COVID, Cashless and Popcorn: The return of NFL fans

Miami Dolphins president Tom Garfinkel shared insights into bringing crowds back to Hard Rock Stadium alongside international guests during a webinar hosted by global catering firm Sodexo.

Including extracts from the company’s latest research partnership with Harris Interactive, the hour-long session revealed increased caution on the part of some fans to return to venues anytime soon – but also an acceleration of technology and service innovation across the catering and hospitality offer. 

Opening the discussion from Paris, Sodexo’s global CEO for leisure Nathalie Bellon-Szabo said: “Sports events are coming back but it’s a slow process. We believe in sharing best practice across our businesses so that is why we have organised this webinar.”

Even when restrictions on sporting events are loosened there is considerable nervousness among fans to return, with the Harris Interactive data showing distinct differences across markets. Fans in the USA and France are significantly more comfortable about returning to stadia than their counterparts, for example, in the UK and Spain. There is also, universally it would appear, a higher level of concern among the 55+ age demographic.

Research from Harris Interactive for Sodexo/Centerplate

With the scene set, the discussions moved to Tom Garfinkel (pictured), president of the Miami Dolphins.

News outlets report that Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has told the Miami Dolphins they can have a full capacity crowd, but the team is keeping attendance capped. 

Garfinkel noted that the team had been looking at social distancing options back in May and had arrived at a “13,000 capacity based on 6ft social distancing” in the 65,000-capacity venue. 

Before that, back in March, the Dolphins organisation “got creative” about alternative event ideas based on smaller, COVID-safe crowds. These included the drive-in movie theatre set-up in stadium and an outdoor theatre space alongside the stadium, where it has also held graduations. 

The Dolphins also launched Gameday Theater at Hard Rock Stadium and a Virtual Membership Pass. The Gameday Theater uses the existing outdoor theatre setup that has been operating since June to broadcast Dolphins home and away games on the complex’s fountain plaza video board, providing a self-contained, socially distanced entertainment environment for 386 people.

But the key focus has been getting fans back into the bowl. “We looked at every aspect of the customer journey. What could we make touchless, contactless? How could we provide ingress and egress with no bottlenecks?” explained Garfinkel.

“We looked at every aspect of the customer journey. What could we make touchless, contactless?”


Hard Rock Stadium operated with a 13,000 capacity limit for its NFL home opener against the Buffalo Bills on September 20.

All fans must wear a mask in the stadium main bowl and maintain social distancing.

“Even if it’s only 13,000 fans, it’s better than none,” Garfinkel said. “It’s good for the team and for fans.”

But it’s a very different fan experience. Tailgating has been eliminated and catering provided via in-seat ordering and cashless payment. Fans must arrive within set timeframes and use specific gates. And it’s unlikely that the fans will notice the state-of-the-art air filtration systems or the top global hygiene standards which have been implemented.

Behind the scenes, Sodexo’s Centerplate operation has found new ways of creating and serving dishes to be compliant with COVID safety guidance. 

Garfinkel reports that generally fans have been very respectful and understanding of the rules: “Sitting outdoors in a stadium with a mask on is different. But we said from the outset that if you don’t want to wear a mask, then don’t come. Everybody has adjusted on every aspect of their life and coming to a football game is no different.”

An upside has been an increase in the per caps (spend per head) on food and beverage. With no tailgating option, hungry fans must opt for the in-seat ordering services – and the cashless payment requirement has aided the increased spend. The team is also able to pass on the sales tax at the point of sale, rather than absorbing the 7% within fixed-dollar pricing. 

But, Garfinkel warns, deal with the popcorn risk.

With fans permitted to lower their masks when eating, slow-munching of popcorn with masks down was evident at the first game. 

“We’ve now removed popcorn from the menu.”

Images: Sodexo webinar/Harris Interactive