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UA blames 'perfect storm' for entry issues, vows improvements at Saturday's football game

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Steve Kerr, left, and Arizona football head coach Jedd Fisch were all smiles as they entered Arizona Stadium last week. But Wildcats fans struggled to make it through the gates because of long lines. Many opted to simply leave.

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Calling it “the perfect storm” and a “calamity of errors at the worst possible time,” a UA official has apologized for the long waits to enter Arizona Stadium on Saturday night and announced plans to improve in time for this week’s game against Northern Arizona. And athletic director Dave Heeke opened his “Wildcat Wednesday” email by saying the UA “fell short” in its obligation to provide fans with a good experience.

Videos and photos flooded social media from frustrated fans, some who said they waited more than an hour and missed the national anthem and pregame ceremonies, which included an appearance by UA basketball legend Steve Kerr and a flyover to mark the 20-year anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. Some fans simply went home because they couldn’t bear to wait in line any longer. The Wildcats were blown out by San Diego State in their home opener, 38-14. The listed attendance of 39,097 was the lowest for an Arizona Stadium home opener since 1992.

“Being present for the national anthem meant a lot for a lot of people,” said UA senior associate athletic director Suzy Mason, who’s in charge of event management and facilities. “The fact that they missed the team entry of the new era and there’s fireworks, that was a part of the frustration. Fans were abundantly clear with their disappointment to me, but I think in general they didn’t think we were prepared.”

Not only was Saturday’s game the UA’s biggest largest in-person sporting event in more than 650 days, Heeke wrote, but it marked the debut of some updated and new security and safety efforts.

“Consistent with other large sport venues across the country, these new safety efforts have been part of our strategic priority to take deliberate steps to improve overall game day management, enhance safety, and improve fan experience. However, we experienced delays and deficiencies at entrance gates as we struggled to effectively implement new technologies,” Heeke wrote.

“Please don’t misinterpret these as excuses. The fact remains . . . we did not meet expectations.”

Mason said “a combination of” metal detector issues, fans not having their e-tickets available and new staff members experiencing their first home game on the job led to the long waits. Mason called it “the perfect storm.”

“Everything was new. We had new staffing, new metal detectors, new ways of scanning into the (parking) lots and into the game,” Mason said. “We just want to give a sincere apology to the fan base and we promise to rectify that by Saturday. Nobody felt worse than I did on Saturday night, but it was definitely a calamity of errors at the worst possible time.”

Mason said she lost cell phone service at her command post at Arizona Stadium. And fans with Verizon lost service on the southwest side of the stadium.

“That’s what we needed, another perfect storm,” Mason said. “I haven’t used a landline in the last three years, and I did that night.”

UA officials have met multiple times this week in an attempt to streamline the entry process. The UA is making one request of fans: That they to have their e-tickets, which are emailed, ready upon entry to the stadium.

“We’re going to adjust staffing, queuing lines and processing at the gate, and we really want to get the message out that mobile tickets need to be ready to go,” Mason said.

Arizona Stadium is now cashless, a result of COVID-19 protocols. Fans looking to buy food, drinks or merchandise at Arizona Stadium this season can either use their credit or debit cards or visit reverse ATMs, which are available throughout the stadium. A reverse ATM is a machine that collects cash and prints out a temporary debit card.

While Saturday was nightmarish of sorts for Arizona football fans, “everything we did came from a good place,” Mason said. She was confident that the flow of fans into Arizona Stadium will be better moving forward.

“This is the first time a lot of people have been back to an event, and for many of our fans, it was their first time ever experiencing digital tickets,” Mason said. “They haven’t been on airlines since COVID, they haven’t been to a sporting event, so there was a little bit of a struggle and we 100% own it.”

Added Heeke: “Our commitment remains to provide an outstanding game day experience for fans, and that means working tirelessly to resolve issues and deficiencies.”

Contact sports producer Justin Spears at 573-4312 or jspears@tucson.com. On Twitter: @JustinESports

This article originally ran on tucson.com.

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