Sweets Are Bad for You…Don’t Jay Walk…Don’t Rush the Field – How Incentives to Change Crowd Behavior Have Often Failed

Feb 25, 2022

By Gil Fried, Professor, University of West Florida

Way back in 2004, the Southeastern Conference (SEC) passed rules fining teams when their fans stormed the field.  It was hoped that these fines would change fan behavior.  It was assumed that schools would try to prevent or minimize the likelihood of fan crowd rushes to avoid having to pay a fine.  Crowds rushing the field were a concern not just for fans possibly injuring themselves, but also for players, coaches, officials, and others who could be injured. 

As would be expected, the fines did not work as they were hoped.  When crowds rushed the field, instead of the schools paying their own money, crowd funding was used to raise money so the universities would not need to pay out of their own pockets.

As is normally seen with crowds, other conferences joined the bandwagon and then various conferences adopted similar rules and penalties.  These penalties were increased by the SEC during the 2015 SEC Spring Meetings and are supposed to be imposed for violations in all sports sponsored by the Conference. Institutional penalties range from $50,000 for a first offense to fines of up to $100,000 for a second offense and up to $250,000 for a third and subsequent offenses.

Recently, both the Big 12 Conference and the Southeastern Conference fined member institutions for failing to control crowds at basketball games.  The University of Texas was fined by the Big 12 conference this season after fans stormed the court after a victory against the University of Kansas.  The conference specifically examined the university’s court storming plan and how it did not provide adequate protections to safeguard visiting team personnel.

Similarly, the SEC announced a fine against the University of Arkansas for a violation of the league’s “access to competition area” policy when Arkansas fans stormed the court after an early February win against Auburn University.  This was not Arkansas’ first brush with the conference and violating this rule.  The university was fined $250,000 for a third offense as Arkansas was fined earlier this past academic year for a violation following its football game against Texas.

These fines, and how frequently they occur and how frequently fans (primarily students) rush fields and courts, clearly show that these penalties do not work.  That led me to explore what might motivate people to change their behavior.  This is important because over the last 20 years we have seen an uptick in strategies such as fan codes of conduct, banning fans from venues, increased security presence, increase use of technology, and other strategies to improve crowd behavior.  Thus, what works?

 An article in the Journal of Economic Perspectives entitled, When and Why Incentives (Don’t) Work to Modify Behavior (Uri Gneezy, Stephan Meier, and Pedro Rey-Biel) published in 2011 (doi=10.1257/jep.25.4.191) examined whether incentives to pay students to receive better grades or encourage them to read actually worked.  Sometimes incentives will do their job and encourage students to improve their performance.  Other times the incentive will do the exact opposite and discourage strong performance.  As an example, offering incentives for improved academic performance may signal that achieving a specific goal is difficult, that the task is not attractive, or the student is not a strong student, and they need a reward to do well.  Furthermore, once the motivation is removed, will there be interest in continuing to do well academically?  Sometimes there was short-term success from incentives and at other time, the long-term change was not seen for years.  This is where intrinsic and extrinsic motivation both need to be explored to help determine what might motivate someone.  The same holds true for punishment and what might motivate someone to stop a certain behavior.

Red light cameras are a good example.  These cameras often provide for significant fines if a driver runs through a red light.  Instead of slowing down traffic and reducing the number of injuries, these cameras often caused more speeding and more accidents with people trying to get through a light as fast as possible or to slam on breaks to avoid a fine, thus resulting in an accident.  This is an example of the law of unintended consequences. 

One interesting study highlighted the potential backfiring of penalties.  In one experiment an Israeli daycare began charging parents a small fine for arriving late.  The result was an increase in the number of late pick-ups even in the short run.  The parents did not initially know how important it was to arrive on time.   When the parents registered for the daycare, they did not have a penalty for arriving late.  The relatively small fine signaled that arriving late was not very important.   Thus, parents took to arriving later and paying the fine.

The question is does a fine work to change behavior?  There are numerous studies that examined the benefits of exercise, yet many people do not get enough exercise.  Similarly, there are numerous studies that people know the harm caused by smoking (or alcohol, or other possible vices), yet people often continue and justify their behavior for various reasons. 

So, what does this mean to fines for crowd rushes.  The first thing to realize is that there is a tangible benefit for a behaved crowd, and that is a safer environment.  Many fans do not think anything will happen to them.  Thus, public service announcements (PSAs) from fans who have been seriously injured could be a benefit.  Furthermore, PSAs played throughout the game on scoreboards can be effective if the message is from peers, star athletes, and head coaches.  Students especially might change their behavior if they realize that they will be prosecuted or subject to prosecution under a school’s codes of conduct- which could include being expelled from a university.

The reason why one rarely sees professional sport field/court incursions is that the penalty would be significant and harsh.  When schools are fined, the students do not see the harm to themselves.  If students were to be personally fined or otherwise punished, they might change their behavior.  I am not trying to be a stick in the mud and as the saying goes, it is all fun and games until someone gets hurt.  Well people have been hurt and there will be more harm in the future until rules/policies are changed.