ve had positive experiences with the concession stands we’ve converted to grab-and-go, and are converting more. We are also enhancing our signage and other audio and visual components to the gameday experience. We continue to enhance our cellular and Wi-Fi coverage, including upgrades to both systems this season.”

Images: Green Bay Packers