Five weeks ago, sports without fans seemed unfathomable. Now, amid the global coronavirus pandemic in which mass gatherings represent enormous public health risks, the idea of thousands of people crammed into a stadium or arena feels insane.
The reopening of such spaces to fans remains hard to fathom, and no one knows when or how leagues will recommence, or whether there will be any spectator sports this summer or at all in 2020.
Spectator sports inevitably will return, but the world in which they do so will be changed — and with it, the fan experience will be altered, likely dramatically, for months or perhaps even years to come, in ways that are difficult to foresee.
Socially distanced lines that stretch for blocks? Stands limited to a quarter of their usual capacity? Health checks before entering games? Standard-issue masks? A completely altered approach to food and concessions? Nothing will be off the table.
“We are not smart enough to know nor experienced enough to know what a post-pandemic landscape will look like for professional sports or specifically Major League Baseball and the operation of Fenway Park,” said Red Sox CEO and president Sam Kennedy. “In my mind, I picture a Fenway Park as we know it — a picture of Fenway Park that is intimate and filled with fans. It may just be new and different steps that we need to get from where we are today back to that point. I don’t know exactly what those steps are, but there is nothing more important than all of our safety.”
Andy Stergachis, a professor of pharmacy and global health at the University of Washington, noted that sports events overlay numerous risk factors — large numbers of people in high density, large numbers of people who are over 60 years old and with preexisting medical conditions, enthusiastic high-fives — that make them “a really big deal in the presence of a pandemic.”
“The characteristics [of] a sporting event reflect the high potential for transmission of infectious diseases,” he said. "Sporting events do pose a high risk if they’re carried out in the presence of a pandemic, an epidemic, not only for the fans but also for the community.”
‘“I picture a Fenway Park as we know it — a picture of Fenway Park that is intimate and filled with fans. It may just be new and different steps that we need to get from where we are today back to that point. I don’t know exactly what those steps are, but there is nothing more important than all of our safety.”’
Sam Kennedy, Red Sox president and CEO
Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security, noted that typical crowd behavior — yelling, cheering, singing — at sporting events create opportunities for the spread of the COVID-19 virus. Reopening prematurely risks potential nightmare scenarios of renewed outbreaks, explaining why the stadium experience won’t be experienced again soon.
“In the current context, even when we start to see easing of some of the economic shutdowns that are occurring, mass gatherings are going to be something that are very difficult and maybe one of the last things where you’ll see things get closer to normal," said Adalja.
Leagues recognize that they do not get to choose when and how they will reopen, and that broader public health concerns will dictate those terms, according to multiple industry sources.
Already, city and state government officials including Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti, California governor Gavin Newsom, and New York mayor Bill de Blasio have all but ruled out the idea of fans in the stands before 2021.
As such, there is a heavy element of speculation involved in any vision of what spectator sports might look like when turnstiles start churning — metaphorically if not literally, since any venue still using turnstiles may have to stop doing so given the risk they’d present for virus transmission.
A consideration of the stadium/ballpark experience suggests how far-reaching changes to every aspect of the fan experience could be once spectators are allowed back in the park.
There will come a time when a “sellout” takes on a familiar look and feel, when sports bring strangers shoulder to shoulder in the stands. But the reality of COVID-19′s spread suggests such a time isn’t close at hand.
Initially, it seems virtually certain that there will be a period — measured at least in months — in which fans aren’t permitted into sports venues at all. There could be a gradual reopening of facilities where they aren’t empty but aren’t ready to be filled.
“Assuming no vaccine, no antiviral antidote, then I think what happens after the period of no fans, we move to a period of everybody separated by one seat and every row separated,” conjectured Smith College economics professor Andrew Zimbalist. “That basically takes your stadium or arena capacity down to 25 percent of its normal level. So, Fenway, instead of having roughly 40,000 fans will now have roughly 10,000 fans at a sellout game.”
The scaled approach would focus on mitigating the chance of viral spread among fans while also limiting events to a volume that the public health and health care infrastructure could handle should an outbreak occur. Contact tracing, for instance, might be manageable for an event with 5,000 people but not for 50,000 people.
To maintain 6 feet on all sides, you’d likely need multiple empty seats and multiple rows between fans — some of which could potentially be offset by having, say, a family of four from one household sitting together in a block.
Crowd composition could be altered further by profiling. Might teams discourage those at greater risk of serious complications from COVID-19 — those over 60, or those with preexisting conditions — from going to games? Would teams restrict tickets to — or feature different seating plans for — those who could document they had developed antibodies to the coronavirus?
Even with drastic reductions in crowd size, the logistics of fan movement into, out of, and within ballparks would require a radical overhaul.
▪ What does it look like to try to funnel thousands of people into a sports venue when you’re trying to keep 6 feet between them? The possibility of lines with 6 feet between customers that stretch from TD Garden to Faneuil Hall are one possibility.
“It’s one thing to have a third of a ballpark sold because you want to make sure people can distance and you space them seat-wise. But it’s another thing entirely for the egress in and out of the building,” said Professor Vince Gennaro of New York University’s Tisch Institute for Sports Management, Media, and Business. “How do you space that? You’ve seen what you’ve seen with the voter lines in Wisconsin.”
To avoid such a scenario, teams could also space out customers by time, asking them to show up at specific gates within specific windows in an effort to avoid bottlenecks.
▪ The act of handing a ticket to an usher for scanning could risk viral spread, so there would be greater emphasis on self-scanning.
▪ Bag checks by security guards could prove problematic, creating the possibility that fans either couldn’t bring any bags into parks or that they’d be limited to a small, clear pouch that could be seen in its entirety without any physical contact.
▪ Body temperature scans at a mass scale could become a standard element for entry, with some in the industry wondering whether such checks could be integrated into the current use of security magnetometers. However, given that those infected with COVID-19 are often asymptomatic, temperature checks wouldn’t eliminate the risk of a carrier entering a game.
“It’s necessary but not sufficient,” said Stergachis. “This gets you towards mitigating risk if one were to check temperatures, but it doesn’t eliminate risk.”
Inside the venue
▪ In the last 20 years, sports venues have been reinvented to emphasize the flow of people between different entertainment options, a sort of larger scale Dave & Buster’s experience with a game at the center of food, drinks, games, activities, and merchandise sales at arenas. That would change in fundamental fashion if fans had to maintain physical distance.
“There will have to be new ways of creating human traffic,” said Professor David Hollander of NYU’s Tisch Institute for Global Sport. “Really, we have to hope there’s a vaccine. But I think in the interim, if you want to hold a live event, you’re going to have to think of the most frictionless way [to do so].
“I was at a Jacksonville Jaguars game a year ago. I can see the immediate elimination of the community pool.”
Perhaps ballparks and arenas would have to limit or even eliminate “secondary” entertainment options while also limiting freedom of movement inside of the venues to prevent overcrowded concourses, bathrooms, and concession stands.
▪ Decontamination of stands will have to become a staple of stadium operations. Hand sanitizer will become omnipresent in concourses. Cleaning staffs would have to be vigilant about the “high-touch” areas of facilities — including railings (both in stands and on escalators) and elevator buttons.
▪ Might there be a requirement for spectators to wear masks? If so, masks with team logos might replace caps or jerseys as the most frequently seen form of team apparel.
▪ With diminished crowds, it’s possible some of the standard issues at sporting events of overcrowded restrooms would be resolved. Still, teams might restrict the number of people in a restroom at any given time.
Concessions and merchandise
▪ It’s a quintessential part of the stadium experience: A hot dog passed from vendor to fan to fan to fan, with cash flowing back in the other direction. In all likelihood, that familiar ritual will be gone.
“They’ll have to have no stadium vendors,” said Zimbalist. “They’re not going to have people passing hot dogs down or passing anything down. That has to stop.”
▪ At an extreme, it’s possible sports venues could eliminate food and beverages entirely. Yet given that takeout remains an option during this time of isolation, it seems more likely that food will remain available but in different form.
“You might see something that’s a little more secure and a little more protective for people to be willing to buy,” said Gennaro. “I think you might see something that’s a little more prepackaged.”
That could mean pre-ordered boxed meals or wrapped concessions that are purchased at the same time as the ticket to minimize the exchange of food and money. Food boxes could be available for pickup from carts or some other more secure mechanism once inside the stadium.
▪ Beer and alcohol would be particularly complicated because of the need for ID checks. Given that teams would be reliant on fans to “self-police” their behavior and act in responsible fashion to observe social distancing tenets, it’s possible sales of alcohol could be restricted or eliminated.
Enormous bottlenecks form after games as people try to rush home, which could create considerable stresses on the public health infrastructure — not only for the sports venue, but also for surrounding neighborhoods and public transportation systems.
It’s possible those bottlenecks would be resolved by a diminished number of fans attending events, as well as by self-policing habits. Facilities might also need to control the pace of departures from each zone of the park.
Depending on the public health environment when sports venues reopen to fans, some of these measures may prove unnecessary. Some may exist for a time but eventually loosen or be eliminated. Unlike the post-9/11 environment that has seen permanent and growing increases to stadium security, there is some hope that adaptations to the pandemic may prove less restrictive over time.
The need to reassess every moment of a fan’s experience underscores just how hard it is to know with any certainty what measures will be necessary to resume spectator events in a fashion that doesn’t create enormous risks.
Alex Speier can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @alexspeier.