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Crowds and fines

Crowd control is a serious policy problem for people in charge of sporting events. Sporting events combine the potential for raw emotion, dramatic shifts in outcome, and mass mob-like behavior - a potentially volatile mix that occasionally combusts. In the wake of the Detroit bust-up last year, this blog was one of the few places which charged arena management with a large share of responsibility for the incident.

Although the print media did not reflect this view widely at the time, it appears to have sunk in. Reaction to the player-fan incident with Antonio Davis is an example. Blame was placed not on Davis (in part due to an appreciation of his character), but rather on league policy.

In the past few days, one policy response to crowd trouble has surfaced in the news. After Tennessee toppled previously unbeaten Florida in a thrilling basketball game last Saturday, the students rushed the court in obligatory fashion. The SEC's response: we have a policy, and it calls for a fine when fans storm the court after the game. Tennessee was thus hit with a $5,000 fine, a threatened increase to $25,000 for the next offense, and $50,000 thereafter. The message to schools: do something, or your upset wins are going to be more expensive in the future.

Last night, South Carolina beat the 4th-ranked Gators in Columbia, but the fans stayed in the stands. The Gamecocks were at risk for the $25,000, having been hit with the smaller fine when students stormed the court after a victory against Kentucky last year. The SEC's policy may be working.

By their nature, crowds may seem impossible to control. But the SEC's recent experience suggests that a plan plus a price offers a way to reduce unruly, and potentially dangerous behavior. The recent games with Florida are just an anecdote however, and I'd be interested in seeing a statistical test of the policy's effectiveness.

Update: Greg at the Sports Law Blog adds to his series of sharp commentaries on crowd control, and links to some fact-checking by ESPN's Andy Katz. Katz notes that the Big Ten is the only conference with a policy similar to the SEC. Their policy begins with a private warning, followed by public admonishment, then a monetary fine of $10,000 for the third offense. The private warning part seems dainty and ineffective. The essence of the problem is to send signals to the public on how they are expected to behave, and the first stage in the Big Ten's policy ducks the issue. But at least they have a policy.