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Sports

Security firms watch social media for feisty fans

Security firms watch social media for feisty fans
In this photo taken on March 15, 2014, fans go through security lines as they arrive at Bankers Life Fieldhouse for NCAA college basketball games in the semifinals of the Big Ten Conference tournament in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)
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As Minnesota Vikings fans were getting ready for the final game at the Metrodome last December, officials at Whelan Security noticed social media chatter suggesting some of the faithful might rush the field and try to steal a piece of history.

So the firm that provides security for the Vikings boosted the number of guards present that day to maintain calm during the team's 14-13 win against Detroit.

They checked online chatter in part because there was a precedent for chaos: When the team had its final game in Metropolitan Stadium in 1981, fans rushed the field and nabbed anything and everything that wasn't bolted down.

"It allowed us to have an idea of what was going on in the mindset of the people in the building so we could counteract that," said Jeff Spoerndle, Whelan's director of special services.

Turns out big brother is watching what fans are doing before they ever even scan a ticket to get inside a game. Security firms tasked with monitoring fan behavior to stop them from rushing the court, threatening a coach or player, or getting rowdy during a big game are increasingly turning to social media as a predictor of whether or not fans will get feisty.

The firms are taking their lead from police, who've long used Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other sites to monitor chatter that could tip them off to potential criminal activity in their communities.

With the NCAA tournament in full swing, companies hired to provide security at venues from Spokane, Wash., to Orlando, Fla., have an added option in watching for fans who might take things too far. As the popularity of sites like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram continues to grow, apparently so has their use by those protecting college and pro sporting events.

None of the security companies that worked the second and third-round sites for the NCAA tournament would discuss specific protocols with The Associated Press or disclose specifically what they're looking for, saying it would defeat their efforts to keep the tournament safe. But Mark Williams, the security manager for the NCAA tournament host Spokane Arena, did acknowledge that monitoring social media is a common practice in the industry.

"What it does for us is that it gives us a heads up. It's not our first line of defense and we don't fall back on it. It's information that helps us in our planning and in our preparation," said David Yorio, managing director of New York-based Citadel Security Agency.

Court security has been an issue for college basketball all season. A student was accused of spitting on two Oregon staff members, fans charged the court during an altercation after a game between New Mexico State and Utah Valley, and a fan sprinted onto the court at UC Santa Barbara to confront the Hawaii coach before dashing back into the stands.

Some police departments and security firms have used social media as a way to control incidents popping up during games, too. Toronto police have long been proactive in the use of social media, and the department uses its official Twitter account to both monitor and listen to sports fans. Constable and social media officer Scott Mills noted that social media also can instantly affect fan behavior.

While staffing a Toronto FC game, he noticed that the soccer team's supporters were throwing debris on the field specifically to get the attention of an attractive woman whose job included running out to clean up the mess. Mills called out the fans on Twitter, and they soon stopped.

"For the police and the security firm, if you have a communications strategy, using social media ... you can get your message out for orderly conduct or for in the event of an emergency, to actually communicate with the fans," he said.

Citadel, which handles promotional events for the NFL, NHL and Major League Soccer, considers social media an indispensable tool.

Yorio said that Citadel will first look through the followers of a player or team on Twitter and Instagram and monitor hashtags and other communication for either a potential or a direct threat. If anything suspicious pops up, Citadel will do a background check and see if they had applied for a media credential or bought a ticket.

Citadel will then alert staffers on the ground to be aware of what they found.

"It's just mind-blowing that you can, in a 10- or 15-minute search, follow some hashtags, you follow a trail and you can uncover all kinds of information," Yorio said.
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