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Alan Coppin and Rick Riding

Initially set up in response to high-profile stadium disasters in the 1980s, the Sports Grounds Safety Authority has grown to become a global leader in spectator safety. Tom Walker spoke to CEO Rick Riding and chair Alan Coppin

by Tom Walker, Leisure Media | Published in Sports Management 2015 issue 2
Alan Coppin (left), the newly appointed chair of SGSA and chief executive Rick Riding
Alan Coppin (left), the newly appointed chair of SGSA and chief executive Rick Riding

The Sports Grounds Safety Authority (SGSA) is the government body responsible for monitoring spectator safety at football grounds in the UK. It carries out statutory functions under the Football Spectators Act 1989 – drawn in response to the Bradford and Hillsborough disasters – and works together with all sports grounds in England and Wales to create safer spaces for spectators.

Despite playing a critical role in transforming safety at football grounds over the past 20 years, the SGSA had, however, operated under a cloud of uncertainty for nearly four years up until November 2014. This was due to the “bonfire of quangos” lit by chancellor George Osborne in 2010, when SGSA – at the time still called the Football Licensing Authority (FLA) – was identified as one of the organisations to be torched, among 480 others, through the government’s Public Bodies Bill.

Rather than lying down and accepting its fate, however, the SGSA took a proactive approach to avoid being closed down or merged with the Health and Safety Authority – the two options discussed at the time. Through a combination of measured lobbying, expanding of its reach beyond football stadia, a successful involvement at the London 2012 Games and the strengthening of its presence on the global arena, SGSA convinced the government to spare it the chop. Now, with a fresh new mandate, the organisation is, according to chair Alan Coppin, stronger than ever.

“The last four years have seen our remit expand to other countries and other sports – such as rugby – and our reputation has steadily grown around the world,” he says. “Having us removed from the list of organisations for abolition will enable us to plan for the future with greater confidence. We are already working on a strategy update which will include a measurable five-year ambition which we will share later this year.”

Since its inception in 1989, SGSA’s core business has been to regulate safety at football grounds, to raise standards and spread good practice – mainly by monitoring local authorities and the way they issue safety certificates to football grounds. According to CEO Rick Riding, working in close partnership with operators has been a key to SGSA’s success – even though it does mean a busy schedule.

“There are 94 stadiums in total that we are responsible for – made up of the 92 Football League grounds plus Wembley and the Millennium Stadium,” says Riding. “We attend all the safety advisory group meetings held at every one of the grounds. We also assess two games a year at each stadium and during our visits we evaluate the safety management and infrastructure at the stadiums.

“Having such a close relationship with the clubs is essential because – although the legislation gives us statutory powers – we consider ourselves a light touch regulator. For us, our work is all about persuasion and education.

“Usually, when you’re raising standards, there is a cost implication, so developing a relationship of trust ensures there’s an understanding that any spending will be worthwhile.”

For such a busy organisation, SGSA operates on a relatively small staff. There are eight inspectors, each responsible for between 12 and 14 clubs. Having a dedicated person for each club further enhances the relationship that the SGSA has with its ‘clients’.

The challenges to safety at stadiums have changed since SGSA was launched in 1989. The number one threat then, hooliganism, still exists, but tough measures have made it much less prevalent than it was. For example, standing is no longer allowed in the top two football divisions and there are tighter controls on alcohol consumption.

When asked for their views on the biggest challenges in the current climate, both Riding and Coppin are clear – complacency kills. “The biggest challenge is to avoid the feeling that the job has been done,” Coppin says. “It’s very easy – but dangerous – to think that we don’t need to invest in spectator safety as nothing has happened in the UK for so long.”

He adds that the dynamic nature of sports, its fan culture and the increased need to create revenue-generating events at stadiums are further reasons to avoid complacency. “The threats to safety are ever changing. For example, we’ve seen an increase in the number of pyrotechnics at stadiums and there is the emerging threat of drones over sports grounds.

“Stadium use is changing too and venue owners are seeking new ways to bring in revenue, through concerts, conferences and other events. These types of events bring different challenges for spectator safety professionals.”

When it comes to assessing these risk factors, SGSA’s work outside the UK gives the organisation a unique perspective to compare stadium safety – and challenges to it – in a number of environments.

Both Coppin and Riding agree that SGSA can further strengthen its role as a global leader in safety. “Internationally there are different challenges and we expect our extensive experience in spectator safety will help different sports in different territories to tackle these challenges,” says Coppin. “There are many lessons that we’ve learned throughout our work in the UK since 1989 and I’d like to see those lessons to improve safety elsewhere.”

Outside the UK, SGSA is perhaps best known for producing The Green Guide, which provides detailed guidance to ground management and technical specialists – such as architects and engineers – to assist them with stadium safety. It has become a global ‘industry bible’ and has opened the door for SGSA to become an authoritative player in venue security.

“As authors of The Green Guide, we have an excellent reputation globally,” Riding says. “More or less every stadium in the past 20 years has used the guide as a standard to work to – mainly because most governments do not have a standard for safety at sports stadiums. We also work closely with the Council of Europe and sit on its committee for spectator violence, which was set up after the 1985 Heysel disaster to provide guidance to governments on legislative means to reduce football violence.

“We’ve provided consultative visits to many countries throughout Europe. In the past five or six years, I’ve been to Romania, Cyprus, Serbia and we inspected all the stadiums for the UEFA 2012 Euro Championships in Ukraine and Poland.”

Riding names the Euro 2012 project as the most challenging he has undertaken for SGSA. “UEFA wanted us to inspect and do a report on all eight stadiums, so we travelled across Poland and Ukraine to inspect them,” he says. “We met all the fan groups, local organisers, produced a report and then set up two training sessions – one each in Poland and Ukraine – to train all the safety officers, police and event organisers.

“The timescale was very tight, it is a summer tournament and UEFA contacted us in December 2011. We also had to allow time for our recommendations to be implemented – but we did it.”

Completing prestigious projects such as Euro 2012 confirms SGSA’s position as a major player internationally, but there is a limit to the amount of work it can do abroad – partly due to its status as a not-for-profit organisation. “We can only recover costs”, Riding says. “So we’re not commercially driven.

“Rather, our key aim are to raise standards and to promote UK PLC, acting as a sort of conduit. For example, if we go and do some work for UEFA to advise them on steward training, like we did for the 2012 tournament, we could then look at some of the training providers in the UK with the view of them providing the training for UEFA members.”

When quizzed on SGSA’s future, the word “complacency” re-emerges and it is clear that Riding wants to make sure SGSA stays ahead of the curve when it comes to all aspects of safety. One of the tasks at hand is to update existing guidance.

“I think over the next two years we will have to rewrite The Green Guide,” he says. “There have been a lot of developments – not just in technology, but all aspects of safety – which we need to include in an updated The Green Guide.

“For an example, there is nothing in the current guide about crowd modelling, so we will need to include that. There have also been great improvements in fire safety engineering and medical provisions for first responders, so those are two areas that need to be looked at.

“There’s a lot of work to do and I think that it’s going to be a two-year project, but renewing the guide is paramount as we want to keep it as the global standard for stadium safety design and management.”

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