On Sept. 3, 90,799 fans flocked to Ben Hill Griffin Stadium for the kickoff to the Florida Gators football season. The record number totaled more than 2,200 over capacity.
No seat was empty for the sold-out game, contributing to the jovial roar of the stadium as Florida upset the Utah Utes. Beyond the excitement of football’s return to the Swamp were football fans worried about their safety in the overcrowded stadium.
Large crowds are nothing new; however, as packed stands are a staple at most Florida games.
Fans have packed the stadium every game to show support for the football team led by its new head coach, Billy Napier. The Swamp has been close to full all season, with an average attendance of 85,435 for the Gators’ first four home games. Despite assurance on safety precautions from the University Athletic Association and local law enforcement agencies, these crowded games are accompanied by a variety of safety concerns like fights breaking out among fans.
Vivienne Lewis, a 19-year-old UF psychology sophomore, attended the second home game against the Kentucky Wildcats and said she was trapped in the chaos. She was trying to get to her seat and a fight broke out between a UF fan and Kentucky fan next to her in the crowd. She couldn’t move away from it because it was too packed inside the stadium, Lewis said.
“The Kentucky fan was trying to push past me but was knocking me and other people over because we couldn’t make room for him,” Lewis said.
The Kentucky game was also sold-out, packing the stadium with 89,983 fans. Coupled with the Utah game, it was the fourth highest attended pair of games to open a football season in the program’s history.
The Gators’ third straight home game against the South Florida Bulls Sept. 17 was the first home game of the season that wasn’t over capacity. The recorded attendance was just shy of the capacity limit, with 88,496 attendees.
About two weeks later, UF hosted the Eastern Washington Eagles. The game, which was moved from Oct. 1 to Oct. 2 due to Hurricane Ian’s landfall in Florida, brought in a crowd of 72,462.
Fans have continued to express concern for their safety at the stadium after experiencing alleged dangerous incidents at the games from overcrowding.
Summer Atteberry, a 20-year-old music education junior, said she buys season tickets every year, typically opting to sit in the student section at each game.
“I always have a great time,” Atteberry said. “But no matter where I sit, I always get shoved around and there is zero space to breathe.”
Overcrowding doesn’t only lead to being pushed around — students can lose their spot if they walk away.
“I try to only leave my seat to use the bathroom because even though I am sitting in the specific seat I paid for, I worry it won’t be there when I return,” Atteberry said.
Despite issues, the UAA always prioritizes safety of game attendees and prepares in advance for games. It extended the footprint of the gate entrances and bag check lines to reduce bottlenecks with fans entering the stadium, senior associate athletics director Steve McClain said.
The UAA hires more than 4,500 employees, he said, to ensure a safe environment on gameday. Leadership coordinates with various police and public safety agencies leading up to each season and game, McClain said.
The Gainesville Police Department is one of the local law enforcement agencies that works at the stadium on game days. GPD has encountered similar issues on game days over the years, no matter the stadium’s attendance, GPD spokesperson Lisa Scott said. They still make special safety considerations for games that are likely to attract more people.
“If we know that it's a game that historically brings a lot of people or that the opposing team has a fan base that travels well, we're going to probably back the game with more employees,” Scott said.
The Alachua County Sheriff's Office is another police agency hired to keep fans safe inside the stadium. One of the biggest problems ACSO has faced this year is fans sitting anywhere they want to without the right tickets, ACSO spokesperson Capt. Kaley Behl said.
“We're seeing people that have good seats, taking a screenshot of their ticket on their phone and sending it to their friends to sneak down to their seats,” Behl said.
GPD and ACSO want fans to always prioritize their safety at games. The agencies encourage fans to to approach police officers if issues arise during games.
Florida’s next home game will be Saturday, Oct. 8 against the Missouri Tigers. The matchup is set to be one of the marquee events of UF’s homecoming weekend. Kickoff is set for noon.
Contact Claire at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @grunewaldclaire.
Claire Grunewald is a third-year journalism major and the Santa Fe reporter for The Alligator. When she is not writing or reading, she's looking for new music or going to the beach.