SBJ/May 20-26, 2013/Opinion

How to stage modern sports experience in nontraditional setting

Today’s venues for sporting events are pushing the boundaries of traditional risk management for event organizers. From college basketball on aircraft carriers to regular-season football games abroad, event risk paradigms often depend on the particular venue. Risks are further magnified when a hazardous sport is involved (skateboarding), and the event includes both viewing and public participation. Add all these variables to a unique venue — a quiet anthropology museum (San Diego Museum of Man) — and the museum trustees, lawyers, underwriters and insurance brokers ask, “Has the museum director gone mad?”

Museum CEO Micah Parzen is decidedly sane, but he did have an incredible vision for a showcase last year: Host the inaugural stop of “Ramp it Up — Skateboard Culture in Native America,” a Smithsonian Institution traveling exhibition. His only “insanity” was to build and operate a public skateboard ramp in the museum. For Parzen, the ramp uniquely anchored this modern display of Native American sports and culture, and it allowed the Native American skaters (and others) to show off skills and style. Despite our initial admonitions on risk and liability exposure (our firm represents the museum), the ramp simply had to fly.

So with input from museum staff, we evaluated event options, operational approaches and strategies for allocation of risk between sponsors, contractors and related parties. Despite logistical challenges and varied stakeholder interests, the public skateboard ramp operated successfully throughout the four-month run of the exhibition. To formulate the risk paradigm for this unique event, we kept it basic in the evaluation of the questions that go into any event: who (and where), what, and how.

Because many entities were involved in Ramp It Up, the “who” analysis required an understanding of each party’s concerns. Key stakeholders included a municipal lessor (San Diego), nonprofit entities (Smithsonian and Museum of Man), skateboard teams and companies, insurance companies/brokers, the general public, and many Chicken Littles (the lawyers). To maintain the museum’s strategic objective, we first highlighted the cultural aspects of the exhibition and its success in Washington, D.C. We then applied strategic analysis for each party, incorporating that into our site-specific, operational plan to reduce respective risk exposures. It was critical to address individual risks before developing the comprehensive risk approach for the whole event. Stakeholders thus expressed support but wondered how the ramp could operate inside the museum.

A public skateboard ramp was built inside a San Diego museum as part of a traveling exhibit.
Photo by: SAN DIEGO MUSEUM OF MAN
With stakeholder buy-in, the “where” aspect of the risk paradigm required due diligence and appropriate expertise. We identified the universe of potential risk scenarios and evaluated the information needed to mitigate the risks. For instance, with engineering input, we determined the ramp could be operated on the second-floor mezzanine without affecting structural integrity. (The museum was constructed before seismic building code requirements). This key engineering insight considered the use of the ramp (e.g., performing jumps and landing with force on the ramp) to ensure compliance with the museum’s contractual duties. By proactively assessing these variables, museum staff pinpointed where to operate the ramp and place the live audience. This due diligence was indicative of the museum’s approach to staging Ramp it Up in its leased space.

Different risk issues arose because the public would have access to the ramp. Parzen was adamant that the public, especially kids, should skate the ramp. California law provides some skateboard liability limits for city facilities, but a temporary ramp, operated on city property in a museum, required a more robust approach. The museum enlisted skateboarding experts to design and construct the ramp, but outsourcing public oversight would blow the museum’s budget. And museum employees could not properly supervise public ramp access due to insurance limitations. To address this gap, we developed detailed public participation parameters, including registration criteria, documentation checklists, timing restrictions and related participation requirements that were prerequisites for any public access to the ramp. By adapting operational risks to museum specifications for public use, we negotiated greatly reduced costs for outsourcing oversight duties. With a narrower duty, the ramp-builder could provide supervision, thereby ensuring public participation.

Allocation of other risks required analysis of all stakeholder insurance policies to mesh coverage terms. The available insurance coverages varied widely depending on the activities covered (e.g., construction, access, safety equipment, operations, removal and spectator protection). We evaluated each party’s duties and coverages to package the overall risks for underwriters. Above all, the museum needed to honor its obligations to its municipal lessor, its employees, its contracting parties and its paying guests. Strategic analysis efforts were complemented by contractual negotiations and temporary coverage endorsements to address specific risk scenarios. Detailed written releases (including proof-of-age and minor authorization documents), along with safety equipment (e.g., helmets for all, knee/elbow pads for minors) were employed on a “no exception” basis, in accordance with museum specifications and contractual obligations. We also helped the museum utilize various sponsor packages (e.g., safety equipment, skate decks, and food, exchanged for publicity and access) to defray underwriting costs for the overall risk management program.

As with any sporting event, successful risk management for a unique venue demands a deep understanding of the sport and attention to all event and venue details. For Ramp It Up, early involvement allowed us to evaluate stakeholder risks so that mitigation measures were part of the design and implementation of the event. The museum thus reduced both risks and costs, despite the apparent incongruity of skateboarding inside a museum. Most importantly, Parzen succeeded in creating an innovative way for young people to experience Native American culture and history through a decidedly 21st century sports activity.

Cordon Baesel (cbaesel@mckennalong.com) and Stefanie Warren (swarren@mckennalong.com) are attorneys at McKenna Long & Aldridge (www.mckennalong.com), specializing in action sports, risk management and business litigation.

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