Timberwolves vice president for business intelligence Laura Meyer said she started to "obsess" over something unusual over the last year. Whether she was at a restaurant or a store, she would examine the flow of lines: how quickly they moved and whether people kept socially distanced.
"It's one of the things I never thought I would be focused on — line flow," Meyer said "Disney does it pretty well. They are great case studies, so now I find myself at amusement parks and shopping locations seeing how things are queued and watching what people are doing. It's fascinating."
Meyer knew Monday at Target Center would eventually come: the return of fans.
Under state guidelines, the arena will open to about 3,000 fans for Monday's game against the Sacramento Kings. Meyer has been spearheading the efforts to ensure all goes smoothly and safely as fans re-enter the arena by the thousands for the first time since before the pandemic began.
Among the things fans can expect when they come back are spaced-out lines, contactless concession ordering and pickup all done through the Wolves' app, and straps securing seats that aren't being used to ensure proper distancing between sets of fans.
The Wolves were already the first team in sports to switch to paperless ticketing, a transition that served them well in advance of Monday since fans are already accustomed to the experience of contactless ticket entry. Meyer has been studying how lines will flow to get into the arena and then in navigating getting to seats. The key to maintaining proper distancing, she said, was markers on the floor.
"The stickers on the floor help in areas where you think you're going to potentially have lines because if you don't put a spot on the floor people naturally just bump up," Meyer said. "[The Wolves will have] people around kind of owning a zone that you have to be on the watch, and if you see people starting to bunch, go spread them out."
Meyer has been spearheading this effort for the Wolves as part of her title in business intelligence, one that not a lot of women have across sports and one that focuses on how data and analytics intersect with the Wolves' gameday experience. Meyer, who has worked for the Wolves for 15 years, was one of the few women working in the field for a long time and said when she would go to NBA meetings, she'd be one of the only women there.
"It was all about math, science, formulas, technology, all that kind of stuff," Meyer said. "But it's really started to pick up exponentially. Unfortunately we still see it in college classes where it's unbalanced just because of the interest level, but we try really hard to recruit diversity and gender as well as just looking for different types of people. I try really hard to balance my teams."
Those teams have been busy trying out new things.
For instance, helping keep the lines at a minimum will be the new way fans will order and receive concessions, something the Wolves have tried over the past few games with a couple hundred fans in the arena.
No longer will people wait in line to order and then wait to get their food. All ordering will be done via the Wolves app with fans' credit card information entered into the app. Fans will order food from a limited menu (hot dogs, bratwurst, pretzels, nachos, some candy), since COVID protocols don't allow for a full menu, Meyer said. Then fans will get notifications when they food is done to walk to one of four pickup points around the lower bowl, where their food will be waiting on a counter. They can then take their food without having to interact with any other people.
The Wolves and other teams were starting this process to execute contactless ordering in order to be more efficient and eliminate lines before COVID — the Wolves already had mobile ordering in place for select seats — but COVID sped the process of integrating that technology.
"COVID happened, and it's like, 'Well, good thing we're on this path because contactless is going to be necessary to keep everybody safe,' " Meyer said. "We installed it in December and January and then have been doing some back-end trial and error."
Meyer said the technology is likely to be "intuitive" for anyone who uses apps like DoorDash.
The Wolves will only have seats open in the lower bowl, with the closest seats being no less than 30 feet from the court, in accordance with NBA guidelines. As a further precaution, any seats that won't be used will have vinyl and Velcro straps over them, Meyer said, to prevent fans from moving around to other seats. It's all in the name of keeping fans safe.
"We're supposed to reduce congregating as much as possible," Meyer said. "So we're not even opening any traditional type bars or club space for that reason, just because it would be too difficult to manage."