Will the fans return to the stands after COVID-19?

Many factors come into play in determining when empty arenas will see fans again.
Many factors come into play in determining when empty arenas will see fans again.INA FASSBENDER/AFP via Getty Images

It’s impossible to know what demand for sports will look like in a later stage or on the other side of the COVID-19 pandemic. But at one level, people will be eager for the games to return.

“Since almost the beginning of humanity, the concept of play and athletic play — by that I mean sports — has been an intrinsically human, almost essential human part of human enjoyment,” said Professor David Hollander of NYU’s Tisch Institute for Global Sport. “Sports, as a basic societal value and priority, will not go away. People will want what sports offer — that escape, that separation from life. They’re an essential part of any society.”


Even setting aside the question of whether fans worry about the possibility of transmission of the coronavirus at mass gatherings, however, there’s a separate question of whether patrons will be able to afford to spend their savings on tickets should the public health environment permit a resumption of spectator sports.

Fans chase a home-run ball at Fenway.
Fans chase a home-run ball at Fenway.Jim Davis

“There will be new economic constraints that sports haven’t faced for many, many years,” said Smith College professor of economics Andrew Zimbalist. “Large numbers of the labor force are still going to be struggling in August or September. They’re not going to have the wherewithal, the disposable income, and the leisure to go to the ballpark and spend whatever, $75 per ticket and another $25 on concessions and another $40 on parking. Obviously some people will, but large numbers of fans won’t.”

Additionally, there remains some question as to how sports fans will respond after spending months without the nightly rhythm of sports to watch. While many yearn to watch pro sports, some may find their appetite for sports has changed. On top of safety concerns and the loss of disposable income, fundamentally altered life priorities for many during this time could crush demand for attendance at games.


Hollander suggests the entertainment world will be transformed by “the new consciousness of a society that has just come out of the trauma of at least tens of thousands, and maybe six figures, of human fatalities. We can’t even understand what that’s going to feel like.”

“We’re in for a major reset,” agreed Professor Vince Gennaro of NYU’s Tisch Institute for Sports Management, Media, and Business. “It will take us years to get to the new normal. It could be the next three years until we feel like this has really played through our system, this particular pandemic, where we’ve got the combination of vaccines, antibody testing, and treatment for those who get it.''

It is possible that the demand for sports will be as high as ever while the desire to experience sports in person will be at an all-time low. Notably, those two opposing forces could take place against a backdrop where technology continues to advance in a way that makes the experience of sports from the comforts of a living room feel ever more genuine.

Already, leagues had been exploring ways of broadening the stadium experience to those who aren’t present. The changed appetite for proximity to others — and changes in the ability to pay to attend sporting events — may accelerate that trend, with more interest in virtual reality streams of games that allow fans to “see” the field from the perspective of several seats in the park.


Will things be back to normal in time for Patriots' season?
Will things be back to normal in time for Patriots' season?Barry Chin

“You couple the issues we’re talking about with the pandemic and the mood around it with increased technology — people are going to say, ‘Wait a minute. I can buy a VR headset, the top of the line for $350.’ That might come down like high-def TVs have. If that’s the case, in five years, I can get 75 percent of the experience with 10 percent of the risk or 5 percent of the risk or 2 percent of the risk,” said Gennaro. “There are all sorts of things happening that will put downward pressure on attendance that will be a double-whammy with the virus.”

In short, there will be numerous forces that suggest dramatic changes in how sports are consumed. What will that mean moving forward?

“The truth is, we have no idea” said one sports executive.

But the reentry to sports — guided first by public health experts and infectious disease specialists, then by the financial realities and changed habits of fans, and finally by teams’ and leagues’ efforts to generate revenue — will almost certainly introduce a very different world from the one that existed as recently as last month.

“Right now we’re thinking, ‘How do we get out of the tunnel?’ " Zimbalist said. “There hasn’t been a lot of thought about what life is going to be like on the other side of the tunnel. It’s going to be pretty destabilizing.”


Alex Speier can be reached at alex.speier@globe.com. Follow him on twitter at @alexspeier.