Empty seats have been the norm over the past few years at the University of Kansas, where a succession of football coaches has failed to turn around the flailing fortunes of the Jayhawks.
Now, all those open seats — and short lines and quiet concourses — are to be the norm in stadiums just about everywhere.
The COVID-19 pandemic has forced universities, leagues and franchises to evaluate how they might someday welcome back fans.
While opinions vary from sport to sport and nation to nation, one thing seems clear: Social distancing is a sure bet when fans return.
No one should expect 100,000-plus fans packed into Michigan Stadium for a football game this fall or 16,300 seated inside Kansas’ storied Allen Fieldhouse when college basketball season rolls around.
“We don’t know how we’ll be coming back,” Jayhawks athletic director Jeff Long said. “We’ve modeled 15 to 16,000 in Memorial Stadium, and to be honest with you, we’ve modeled Allen Fieldhouse — and I can’t bring myself to look at it because I know how few people it will be and that’s upsetting.”
Most colleges rely heavily on ticket sales, souvenirs and concessions in football and basketball to raise the bottom line to the point that nonrevenue sports can be fully funded, but smaller crowds are going to be necessary to ensure proper social distancing — in professional sports around the globe, too.
Forbes magazine estimates that the NFL would lose US$5.5 billion in stadium revenue if all games are played without fans, and the fallout for other leagues without lucrative TV deals could be catastrophic.
The coronavirus is most easily spread when an infected person coughs, sneezes or talks, spreading the droplets to people nearby. That is why guidelines from the WHO preach separation in public as an effective safeguard.
However, in a stadium, creating that kind of a buffer is no easy task. Most fans tend to file through the gates at the same time, creating a bottleneck in which thousands could be near each other. They gather in concourses to chat, or to buy food, drinks and merchandise. They stand in lines at restrooms. They surge toward the exits at the end of a game.
At baseball games in Taiwan, up to 1,000 spectators have been allowed into the ballpark, but they are barred from bringing food, concession stands are closed and they are told to sit three seats apart.
During a recent Fubon Guardians game in New Taipei City, about 900 people showed up at its 12,500-seat stadium.
“There’s plenty of social distance here,” said Guardians fan Sun Ming, who works in finance in New Taipei City.
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