Millions of spectators attend sports/entertainment events across the globe every year. And with that massive audience comes the ever-present threat of violence or terrorist acts.
Since 2006, the National Center for Spectator Sports Safety and Security (NCS4) has established training and protocols to mitigate potential risks associated with high-attendance venues. Housed at The University of Southern Mississippi (USM) in Hattiesburg, Miss., NCS4 remains the nation’s only academic center devoted to the study and practice of spectator sports safety and security.
NCS4 Executive Director Dr. Stacey Hall says that while the Center has experienced considerable growth over the past 17 years, the focus has not shifted.
“Our mission has not changed since day one,” said Hall. “We strive to support the sport and entertainment industries through training, education, research, and outreach initiatives. However, our training and educational resources have evolved over the years to address industry needs and emerging threats.”
The NCS⁴ works closely with professional sports leagues and venues, intercollegiate and interscholastic athletic programs, marathon and endurance events and entertainment facilities along with professional associations, private sector firms and government agencies.
Its partnerships bring together professionals from government, industry, public safety, private enterprise, and academia to explore lessons learned and share ideas about best practices, proven strategies, training and certification needs and technology solutions for sport safety and security challenges.
The NCS4 is partially funded by grants from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). The Center’s first grant – $3.2 million – in 2006 focused on developing and delivering risk management training to intercollegiate safety and security teams. Fast-forward to 2023 and NCS4 has seven FEMA-approved courses in its training catalog covering topics such as incident management, evacuation management, crisis communications and crowd management.
“Our target audience has also expanded to multi-agency teams responsible for safety and security operations of sports and special events,” said Hall. “So, we are now training folks across the country who are responsible for wide-ranging events in their area, from professional sports to college events, festivals, local marathons and/or parades.”
Since 2006, the NCS4 has trained more than 35,000 individuals across the United States, and that number continues to grow each year. The Center’s original training program included 25 deliveries and has since expanded to more than 200 courses nationwide, featuring a world-class instructor cadre of 60 subject matter experts.
Lauren Cranford, NCS4 Director of Operations, joined the team in early 2008 and helped create the acclaimed training program with assistance from subject matter experts across the country.
“This program quickly put us on the map, and now we have become a leader in sports safety and security in the world,” said Cranford. “We realized early-on the importance of technology and industry engagement and have worked to collaborate with solution providers to strengthen relationships with the end-user to help solve problems and increase efficiency.”
Cranford also played an instrumental role in developing what has become the Center’s crown jewel – the National Sports Safety and Security Conference and Exhibition.
“This conference is now in its 14th year and is seen as a ‘must-attend event’ in our industry,” said Cranford. “We attract up to 600 attendees and have an exhibition hall with more than 70 companies. This event led to planning smaller events called industry forums where we create and update Best Practices guides for the industry.”
During its infancy, Center officials understood the importance of developing partnerships with key industry leaders. Today, the NCS4 features a National Advisory Board comprised of 30 safety and security professionals representing organizations such as the National Football League, the National Hockey League, the Professional Golfers Association Tour, Walt Disney World, and INTERPOL.
Jeff Stonebreaker, Senior Vice President of Safety and Security for Major League Soccer (MLS), serves as an NCS4 Advisory Board member and has been affiliated with the Center since 2008. He notes that the relationship between MLS and NCS4 yields invaluable benefits.
“Soccer is a global sport and has a unique blend of domestic challenges combined with international influences,” said Stonebreaker. “The Center works with a very diverse cross-section of practitioners and technologies which is very beneficial when solving these issues. We want a best-in-class experience in a safe and secure environment. Leveraging the collective experience and technology often provides new solutions to old challenges.”
He adds: “Communication is the age-old challenge and real communication only occurs within relationships. The Center brings people together who have a common goal and enables networks of networks that increase information sharing and break down the ‘way we’ve always done it’ obstacles. These relationships transcend sport, concert, or venue and allow candid assessments and actual improvement.”
Hall became the Center’s Executive Director in 2020 following the retirement of founding Director Dr. Lou Marciani. She served as Associate Director from the Center’s inception until 2013. She concedes that taking on such a demanding position at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic was less than ideal.
“I would say that 2020 and 2021 were probably the toughest and most challenging years of my career thus far,” said Hall. “Regardless, I was very excited for the opportunity to return to the Center and lead our future work.”
The Center typically employs between 10-12 full-time staffers, three graduate assistants, and a student worker. Hall has plans to add another 1-2 staff members in the near future.
“The Center’s success is not dependent on any one person’s work, but a dedicated team invested in its mission,” said Hall. ‘I am fortunate to have an excellent leadership team and committed staff who have been resilient and willing to explore new projects. While navigating COVID-19, we modified programs and services and created new outlets to deliver resources to the industry.”
After an initial review period of the Center’s operations, Hall restructured staff and organizational resources to align with three key pillars that define the NCS4: training and education, research, and outreach.
Highlights connected to these pillars include:
Training and Education
Trained more than 80,000 individuals across all training and educational programs (over 30,000 specifically through FEMA courses with the help of partners at TEEX (Texas A&M Extension Service) and Texas A&M University.
Developed an emphasis area in sport security as part of the MBA and Sport Management programs in the USM College of Business and Economic Development.
Successfully launched an eLearning suite – NCS4Learn.
Completed the INTERPOL Project Stadia training program.
Produced the first industry research reports on venue director and spectator perceptions of safety and security measures and technology solutions.
The significant collection of staff and research affiliate publications through textbooks, book chapters, and peer-reviewed journal articles.
Offering many valuable resources, such as industry Best Practices that have been shared since 2013. Just last year transitioned these guides to an online platform for quick and easy access in the field. Recently collaborated with the DHS CISA on guidelines and considerations, co-branding a touchless security screening guide and stadium cybersecurity considerations guide.
Hosting the annual conference and exhibition. The last two years have seen record attendance and sponsor/exhibitor participation at the annual conference where top security professionals gather for educational sessions, networking, and exposure to innovative technology solutions.
Steve Georgas, Chief Security Officer for Levy, also serves as an NCS4 Advisory Board member. Levy specializes in premium quality vending and food services at major entertainment, sports venues, high-profile special events, convention centers, cultural institutions, and restaurants throughout North America.
When asked why a center of NCS4’s caliber occupies such a significant place in the world of sports safety and security, Georgas said, “For a number of reasons. Partnership with TEEX and DHS to provide free training to both the public and private sector; using academia to research and strategize around new ideas, technologies, and concepts; networking and sharing of ideas and challenges not only in your space but other spaces as well. We learn best from each other and having a place for a think tank of open and frank conversations is incredibly powerful.”
Hall points out that the value of having the NCS4 located on the campus at USM cannot be overestimated.
“It is priceless,” she said. “Our affiliation with USM, an R1 Carnegie classification institution, enables us to produce research that advances theory and supports the continuous improvement of professional practices. Additionally, the reach of our FEMA courses alone across the country with the USM/NCS4 brand attached enhances awareness and recognition.”
What started out as an idea between faculty members at a university in the heart of South Mississippi has blossomed into an internationally recognized center of excellence in spectator sports safety and security.