As sellouts go, the crowd of 2,191 expected at the Bruins game Thursday night will represent a new low.
But the reopening of TD Garden — even at 12 percent capacity — followed soon by Fenway Park and Gillette Stadium, represents an immeasurable lift to a Boston pro sports scene that has gone more than a year without a single fan in attendance at one of the major venues.
“This building isn’t the same without fans,” said Amy Latimer, president of TD Garden. “Us that work here know it, I think the players feel it. I think the fans can’t wait, so I’m just so excited for [Thursday], and happy to have 2,200 of our closest friends come in.”
Thanks to COVID-19 trends and vaccinations moving in the right direction, Massachusetts is allowing sports venues that hold more than 5,000 fans to reopen at 12 percent capacity, with further bumps to 25-50 percent possible in the coming weeks and months.
The sanitation steps teams have taken and the protocols they are asking fans to follow are extensive, marking a new era of masked, socially distanced, and touch-free spectating.
At TD Garden, staff have walked up and down aisles and roamed through curving rows with tape measures to ensure that two- and four-seat pods are at least 6 feet apart, as mapped out by computer projections.
Those used to having the closest seats at TD Garden will endure the most changes, with the Bruins and Celtics pushing back their premium seats from the action while spacing things out at the same time.
An increase in capacity would add another layer of spatial complexity to the task. The Celtics and Bruins have drawn up separate manifests for seating plans at 25 and 50 percent. They say they can achieve true 25 percent capacity, but if 6 feet of separation remains the standard, space would run out and render a 50 percent capacity limit meaningless.
They didn’t teach any of this in business school.
“This is a whole new educational process for all of us,” said Glen Thornborough, chief revenue officer of the Bruins, with a laugh. “There was a surprising amount of legwork that was manual.”
Mapping out the seating charts was just the first half of the riddle. The second half was determining who would get to sit in the seats.
The Bruins, said Thornborough, “architected it around tenureship,” meaning a limited number of tickets (two or four) to just one of the first eight games was offered first to “Legacy” season ticket holders, then “Platinum,” then “Gold”, and on down. Once that was completed, the team went down the list again, offering another chance to buy tickets for another game. On Wednesday, the club put tickets on sale for the last nine games of the season, with the same two- or four-ticket limit. A sellout of all the games at 12 percent capacity is expected.
Thanks to a slightly larger sellout capacity — 19,156 vs. 18,258 — the Celtics will welcome 2,298 fans Monday night when their home slate reopens to fans.
The difference in their approach from the Bruins is subtle.
Season ticket holders with the best seats (courtside) got the first shot — three games, again at either two or four seats max — followed by center-court seats, corner-to-corner in the lower bowl, and on up to the balcony. There were 11 sale “waves,” said Shawn Sullivan, chief marketing officer of the Celtics.
“Within your wave, it depended first on where you sat, then it became tenure-based,” said Sullivan. “Fifteen-plus-year season ticket members got first crack, then people years 7-14 got next crack, then years 4-6, then 1-3.
“It was such a jigsaw puzzle. We wanted to make availability possible to as many season ticket members as possible.”
David Moskowitz was one who got a chance. But the experience initially gave the 71-year-old Needham resident a self-described “conniption fit.”
“I get frustrated easily,” said Moskowitz, a Celtics season ticket holder since 1980-81.
After his season ticket representative was unable to give precise tiered pricing information, Moskowitz went online to try his luck. When the five-minute Ticketmaster clock expired before he had completed his three game purchases, he had to start all over. When he returned, the seats he wanted for a Miami Heat game were gone. He wound up with worse seats than he wanted for that game, as well as seats to two other games.
He has calmed down, though.
“I got my three games — I’m happy,” he said. “Two of the tickets are pretty comparable to what I normally have; one game I’m a little worse. In the end, that’s reasonable. Could they have made it less stressful? Yes, but I don’t think in the end it would have changed that much.”
Upon hearing Moskowitz’s tale, Sullivan said, “That’s good feedback. I’ll make sure that’s something we address.”
After giving their season ticket holders priority access to purchasing tickets over the last few weeks, the Red Sox released a limited number (not including the April 1 season opener) to the general public on Thursday, with a limit of one two- or four-ticket pod per game.
Tickets initially will be offered at 2020 individual-game prices, the club said, with prices fluctuating based on availability, opponent, and weather conditions. Twelve percent of Fenway Park’s nighttime capacity of 37,755 is 4,531.
The Revolution, whose home opener at Gillette Stadium is April 24, say they are ready.
“We’ve been prepping for this,” said Revolution president Brian Bilello. “At Gillette Stadium, we were hopeful of opening to fans in 2020 for both the Revs and Patriots and we were never able to do that. Safe to say we’ve been preparing for almost a year for this moment. A lot of work has gone into it.”
The club is designing its seating manifest around season ticket holders, with two-, four-, and six-seat blocks available. At 12 percent, the stadium can hold just under 8,000 fans, said Bilello. Seating assignments will be finalized in the coming weeks.
Bilello said about 25 percent of season ticket holders deferred their shot at buying the first allotment of games, preferring to wait until July. That 75 percent are ready to return in April, he said, is “very strong.”
More than 10,000 square feet of plexiglass has been installed in Gillette Stadium at points of sale, food prep areas, the press box, broadcast booths, and restrooms. There also has been investment in a host of sanitation products, including devices that emit COVID-killing ultraviolet rays, microbiostatic protective layers on high-touch surfaces, CO2 monitors, electrostatic sprayers, and plenty more.
Fenway Park officials have partnered with both an ultraviolet-technology and an air-purification company as part of their hygiene efforts.
Gillette, Fenway, and TD Garden will all require masks unless you’re at your seat eating or drinking, and will use as much mobile and cashless technology as possible to reduce touchpoints.
It’s almost a soft opening, with just 2,000-plus fans flocking to Causeway Street. Maybe in a few weeks, the state will raise capacity. Stadium operators are standing by for that call.
“Oh yeah, we can’t wait,” said Latimer. “Are you kidding? We do 18,000-19,000 people in our sleep. This is what we’ve done for 25 years.
“We are very ready. We have our protocols lined up based on percentage increases. When they’re ready to let us know it’s safe, we’re ready to increase to meet that need.”