Getting folks back to fill Bryant-Denny Stadium this fall won’t be a problem. Greg Byrne knew that when he dropped this tweet earlier this month.
Such is the influence of the Alabama athletic director. One of the most powerful figures in college sports had correctly gauged both the pent-up demand of his constituency and the opinions of medical professionals who will make the final call.
“They’re optimistic about the fall,” Byrne said. “We’ve obviously have been listening the medical experts the entire time. It’s trending the right way.”
Those final five words are cause for celebration in a week that marks one year since sports shut down due to COVID-19. Suddenly, it’s OK to talk about packed stadiums and getting back to normal.
“We’re all going to plan for it,” Florida AD Scott Stricklin said, further indicating he is optimistic that stadiums will be fully open int he fall.
Simple science says so. Infection rates are down. So are deaths. Multiple vaccines are here. Wearing masks is working. Flattening the curve may turn to fatten up on nachos.
The mood and numbers have changed significantly since the last time we visited this topic in October. A recent survey by Dynamic Pricing Partners showed 72% of schools expect capacity crowds this fall.
“I want to be in a full stadium again. I want to be able to watch the game with people in the stadiums without cardboard cut-outs,” said Dr. Michael Lauzardo, who advises Florida as director of the Emerging Pathogens Institute at UF Health.
Lauzardo is among leading professionals who think stadiums could be full again by fall – possibly even without masks. But before our backsides are back in the stands, there’s a concession stand full of asterisks to consider.
The psychological factor
The likes of Alabama, Florida, Texas and others will have no problem selling tickets when things open up. Elsewhere, there’s a real sense that folks will fear sitting next to each other so soon.
“The more you’ve been in lockdown, the more you’re in lockdown. You’re just scared,” Lauzardo said. “You’re worried. It just messes with you.”
Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby’s conference is home to two of the 13 largest stadiums (Texas and Oklahoma). He is among those who say stadiums will be full again soon. But …
“There is a psychology of public assembly that will probably evolve,” he said. “People are going to have to ask themselves if they want to sit cheek by jowl with people they don’t know and maybe people that don’t have masks. You don’t know if they’re vaccinated or not.”
Schools, teams, stadiums and convenience stores may have to adjust. You want peace of mind? A time is coming when proof of vaccination may be required for admission.
No shoes, no shirt, no vaccine, no service?
The existing attendance problem
Before COVID-19 hit, college football attendance in 2019 had slipped for the sixth straight year to its lowest point since 1996. The SEC had its lowest average attendance since 2000. The Big Ten was at its lowest point since 1993. The Pac-12 sunk to its smallest average crowd since NCAA records were kept in 1978. It had already been a challenge to lure and keep butts in seats. It’s simply easier and cheaper to stay home these days.
College football faces an ongoing crisis trying making the experience more attractive. Now add the gradual emergence from lockdown intersecting with already existing marketing problems.
“It’s hard for me to imagine [attendance] will be 100%. It almost sounds like I’m being negative,” said Sherri Privitera, senior partner at Populous, one of the world’s leading sports architects. “I don’t mean to be that way at all. There are so many people that want to be, they need to be at full capacity. I hope and pray that we can be there. I just think predictions are hard.”
That means the sport’s attendance problem is almost certain to grow. Unless …
“Perhaps there will be a rebound effect,” said Dr. Michael Saag, director of the Division of Infectious Diseases at UAB. “People are so tired of not doing regular activities.”
The vision problem
For some reason, ratings for live sports have declined during the pandemic. That doesn’t make sense, but the Nielsens don’t lie. The 2021 College Football Playoff National Championship in January was the lowest rated in history (10.3) despite it featuring two of the nation’s most popular teams in Alabama and Ohio State. That was 28% lower than the 2020 game and 44% lower than the record set in the first CFP National Championship (18.6 in 2015).
And those declining ratings are not specific to college football either. In fact, they are worse elsewhere.
If fans are not going to games and not watching them on TV, is something else wrong? One TV industry expert told CBS Sports those ratings don’t measure how the 18-25 demographic consumes sports. That includes not spending three hours watching an entire game but staying engaged with it by watching highlights on social media.
“Everyone I’ve spoken with — friends, family — it’s almost like the college season was a throwaway,” another industry expert said. “It felt like everything was an exhibition. For me personally, the lack of fans and atmosphere did a real number on my enjoyment.”
A bold medical suggestion
At a recent mass vaccination event at The Swamp in Gainesville, Florida, Lauzardo was dismayed that 1,700 of 3,000 scheduled appointments went unfilled.
“People didn’t know if they met the criteria,” he said. Age, pre-existing medical conditions, which vaccines are available where and when they are available — it can all be a bit confusing.
Lauzardo believes the vaccine should be available to the majority of the population as soon as possible. Three-fourths of COVID-19 cases, he explained, are spread by folks in their 20s, 30s and 40s. That’s more than 60% of the population.
That also happens to be the key demographic of your average college football crowd. See the connection? More vaccines means more of that key demo in the stands.
“You’ve really got to start opening up the vaccine efforts to all age groups,” Lauzardo concluded. Right now, our impact on the spread is next to nothing. How many people get infected from a 65-year-old? Virtually none.”
The potty problem
The fan experience was already undergoing a transformation. Fans want more amenities — outdoor beer gardens, green spaces, just plain … room.
“Before COVID-19, we were looking at fan behavior and what folks want,” Privitera said. “They want more social space and less 18-inch-wide seats.”
Winning back the trust of fans is going to be a process. Privitera commissioned a study last year that reflected how willing and anxious North Americans are to return to sporting events.
More than a third are not willing to go to any indoor or outdoor events right now. About half of those surveyed are willing to return only if social distancing rules (masks, etc.) are followed and enforced. Thirty-five percent won’t return until they get the vaccine.
Fans are more likely to return with restroom modifications. Think of a constantly updated concourse “scoreboard” the location of the shortest wait times and shortest lines.
Conclusion: Whether or not we need to go, we want to go — to games.