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Spectator Violence in Stadiums

Guide No. 54 (2008)

by Tamara D. Madensen and John E. Eck

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The Problem of Spectator Violence in Stadiums

What This Guide Does and Does Not Cover

This guide addresses the problem of spectator violence in stadiums and other arena-type settings. It begins with a discussion of the factors that contribute to such incidents. It then presents a list of questions to help you analyze problems of spectator violence in your jurisdiction. Finally, it reviews responses to the problem, and what is known about them from evaluative research and police practice.

Spectator violence in stadiums is part of a larger set of problems related to misbehavior in sport and concert arenas. It is also related to issues of crowd control at other types of locations. However, this guide addresses only the particular harms that result from spectator-related conflicts occurring within and directly outside stadiums. Related problems not directly addressed in this guide include

Each of the above problems has a specific opportunity structure and therefore requires separate analysis and response. You may find that these related problems have opportunity structures that overlap with the opportunity structure for spectator violence. By eliminating the opportunity for spectator violence, you can also reduce opportunities for other types of harm (e.g., terrorist acts or underage drinking). Nevertheless, each problem warrants individual attention. Some of these related problems are covered in other guides in this series, all of which are listed at the end of this guide. For the most up-to-date listing of current and future guides, see www.popcenter.org.

General Description of the Problem

Policing stadium crowds is a difficult task. Spectator aggression is often only one of many public safety concerns.1 Police are forced to balance the interests of many different parties (e.g., performers who want audience participation, owners and vendors who wish to generate profits). Obviously, police cannot address all causes of spectator violence. It would be difficult to convince team owners that they should discourage highly dedicated fans. In addition, police must protect individuals' rights while maintaining an orderly environment. While spectators have rights, police should not tolerate property destruction and threats or acts of violence.2

Spectator violence in stadiums has been a longstanding tradition.§ Documentation of such events is found in texts from ancient Greece and the Roman Empire.3 These incidents can occur wherever fans gather, including sports competitions (e.g., baseball, basketball, boxing, football, hockey, soccer) and entertainment events (e.g., music concerts, dog shows, theatrical productions). Violence at these events is rare in North America compared with European countries, particularly when compared with violence at soccer matches in Britain, Italy, Germany, the Netherlands, and Belgium.4 Problems with "football hooligans" in Britain are so widespread that violence occurring at events elsewhere has been labeled the "spread of the English Disease."5 Violence levels tend to vary by type of entertainment or sporting event and across cultures.6 While no single factor can explain why there is less spectator violence in North America,7 such events' negative impact can be great and warrant specific attention. Recent events, such as the violent outbreak at the 2004 Indiana Pacers and Detroit Pistons basketball game,8 highlight the need for careful planning and prevention efforts. Failure to prevent these incidents can produce a variety of negative consequences, including injury to spectators, entertainers, and security personnel; decreased public confidence; damage to the reputation of the facility and those providing the entertainment; and property destruction.9

§ In this guide, we address both actual and threatened incidents of violence. We use the terms violence and aggression interchangeably to refer to such incidents. We also use the terms stadium and arena interchangeably, while acknowledging that arenas are generally smaller and more often enclosed than stadiums.

The six most common forms of spectator aggression are as follows:

  1. Verbal—singing, chanting, and yelling taunts or obscenities
  2. Gesturing—signaling to others with threatening or obscene motions
  3. "Missile" throwing—throwing items such as food, drinks, bricks, bottles, broken seats, and cell phones at particular or random targets
  4. Swarming—rushing the field or stage and trying to crash the gates to gain entry, or rushing the exit, both of which may result in injury or death from trampling
  5. Property destruction—knocking down sound systems, tearing up the playing field, and burning/damaging the venue or others' property
  6. Physical—spitting, kicking, shoving, fistfights, stabbings, and shootings.10

Little documentation is available to help us develop a profile of those most likely to engage in the above behaviors. We do know that when physical violence is documented, the perpetrators are most often male.11 Studies of university students suggest that males are more likely than females to consider acts of aggression at sporting events, although this difference becomes less pronounced when less physical forms of aggression are considered.12 Reports of spectator ejections from sporting events suggest that rowdy and abusive fans tend to be middle-class professionals,13 although ticket prices likely influence this finding. Like the level of violence, we should expect the type of violent spectator to change based on the form of entertainment provided. While middle-class adult males are more likely to become aggressive at sporting events, young adolescent girls may exhibit similar behaviors at a boy-band concert.

The forms of violence outlined above can take place between spectators and others in and around the venue. Violence can occur between the following:

  • Two or more spectators, or groups of spectators
  • Spectators and entertainers—entertainers include those engaged in competition, coaches, referees, and performers
  • Spectators and stadium personnel—personnel include security as well as general employees
  • Spectators and the venue—the venue includes all physical structures and properties, both permanent and temporary (e.g., vehicles), present during the event

You can generally classify spectator violence as either spontaneous or organized.14 Organized violence is very rare in the United States and is seen more often in European sport matches that attract large numbers of hardcore fans from other countries. These fans form "gangs" who attend events intending to cause a disturbance. U.S. events tend to experience more spontaneous violence resulting from an overzealous or intoxicated crowd (e.g., wild dancing in a so-called "mosh pit"). It is important to distinguish between organized and spontaneous violence, since each requires different solutions. Specific factors that contribute to spontaneous spectator violence are explored below.

Factors Contributing to Spectator Violence in Stadiums

Understanding the factors that contribute to problems in your jurisdiction will help you frame your own local analysis questions, determine effectiveness measures, recognize key intervention points, and select appropriate responses.

It is important to recognize the characteristics of each venue, event, and available staff that may increase fan aggression. No single characteristic of these elements can guarantee that violence will or will not occur. However, a combination of poorly designed physical environments, high-energy events, and poorly trained or inexperienced staff will increase the likelihood of spectator violence.

Local analysis may reveal unique characteristics of your venue, event, or staff that facilitate violence. Your analysis should be based on the spectator violence triangle (Figure 1) that incorporates these major elements. This triangle is a modification of the widely used problem analysis triangle (see www.popcenter.org for a description). The relative importance of each side of the triangle will vary from event to event. Fixing problematic characteristics on any one side of the triangle may reduce the likelihood of spectator violence. Fixing more than one side should give greater assurance that your preventive efforts will work.

Figure 1 also lists specific characteristics of venues, events, and staff found to be related to higher levels of spectator violence in stadiums. While some of these factors may be difficult or impossible to change, it is important to understand how each contributes to the likelihood of aggression. Each of these is described next.

Figure 1. Spectator violence triangle and specific causes of spectator violence.
Figure 1. Spectator violence triangle and specific causes of spectator violence.

Venue Characteristics

There are more than 360 sports stadiums and arenas in the United States,15 and while some share similar features, each is unique. Research and analysis of publicized incidents suggest that specific characteristics of stadiums and arenas are associated with higher levels of spectator violence. Five of these features are discussed below.

Performance proximity. Violence between spectators and entertainers is more likely to occur when there is less physical distance between them. Those in the front row of concerts are better able to reach out and grab performers,16 fans with courtside seats can stretch their legs to trip players,17 and fans can throw objects or jump onto a baseball field or into a hockey penalty box to assault players, coaches, or referees.18 Verbal insults and other aggressive behavior by spectators close to the action can also prompt retaliatory behavior from entertainers who feel threatened or disrespected.19

Noise level. Researchers have found that extreme noise levels increase the likelihood of interpersonal aggression.20 This implies that spectator violence is more likely to be a concern at very loud concerts or for those who are closer to amplification systems. It has also been suggested that noise meters, used to indicate the crowd's volume and encourage spectators to yell and cheer more loudly at sporting events, may encourage obnoxious behaviors that set the stage for spectator aggression.21

Seating arrangements. One of the most consistent findings regarding higher levels of aggression in stadiums relates to the type of seating available to spectators. Individual seats are related to lower violence levels, while general admission seating that requires spectators to stand, often referred to as festival seating, generates higher violence levels.22 While all crowds eventually become mobile, when entering and exiting the stadium, it appears that assigned seating helps maintain order during the event. When seats are not assigned, enthusiastic fans will try to push their way toward the stage, and crush those ahead of them.23 Empty spaces without seats can encourage moshing or provide places to start bonfires. However, individual seats do not guarantee a violence-free event. People who move into unoccupied seats or toward railings can instigate aggression if they refuse to move when the ticket holder arrives or if they block the view of those seated directly behind access barriers.24 In addition, temporary seats not bolted to the floor can become weapons.

Place reputation. Some places experience more violence than others. Some banks are robbed more. Some bars experience more fights between patrons. Therefore, it is not surprising to find that some stadiums experience more violence than others. If left unaddressed, routine violence at a particular venue may contribute to a negative reputation or promote the view that violence is tolerated, or even expected, at the location. Stadiums where conflict is seen as routine or customary may attract people looking to cause trouble or encourage violent behavior among average spectators.25 Venues hosting high-profile events that receive intensive media coverage can also attract people who will act aggressively to see themselves on television or their name in print.26

Temperature. Studies have found a positive relationship between heat and both spectator and performer aggression. As the temperature increases in stadiums and arenas, so does the likelihood of violence.27 Spectators may also drink more alcohol to "warm up" in cold weather conditions, thus increasing the likelihood of aggressive behavior. Enclosed venues have an advantage over open-air venues since you can regulate the facility's internal temperature to avoid extreme temperatures.

Stadium location. Residents often oppose the construction of new stadiums because they fear increased violence, noise, litter, and parking troubles that will drive down residential property values.28 While these facilities' potential negative impact is often discussed, the surrounding community's impact on stadium events is not. Stadiums in inner cities may face different problems from stadiums in suburban neighborhoods. For example, an inner-city facility is more likely to experience problems with aggressive panhandling than a suburban facility. It is important to consider how existing community problems may impact the likelihood of violence at stadium events.

Event Characteristics

Every event brings with it a unique set of circumstances. A different collection of individual fans, differing numbers of attendees, and anticipated or unanticipated outcomes are just a few of the factors that vary across events, even when the setting remains constant. Below we discuss six event characteristics that have been previously associated with spectator violence in stadiums.

Crowd demographics. As mentioned previously, males are more likely to engage in violent behaviors. Acts that tend to attract more males, particularly younger males, are more likely to generate violence than acts that draw demographically mixed crowds. Event organizers reduced violence at the Australian Motorcycle Grand Prix by promoting the event as a family experience.29 Obviously, one would expect less violence at a Barry Manilow concert than at a punk or metal rock music concert. Sporting events with less "away team" supporters' involvement are less likely to produce violent incidents. European soccer matches experience serious spectator aggression when some fans "invade the pitch" (charge the playing field); fans of one team rush toward fans of the other team in the stands. Research also suggests that venues hosting teams with highly dedicated fans are also more likely to experience spectator violence.30

Event significance. An event considered significant can provoke aggression among spectators.31 For example, an important victory can produce celebratory rioting within the stadium or in adjacent parking lots or neighborhoods.32 An increase in emergency room visits has been documented following celebratory victories after highly charged games.33 Other research has shown that violence is more likely to occur at games where the teams have played each other previously in the same season, and when intradivisional rivals are playing.34

Performance quality. Spectators may be more likely to act out if their team performs poorly.35 Aggression in sports fans has been associated with team performances that did not live up to spectator expectations.36 Crowds have been known to verbally taunt and throw objects at bad concert performers. Audience members at Weird Al Yankovic's first concert threw objects at him and his band and booed loudly until they left the stage.37

Alcohol availability. Special considerations must be made if event organizers decide to make alcohol available at a particular event. There is a large body of research that suggests intoxication is related to aggressive behavior. While drinking does not "drive" people to act violently, alcohol can impair the judgment of people who are predisposed to violent behavior. Excessive drinking can cause people to act overconfidently and carelessly, lose awareness of their surroundings, and react violently to people they perceive as offensive.38 Studies of college students have found a link between sports, binge drinking, and problems associated with high intoxication levels.39 In addition, if people drink alcohol from glass bottles, they can become weapons in an altercation.

Crowding. Another factor contributing to increased levels of spectator aggression is crowding.40 Crowding increases the likelihood of violence for a variety of reasons: it limits mobility, increases the likelihood of unwanted physical contact between spectators, and increases wait times for entry, purchases, and exiting. A major difference between British and North American soccer is that North American venues are generally less crowded.41 Larger crowds are also theoretically more likely to have more people willing to engage in violent behaviors.

Crowding increases the likelihood of violence because it limits mobility, increases the likelihood of unwanted contact between spectators and increases wait times for entry, purchases, and exit.

Crowding increases the likelihood of violence because it limits mobility, increases the likelihood of unwanted contact between spectators and increases wait times for entry, purchases, and exit. Credit: Michael Scott


Performer behavior. An event's performers can influence spectators' behavior.42 Artists' failure to perform has incited riots.43 Violence and looting at the Woodstock 1999 concert began during Limp Bizkit's performance of the song "Break Stuff."44 Research has found that spectator violence commonly follows player violence during soccer and football games, and to a lesser degree, during baseball and hockey games.45 Other studies suggest that player fights can attract people who are more likely to engage in and escalate spectator aggression.46

Event duration. A stadium event's actual duration is always longer than the time allotted for it. The assembly and dispersal process can significantly lengthen the time of larger and more popular events and thus allow more time for spectators to engage in violent behaviors. Pre- and post-event socialization (e.g., tailgating) is an integral part of many sporting and concert events, and spectators often drink large quantities of alcohol during that time. A variety of serious injuries, including death, have occurred during tailgating activities at recent events.47 Failure to develop violence prevention strategies that target pre- and post-game activities can increase the likelihood of spectator violence.

Staff Characteristics

Stadium and arena personnel, including security and others working at the event, are a critical component of any strategy designed to reduce spectator violence. There are four important characteristics of stadium personnel that have been linked to spectator violence: training, experience, presence, and communication. In general, venues that employ staff with little training and experience, fail to provide an adequate number of personnel, and do not provide personnel with clear directives and lines of communication are more likely to experience problems with spectator violence. We discuss each factor below.

Training. Security and other employees can reduce or increase spectator frustration and aggression. Personnel are often asked to perform duties that can instigate fan violence; for example, personnel must manage crowded parking environments, confiscate contraband from spectators as they enter the venue, ensure that fans are sitting in their assigned seats, and manage crowds that form to purchase items or receive free promotional materials (e.g., free memorabilia on fan-appreciation night).48 Private-sector security personnel can be less effective if they do not receive adequate training on how to manage these situations,49 particularly if they are hired to police a single event at an unfamiliar venue. Police personnel typically have experience dealing with disorderly people, but need specialized training that draws their attention to potential points of conflict at the venue. If alcohol is served, staff should be trained to recognize intoxication, correctly check identification, and handle inebriated fans.50

Experience. Too many inexperienced staff may lessen the effectiveness of event management strategies. Inexperienced staff who cannot identify potential threats and respond to them appropriately may not only allow spectator violence to occur, but also instigate or escalate violent situations.51 One of the most famous incidents of violence between fans and inexperienced security occurred at California Altamont Speedway when the Rolling Stones hired a local Hells Angels chapter to provide security for a free concert. An 18-year-old female flashed a gun and was stabbed to death by a Hells Angels member.52 Even with training, inexperienced personnel may become tense or agitated in high-stress situations. Spectators report that challenging or negative police attitudes have contributed to fan violence incidents.53

Presence. Staff presence, particularly that of security personnel, influences fan violence in several ways. First, an adequate number of staff must be present to secure the event. The multiple functions of a venue require that security be present in a number of locations to handle traffic enforcement, entry points, assigned seating, stage or field security, performers' safety as they move throughout the venue, and so forth.54

Second, event planners must balance the need for visible security as a deterrent with the problem of aggression that the presence of too many uniformed officers may instigate.55 There are several types of people who may act to control spectator behavior,56 including the following:

  • Friends or relatives at the event may have a calming effect or directly intervene to pacify the spectator if he or she gets aggressive
  • Police or private-contract security who are directly tasked with monitoring and controlling spectator behavior can respond to the incident
  • Stadium staff assigned to nonsecurity functions (e.g., ushers, ticket-takers, vendors) can directly intervene or call for security
  • Other spectators can act as peacemakers or alert security if violence occurs

However, our discussion of the costs and benefits associated with the presence of security staff relates most directly to police and private-contract security who wear uniforms or other attire that signifies their role as law enforcers.

Beyond the simple presence of security staff, the overpolicing of an event can increase spectator violence. Searching every vehicle, conducting pat downs, requiring spectators to walk through metal detectors, and using police dogs, while necessary at only a few high-risk events, can cause excessive delays, can increase frustration and worry, and may contribute to spectator violence.57

Finally, the type of interaction that takes place between spectators and staff can influence fan violence. Low levels of positive interpersonal interaction between security and fans have been linked to higher levels of spectator misbehavior.58 Encouraging positive interactions (e.g., disarming angry spectators by using humor) can help staff develop rapport with the crowd and maintain order.59

Communication. Almost every study on maintaining stadium order stresses the importance of an effective command post. A clear chain of command must be established so that staff performing various functions can both receive orders to act and report potential or immediate threats. Communication breakdowns during post-Super Bowl celebrations in Boston have been blamed for extensive property damage, serious injuries, and one death.60 Commanders must be able to effectively collect and analyze intelligence relayed from the field.61 Staff also should be clear about their assigned roles and what to do in emergency situations to avoid creating a chaotic atmosphere.

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