Sports venues create a quiet haven for fans with sensory needs
Ellen Burns needed a break from the crowd. His New York Mets were hosting an afternoon game against defending World Series champion Atlanta Braves in early May, and the game drew more than 23,000 fans to Citi Field in Queens.
Burns, an administrative assistant at a New York accounting firm, is anxious and in need of some quiet, so she headed to a newly designated space tucked into a corner near Suite 229 on the Empire level. , away from the main hall, sheltered from the weather and out of sight of the game.
Set up in time for an opening day trial, designers of what’s called a ‘sensory corner’ say the space was created for neurodivergent customers – those with autism or ADHD, for example. – but is free for anyone like Burns who needs a break from the action. It is portable and has a ceiling light that glows when the corner is powered up. A touch screen lights up with stars. And it can vibrate if needed for a calming effect.
“People really appreciate that it’s there,” said Eric Petersen, director of ticketing services for the Mets and president of the team’s Accessibility and Disability Alliance. “They’re just grateful to have a space where their family members can go in case they need to get away for a second.”
Sometimes people need that. Consider a family with game tickets and a child with autism or ADHD. After a long drive to the stadium or arena, the parking lot, walking with the growing crowd thronging around waiting for the game to start, the noise inside can crescendo. A child may need a break. Without a quiet place, this family could turn around and go home. Instead, a sensory space can provide a place and time to decompress.
In 2017, the home of the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers, then Quicken Loans Arena, became the first sports venue in the United States to be certified as sensory-inclusive by KultureCity, a non-profit organization based in Birmingham, Alabama. . Since then, these types of spaces, whether packed houses or the pit area of Citi Field, have become increasingly commonplace wherever there are spectators.
This is at least the sixth such space in baseball. In 2021, eight NHL teams had dedicated sensory rooms. Nine others have spaces including an outdoor patio, nursing room, medical room or conference room, and 29 clubs offer sensory items like shaded glasses and noise canceling headphones. Thirteen NBA teams have created something of a quiet zone. As of last season, at least 20 NFL organizations had full houses, and several of them had several, including the Baltimore Ravens, which will have five at the start of the 2022 season.
M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore had two installed on the lower level in 2019 and one on the club level in 2021. Two upper level spaces will be ready for the team’s Week 2 home opener against the Dolphins from Miami.
All of their rooms, which are multipurpose and include space for breastfeeding mothers, have bean bag chairs, sofas, and TVs for watching the game at your desired volume level. Customers can control the lighting. The Ravens wanted to create such a space. Families connected to Pathfinders for Autism, a nonprofit based in suburban Baltimore, attended the Ravens’ first preseason game last season.
Allegiant Stadium, home of the Las Vegas Raiders and a facility that includes its own nightclub, has two nooks – one inside the northeast and northwest lobby.
Providing relief to people who are often left on their own is a mantra for KultureCity. Although he did not design or install the Citi Field corner, he helped create many similar spaces, including 200 sensory rooms in five countries. And it helped train Mets staff on what to look for.
“The Sensory Room is an oasis for people who might feel overwhelmed,” said KultureCity executive director Uma Srivastava, whose company also works with ESPN’s parent company Disney to host sensory film screenings. at the El Capitan Theater in Hollywood.
“It could be an autism diagnosis, or just someone feeling a little overwhelmed,” Srivastava said. “This may be the first time they’ve taken part in a major post-COVID event. [rules being relaxed]. They’re a little anxious because of the crowds, the lights, the mask, no mask. Thus, these rooms are accessible to all ticket holders, and allow individuals to walk away for 10, 15 minutes.”
This is why the sensory spaces of KultureCity can be found on cruise ships and in schools, among other places. Srivastava hopes the corner is a first stop for the Mets. There are 11 MLB clubs that have been sensory certified by KultureCity but do not yet have space. KultureCity has worked with families at the last three All-Star Games, the last three playoffs and the 2019 London Series.
Oakland A’s Sensory Room was created in partnership with Micah’s Voice, a non-profit organization that helps families with children with autism. He is named after the son of Shawn Stockman of the R&B group Boyz II Men. The Tampa Bay Rays hall was in consultation with the Center for Autism & Related Disabilities at the University of South Florida. The Minnesota Twins opened the UnitedHealthcare Sensory Suite at Target Field. The space was completed just before the start of the season.
“Our ultimate goal,” Srivastava said, “is not just to have all stadiums [and] arena get the room, get the bags. But let’s also push the boundaries and see if we can have more than one piece.”
Srivastava said some people wonder why guests come if they don’t feel comfortable. But, she said, KultureCity is committed to ensuring that inclusion is not an afterthought, but rather a part of the experience across all sites. Although Citi Field has no one around the corner, Srivastava said trained personnel were stationed in sensory rooms at all venues. Any issues that arise are reported to the channel on the site and, if necessary, escalated to KultureCity.
There is also a monetary investment; the cost varies by location, but can range from $5,000 to $20,000 or more. A Ravens spokesperson said it cost about $400,000 to install five halls.
KultureCity, which works with the NFL, MLB, NBA and American football, was founded by emergency physician Julian Maha and pediatric intensive care physician Michele Kong. The couple have first-hand experience. Their eldest son was diagnosed with autism.
The company’s board of directors includes Grammy Award-winning singer Jason Isbell; award-winning actor and singer Christopher Jackson of “Hamilton” fame; actor Randall Park; reality TV star Jenni “JWoww” Farley and Basketball Hall of Famer Dominique Wilkins, who has two daughters – one is 25 and the other is 14 – with sensory needs.
Wilkins, who is chairman of KultureCity’s board of directors, is vice chairman and special adviser to the CEO of the Atlanta Hawks, for whom he is a franchise legend with a statue in front of the arena. He remembered taking his daughters to games and having to scramble when they needed time away from the constant noise or antics of mascot Harry the Falcon. Wilkins often took her daughter to a quiet place in the family living room, where she could play video games. It was a band-aid solution.
“When my daughter was [younger and] by the way, they didn’t have those kind of rooms,” Wilkins said. “The family room was where all the kids went, and it could be overwhelming. So I had to make sure I had someone with her to keep her calm.”
Before joining KultureCity in January 2019, Wilkins connected with Maha on Twitter, spoke about parents of children with special needs and those shared experiences. They then met in person.
“I knew then at that time that this was going to be my calling,” Wilkins said. “…It’s a need when they have different episodes. It’s a place where they can go and balance out.”
Even teams that don’t have designated areas have taken steps to ensure games are more inclusive for people with sensory needs. Game day staff have been trained to be aware of guest needs and have sensory bags and other items available.
A bag provided by KultureCity also contains a visual thermometer that helps people who don’t communicate verbally to convey how they feel. If they’re feeling distressed in the middle of a packed crowd at an NBA playoff game, for example, they can pull out the thermometer and point to “worry,” which is written on the back. There is also a lanyard that identifies the wearer as having a sensory need. Srivastava said it was a good start.
The Mets, who offer these guest services bags, worked with KultureCity on training in 2019 so that Citi Field could become an inclusive sensory venue. Three years later, the nook was installed. Petersen, a Mets staffer, said the Mets Accessibility and Disability Alliance employee resource group developed the plan that resulted in the nook and he hopes to eventually have a bigger space.
“There are [Mets] employees who have various ties to the accessibility community, whether that be a family member or a friend,” Petersen said. “There are people from this group who have certainly expressed how excited they are to be here.
Whether a fan is autistic, anxious, or feeling overwhelmed for some reason, Wilkins said that person might just need a break.
Inside the current space of Citi Field, several people visited during the day in May when Burns was present. The game went scoreless through the first five innings before the Braves scored seven in the top of the sixth en route to a 9-2 win. It was a routine early-season morning for the first-place Mets, and the inclusion of the Sensory Corner was a breath of fresh air.
At one point, members of a women’s softball team from Beacon, New York walked into the corner. Four of the girls were seated two to one side. They were smiling as they relaxed away from the din of the crowd.
Burns had spent some time at one end of the cabin, with his back to the busy hallway. Dressed in a Mets cap and sweatshirt, she looked down at her phone.
When asked how she felt, her answer was succinct but important: “a feeling of calm.”