L.A. LIVE: Dodger Stadium sits waiting for baseball to begin. As sports venues reopen, many will seek a new health-safety certification rating formed by experts across multiple industries. (Getty Images)

Interdisciplinary collection of experts formed to create certification program for sports and entertainment venues

Venues and live events can’t be made fully safe in the age of COVID-19, but a new initiative tied to the International Well Building Institute can go a long way toward making them safer for everyone, says an expert and co-chair of a panel formed as part of the program.

Dr. Allen Hershkowitz, chairman of Sport and Sustainability International and science adviser to the New York Yankees, is among 40 industry professionals, team officials, scientists and other experts who have formed the Well Advisory on Sports and Entertainment Venues. The goal is to develop a new health-safety certification program, the Well Health-Safety Rating for Facility Operations and Management.

The shutdown of sports and entertainment has saved lives, and restoring games and concerts is a daunting, highly complex endeavor, one that will be well-served by the Well Advisory and the new rating system, Hershkowitz told VenuesNow a week after the initiative was announced May 15.

“This is all about building the fans’ trust,” said owner’s representative Tim Romani, CEO of CAA Icon and co-chair of the advisory along with Hershkowitz. “We know these facility types better than (most) and we understand the physical nature of them, but what we have to do in this process is overlay the behavioral nature of it.”

Similar in scope to the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design rating system, a certification program tied to sustainable design and building operations, the new rating system — expected to be in place by late June — will operate under the auspices of the Well Building Institute, an organization that sets standards for all building types to improve overall health and wellness for its occupants. Rick Fedrizzi, the institute’s chairman and CEO, once filled a similar role with the U.S. Green Building Council, which administers LEED.

The advisory’s other co-chairs are Dr. Richard Carmona, the 17th U.S. surgeon general; Tim Leiweke, CEO of entertainment and sports facility company Oak View Group, which owns VenuesNow; Doug Behar, senior vice president and director of stadium operations for the New York Yankees; Mike Biggs, Jani-King’s vice president of sports and entertainment partnerships; and Bill Rhoda, Legends’ president of global planning.

In addition, 33 others make up the group’s advisory council, including sports executives with the San Francisco 49ers, New Jersey Devils and Philadelphia 76ers, Texas Rangers, Tampa Bay Lightning, New York Mets, Detroit Red Wings and Buffalo Bills.

The NFL got on board in late May, Hershkowitz said, and operators of other major venues across the world are expected to follow suit.

Rachel Gutter, International Well Building Institute president, said the ratings system is an evidence-based, third-party verified rating focused on operational policies, cleaning protocols and design strategies.

“What we are trying to do is provide a road map to form a rating to convey the commitment to adopting those best practices,” Gutter said. “If your players don’t feel safe, if your fans don’t feel safe, then they’re not going to return,” she said. “We’ll offer a third-party review just as all Well projects do with the Green Business Certification Inc.”

That organization is the certification and credentialing partner of the U.S. Green Building Council, where Gutter spent 10 years and directed the nonprofit’s Center for Green Schools.

There will be fees tied to the new health-safety certification, targeted as an annual program, but pricing has not been determined, officials said.

“It’s not just about adding up points and coming up with a score,” Romani said. “Yes, there will be mathematics to it, but it’s going to be a much more sophisticated algorithm approach because of the infectious disease element. We’re going to make sure that whatever it is that we’re doing contributes to the solution.”

Veteran sports executive Scott O’Neil, a member of the 33-person advisory committee, compares the rating system to restaurant inspection grades given by health departments. “There is some reassurance there,” said O’Neil, CEO of Harris Blitzer Sports & Entertainment, owner of the Devils and Sixers and operator of Prudential Center in Newark, N.J.

“When you walk to a restaurant in New York City and there’s an A (sticker) in the window, or walk into the airport and see the TSA, it helps with confidence,” he said. “There’s a part of this that fans want to see to make sure there’s an independent body with regulations and a checklist to make sure you have that voice.”

The new system stems from the Well Building Institute’s COVID-19 task force, a group of 600 scientists, government officials, academics, business leaders, architects, designers and real estate professionals established at the outset of the pandemic. The task force includes Jonathan Fielding, namesake of UCLA’s School of Public Health, and former Robert Wood Johnson Foundation President and CEO Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, Gutter said.

The effort will be anchored by a life sciences approach that Hershkowitz believes is essential for sensible operations and the restoration of confidence in the new era.

“Science is not just another opinion,” he said. “There are scientific methods that we know can guide us with regard to building science and public health. But it’s also about business realities.”

The initiative will allow venue operators and experts to discuss best practices and challenge protocols that have not been effective, which will be assessed and fed back to participants in the form of guidance “about healthier (and) safer operations,” Hershkowitz said.

Participants are able to communicate their thoughts through an online forum “so that we can see what strategies they are using,” he said. There will also be a series of virtual town hall meetings “so we can coordinate all the information that we are gathering.”

Sports venues have a key role to play in leading the global economy back from hibernation, Hershkowitz said.

“People are talking about retail establishments, restaurants, offices,” he said. “Sports facilities (and their mixed-use developments) have all of it.”

The implications of how the sports and entertainment industry navigates the crisis can’t be understated, he said.

“This is one of the most important initiatives in the world when it comes to addressing the pandemic and its relationship to restoring our economy and giving confidence to people that we can get out of this situation,” Hershkowitz said.

CAA Icon has played a key role developing dozens of sports venues over the past 30 years, and Romani remains confident that stadiums and arenas will hold capacity crowds in the post-COVID age. The firm’s current projects include Allegiant Stadium, the $2 billion home of the NFL’s Las Vegas Raiders set to open late this summer.

“This is a difficult situation we’re in, but it’s not going to impact us forever in the sense that we’re not going to play Super Bowls in front of 70,000 people again,” Romani said. “Of course we are, so we have to figure out what to do right now to help the progression back to that state. The new normal is not to play NFL games without fans or with 15,000 people. It’s not the answer long term.”

Senior Editor Don Muret contributed to this report.