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Safe standing is coming to LAFC’s stadium - what does that mean?

A brief look at the history of the concept in soccer.

MLS: Sporting KC at Orlando City SC
Orlando City’s wall is a safe standing area.
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Safe standing is coming to Los Angeles Football Club’s stadium, as the club confirmed on Saturday that the supporters section at Banc of California Stadium, called the North End, will be a safe standing section.

If you’re unfamiliar with the concept, which has largely been an ongoing topic in European soccer, and especially in England, here’s a basic primer of what safe standing is and its history.

What is safe standing?

The basic definition for safe standing is that it is a method of letting spectators stand up in the stands without having traditional seating. Technically, every single venue could be a “standing” venue if the patrons stand up, but that’s where the “safe” part comes in, with some provision made to provide some measure of protection for people in the section.

So safe standing sections don’t have seats?

Not exactly. The set-up can vary, and sometimes venues just have rails at about waist height for supporters to lean on or use as a barrier to the rows above and below.

But while rails are fairly common in safe standing sections, these sections often include tiny foldable seats. In Europe that’s done as a UEFA rule, as European cup matches require some kind of seating available, even in standing zones, and other venues around the world have followed that example, including LAFC.

But even with seats available, the expectation is that patrons in a safe standing section will indeed stand for the duration of a game.

Where did standing turn into safe standing?

Safe standing most directly arises from hooligan problems in Europe, especially England. In the old days, unseated sections could pack far more fans into a section than seats, so of course stadiums liked that system because it meant more paying customers. It’s why you sometimes hear of now-unbelievable stories of stadia not only exceeding capacity for significant games, but by a staggering margin, perhaps more than 100 percent over intended capacity.

In turn, many of these situations turned dangerous, sometimes even deadly. Fires and crushing deaths have a long and tragic history in soccer, but a series of high-profile disasters, including the Hillsborough disaster in 1989, in which 96 Liverpool supporters were crushed to death during an FA Cup semifinal due to poor oversight, faulty design, but above all police negligence, led to drastic changes in stadium design.

In England, Hillsborough led to a provision for all-seater stadia at the main professional levels, something that remains to this day, in spite of lobbying for a safe standing option. At present, it is available at a higher rate in other European countries.

What’s the situation like in the United States?

The default for top-level stadia in the U.S. is for there to be seats throughout the venue. There are exceptions depending on interest level and custom, but the standard in most sporting events is for fans to sit throughout the game. Sometimes, this becomes contentious, if you’ve ever been to a game or concert where some fans want to stand and the others want to sit, and the consequent spats between strangers in the same section.

But supporter tradition in American soccer has built up enough of a track record that one of the hallmarks of it is for supporters group members to stand up throughout the game. And so safe standing is becoming a request by supporters groups in newer stadiums, and LAFC will be the second team in MLS, after Orlando City, to have a safe standing section in their new stadium.

Ultimately, what’s the difference if you stand up in a normal section vs. a special safe standing section?

That’s a valid question. Supporters in existing stadiums haven’t been thwarted in standing just because seats happen to be installed.

But if you’ve ever stood up in a normal section and tried to jump around and dance in a seated section, you run the risk of hurting yourself by crashing against the seat behind you or running into the armrests or seat anchors. There’s also the occasional issue of jerks standing on top of the chairs, rendering your sightlines impossible unless you clamber up on them, too.

Above all, safe standing may be as important symbolically as it is a practical measure. More people should be able to fit into the section, while still keeping it reasonably protected, so it’s the best of both worlds. And if supporters groups believe this set-up will improve morale for them, then it’s worth setting up the section in the way that’s most amenable.

If you’re someone who is not interested in standing for a game, that’s ok. The rest of LAFC’s stadium will have seats. But if you’re interested in feeling the tangible, physical feeling of being in the supporters section, Banc of California Stadium will have that option, too. And ultimately, having options that should apply to a diverse group of fans, especially supporters, is just good sense. And it’s also part of a larger history in global soccer.

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