Last night’s Bruce Springsteen show at Nationals Park was the worst-run entertainment event I’ve ever attended. Nationals Park management owes attendees an apology, and public at large assurances that it is taking steps to ensure that future events run more smoothly. Absent such assurances, performers should not book concerts at the venue and fans should think twice about attending such events.
I’ve been to Nationals Park for baseball games many times, and never had a problem of any kind. I’ve been to a lot of concerts at venues large and small, and have never experienced anything like this. Two weeks ago, I attended two Springsteen shows at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia, a stadium directly comparable to Nationals Park. The differences between the event planning and execution at the two ballparks could not be greater, and point to a massive failing on the part of Nationals Park management that resulted in thousands of fans missing the beginning of the show and created an environment that could easily have turned violent.
The basic problem is that event management funneled everyone who had seats on the field -- several thousand people -- into one under-staffed stadium entrance, resulting in a huge and slow-moving line, so that it took people an hour or longer just to enter the stadium. Worse: Once inside the stadium, everyone who had seats on the field was funneled to only one (or perhaps two, I’m not sure) sections to access the field, causing another massive bottleneck that again took many people an hour or longer. As a result, countless ticket holders missed the first several songs of the show despite arriving at the park hours before the show began.
Some background for those who are unfamiliar with Springsteen’s stadium shows: Directly in front of the stage there is a seatless area known as the Pit. Tickets for the Pit are sold as general admission (GA.) On the day of the show, there is a lottery to determine the order in which GA ticket holders are allowed to enter the Pit. After the lottery, GA ticket holders are lined up in order, ushered into the building in order, stand around in order on the concourse for 15-45 minutes, and are led in order into the Pit. It’s a very orderly process meant to ensure that prime real estate in front of the stage goes to people who get lucky in the lottery rather than people who pay a lot of extra money. (GA ticket holders who do not wish to devote the extra several hours the lottery process requires can simply skip it and show up later, in which case they’ll enter the Pit after the lottery participants and stand at the back of the Pit, which is still better than pretty much anywhere else in the stadium.) For a stadium like Nationals Park, there are probably about 2,000 tickets sold for the Pit. Maybe 3,000.
Because order of entrance to the Pit before the show is so important, GA ticket holders need to be funneled through a single entrance to the park. This entrance usually features only 2-4 staff scanning tickets, but it’s heavily staffed with additional screeners performing pat-downs and other staff simply ensuring that the process runs smoothly and efficiently and keeps people in the proper order. But for the several thousand other people on the field -- those who do not have GA tickets and will be in seated sections rather than the Pit -- such order is not required. They’ll need a wristband in addition to their ticket to get to the field, but the order in which they enter doesn’t matter -- and so the location in which they enter doesn’t matter, either.
The first mistake event planners made last night was funneling all field ticket holders -- not just GA -- into a single under-staffed entrance (I believe there were two ticket-takers; there might’ve been 3 or even 4; regardless, that’s far too few.) Result: Massive lines outside the stadium, and a slow-moving line.
By 6:30, at the latest, it should have been clear to everyone involved that there was a problem. Lines were huge and slow-moving -- and likely to get worse as show time approached. (The show time printed on the tickets is 7:30; Springsteen actually takes the stage between 8:10 and 8:20, and most people know this.) Mistake number two: Event management did not recognize this problem and respond to it. The obvious (necessary but not sufficient) solution would have been to do what should obviously have been done in the first place: Allow non-GA field ticket holders to enter at any gate. This did not happen.
Once inside the gate to the stadium, field ticket holders are given wristbands that are necessary to access the field. Wristband distribution was disorganized and slow. Staff affixing wristbands to ticket holders were slow and nonchalant about the process. The gentleman who gave me mine probably took ten seconds per person, largely because he chose to take his time, chatting and joking through the process. Ten seconds per person means six wristbands per minute. I saw about four people distributing wristbands, so that’s 24 bands per minute. For, say, 5,000 people, that’s 3.5 hours to get everyone wrist banded. Obviously, that’s a problem. Certainly not the biggest problem of the evening, but the fact that staff saw massive lines of people getting in and chose to do their jobs casually and slowly is an indication that event management and staff did not recognize and adapt to the scale of the problem they faced.
Once inside and wrist banded, field ticket holders -- GA and non-GA alike -- were forced to access the field through one of only two access points, both essentially behind home plate. Each access point had just a couple of staff to deal with a massive throng of people trying to get to the field, as well as people trying to get to seats in lower-bowl sections on the way to the field. That’s obviously bad, and unsurprisingly created another bottleneck. Worse: event planners made no effort to organize this access point. There were no signs indicating that it was an access point. There were no staff. If planners were going to funnel everyone to a single access point (which they shouldn’t have done), they should’ve created rope lines to keep the crowd orderly. Doing so would’ve kept the line moving as quickly and efficiently as possible, reduced confusion, eliminated confrontations about line-cutting, eliminated the convergence of masses of people trying to access the field, sections on the way to the field. It also would have mitigated the crowd flow problems caused by locating the access point right next to the entrance Lexus President’s Club Bar.
By 7:45, at the latest, it should have been clear to event staff that this system was a disaster. Hundreds of people were massed around the field access point, with the line barely moving and growing longer by the minute. (And remember: There were still hundreds more trying to get into the stadium.) Again, event staff failed to recognize and respond to the problem. The obvious solution would’ve been to do what should have been obvious during planning stages: Allow field access from other sections, and to make an announcement to that effect. They did not.
That’s the overview. Here’s my own experience: I arrived at the home plate entrance to Nationals Park at about 6:30 and encountered a huge line. (Remember: Springsteen walks on stage at about 8:10.) It took me more than 45 minutes to get into the stadium -- and I was lucky. The line wasn’t a line so much as a massive, clump of people consisting of several component lines merging into one, and I happened to walk up to the end of a tributary that moved faster than some others. Had I approached from the opposite direction, I might’ve fared much worse. Had I arrived later, I would definitely have fared much worse. Upon entering the stadium and getting a wristband, I met some friends in the club level outfield bar at about 7:30 (I was supposed to be there at 6:45. At this point, I didn’t know field access would be another massive bottleneck, or I would’ve gone straight there.) At 7:45, I got to the field access point and found a massive line. By 8:18 or so, I’d moved about 15 feet and was still at least 30 minutes from the field at the rate the line was moving. At that point, someone finally came by and said they had opened another access point, at (I think) section 132. I hustled down there and was stepping onto the field within a couple of minutes, as the band began Prove It All Night.
From what I’ve heard from several friends, read on the Backstreets.com message boards (and from what was obvious from simple observation) my own journey into the stadium and onto the field, while bad, was by no means atypical. Many people had it far worse. Some comments from the Backstreets board: “I haven't seen a clusterfuck like this at a concert in years -- probably not since the '70s.” “Complete debacle for field seats.” “We were in line for 1.5 hours to get inside the stadium.” “ It was suffocating and extremely unsafe. … Nationals Park is just not good. Period.” “No communication, no order, no direction. Many people had no idea if they were in the right line.“
For comparison: In Philadelphia two weeks ago it took me about 90 seconds to get from the mens room to my spot in the Pit at 7:45. Last night, it took more than 30 minutes to travel a shorter distance. In dozens and dozens of comparable concert situations, it has never taken me more than 3-4 minutes to get from the main concourse to the field or floor. Last night took more than 30.
This was not a competently-run event. It was not a safely-run event. I’ve been told by others who had similar or worse experiences that there were times they were concerned the crowd would turn violent, and I’m not surprised to hear it. Nationals Park management must acknowledge this fiasco, and take concrete steps to ensure it does not happen again. And though I’ve been to enough Springsteen shows to know that the problem here was stadium management, Springsteen’s management should make their displeasure known as well.