FanZones in the park: politics, economics & public health
After more than a year of cancelled or postponed events across the UK (and further afield), there are finally some positive signs for the sector as the pandemic restrictions slowly ease. The event sector is seeing green shots of recovery with new guidance governing the return of festivity in a manner that protects public health while giving audiences the opportunity to get out and enjoy themselves again. We’ve even seen better weather recently! The arrival of the Euro2020 football extravaganza to the UK (and other host countries) this week represents a key milestone for governments across the UK, coinciding with an opening up of hospitality and related sectors. However, the relaxation of some COVID restrictions in Scotland has been accompanied by a controversial plan to stage a 6000 per day capacity fan zone in one of Glasgow’s public parks as part of the UEFA Euro 2020 soccer tournament. This has generated some heated debate that talks to wider issues associated with the staging of events in urban public spaces. In this post, I reflect on the controversy and consider what it might mean for future discussion about the appropriateness of using public space to host commercially-oriented festivities.
First, it’s important to recognise that fan zones have been an increasingly prominent feature of staging sport events for at least the last 15 years and they are now enshrined in the contractual obligations when securing the rights to host these events. Fan zones are normally organised by host cities though they are also offered as prime real estate for official sponsors and local vendors to activate their brands to a captive audience, representing ‘official’ UEFA events. They are normally free, though entry is controlled (sometimes by ticketing), and as venues they are invariably dressed in official marketing regalia. They are also normally held in central public spaces including city squares, parks or streetscapes in order to welcome visiting fans (when travel was possible) and host city residents, maximising engagement with a larger audience. They are seen as important means to produce the ‘festival atmosphere’ that these sport events seek to generate outside of the official sporting venues, and often include cultural offerings to carer for a different target market.
In 2020, for the first time, the UEFA European Football Championships, (hereafter Euro2020), adopted a multi-host strategy with 12 cities across the continent hosting group matches, culminating in the final to be staged at Wembley Stadium in London. Part of the each host city’s contractual agreement with UEFA was the staging of fan zones. Of course, these plans were thrown into disarray with the cancellation of the 2020 tournament and its rescheduling in 2021, when expectations were that the pandemic would be over, or at least under control. As it happens, the impact of the pandemic continued to affect planning for the Euro2020 event, including the viability of organising fan zones at a time when public health risks remain relatively high.
In Glasgow, the viability of the fan zones being staged in Glasgow Green has become a political, economic and public heath issue. Politically, Glasgow City Council and the Scottish Government approved the fan zone in line with COVID protocols. Initially, the fan zone was identified as a pilot event to test readiness for other sporting and cultural events in the summer of 2021. However, it soon became clear that the event was going to be licensed to serve alcohol (approved by the Glasgow Licensing Board) and this initiated heated debate on the suitability of the event at a time when Glasgow had just exited the UK’s strictest COVID restrictions (level 3) which had significantly impacted the hospitality industry. A spokesman for the Scottish Hospitality Group, representing pubs and restaurants, accused the government of giving the industry a ‘slap in the face‘ by allowing alcohol to be served in the fan zone and going against its own advice with the absence of compulsory testing before entry.
Local newspapers also exerted political pressure, criticising the Scottish Government and the host local authority for even considering fan zones at a time when Glasgow’s economy is suffering and the management of the pandemic remains precarious. This criticism also focused on the role of UEFA and its commercial imperatives. In the article ‘UEFA Fan Zone – thanks, but no thanks‘, the Evening Times newspaper focused on the effect of the event’s disruption on local people, the sterile atmosphere it would create and the benefits to UEFA over the host city, stating “Tickets are free but there will surely be ways of parting people from their cash once they are safely inside. There will undoubtedly be Uefa merchandise, and as is the norm at these events if there is alcohol on sale it will be that of one of the sponsors[…]Uefa will dictate what you drink and how much you pay for it[…]Too often fans are herded, put into ‘fan zones’ told what they can and cannot drink, what merchandise they can buy, with strict licensing rules backed up by local enforcement“.
Elsewhere in the Festspace project we have talked about how public space has been subject to the vagaries of privatisation and commercialisation, affecting who can access and use these spaces and at what cost. While on the surface, these COVID-secure, well organised and ‘safe’ fan zones seem like the perfect way of minimising public health risks, benefitting local business and providing much-needed festive atmospheres for people to enjoy, it is also important to point out that the host city (Glasgow) pays to stage these UEFA sanctioned events, to the technical requirements of the awarding agency, using the city’s public green spaces. Local businesses are rarely involved in delivering the hospitality service, unless they can meet stringent supplier requirements and they are also often prevented from advertising in and around these fan zones (venues) under the legislation passed to facilitate the hosting of the event in the city (see the UEFA European Championships (Scotland) Bill). Moreover, the staging of the fan zone in Glasgow Green, an intensively used outdoor ‘venue’, is also controversial, especially as local people have little meaningful say in the decision-making process. Again as the Evening Times article powerfully articulates:
“Just like football at certain levels is being taken away from the people so are our public spaces[…]to have a large section of the park (Glasgow Green) deemed out of bounds by a remote organisation like Uefa will be less than pleasing. It is a thoroughly depressing sight to walk or cycle along a path in the park to then come up against a ten-foot high fence[…]Our parks and public spaces belong to the people of Glasgow. They do not belong to the council. They do not belong to Glasgow Life. They do not belong to DF concerts and they certainly do not belong to Uefa“
However, while there are public health and public policy concerns about the use of public space for fan zones, these events also represent an opportunity for the arts and cultural sectors, badly hit by the pandemic, to perform to audiences for the first time in over a year. While fan zones are UEFA-branded events, they also enable local hosts to showcase their cultural offer, and provide free family-oriented entertainment and sporting opportunities. The Glasgow Fan Zones Festival offers 23 days of music, comedy, film and family activities organised in a COVID-secure managed space. Without the resource being invested in staging an event of this scale, these events would be unlikely to take place and performers would be without work for even longer.
So, while the Glasgow Green fan zone has produced some heated discussion, perhaps this controlled, managed and COVID-secure setting represents a glimpse into the short to medium term future of outdoor festivals and events – hosted in public space, ticketed, and with social distancing measures in place. While there is clearly demand for these sorts of experiences (the Fan Zone tickets were sold out within hours), the imperative of delivering to the requirements of an external agent (UEFA) creates political and economic considerations that go beyond the specifics of the pandemic. Questions remain over the appropriateness of staging festivals and events in public spaces and the implications for their access and use. Beyond the pandemic, it is important that these questions continue to be asked so that public aspirations for public spaces match those of those managing them, including what role festivals and events might play.