Empty seats have been the norm for the past few years at the University of Kansas, where coach after coach has failed in an attempt to improve the Jayhawks’ performance.
But now, those wide spaces in the rows and in the corridors would become the new normal in all other stadiums.
The coronavirus pandemic has forced universities, leagues, and franchises to evaluate how they will one day readmit the public. Although opinions vary among different sports, nations and states, one thing seems clear: There will be measures of social distancing once fans can return.
So no one can expect more than 100,000 spectators to gather at Michigan Stadium for a football game. It won’t even be possible for 16,300 people to sit inside the Allen Fieldhous in Kansas when the college basketball season begins.
“We don’t know how we will return,” acknowledged Jayhawks athletic director Jeff Long. “We have made models ranging from 15 to 16,000 people at Memorial Stadium and, to be honest with you, we have also made models of the Allen Fieldhouse, and I can’t even look at them, because I know how many people there will be, and it’s kind of annoying.”
Most higher education institutions rely on the sale of tickets, food, and other products in stadiums to raise revenue to a point that makes it possible to fund their basketball and football teams. But it will be necessary to reduce the number of spectators to mitigate the risks of contagion, as is also contemplated in professional sports.
Forbes estimates that the NFL would lose $ 5.5 billion in stadium revenue if all games of the season were held without an audience. The consequences could be catastrophic for other leagues, without lucrative TV deals.
The virus that causes the condition COVID-19 spreads more easily when a carrier coughs, sneezes, or speaks, and small droplets of saliva spread to someone nearby. That is why the parameters of the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control (CDC) and the World Health Organization contemplate separating the public as an effective protection mechanism.
But in a stadium, it is not so easy to implement those measures.
Most spectators tend to go to the front doors simultaneously, creating a bottleneck in which thousands of people could share a small space. Also, fans usually gather in the hallways to chat or buy food, drinks and items alluding to their favorite teams.
In the same way, they line up in the bathrooms, and the exits crowd at the end of the match.
Few teams and leagues have revealed their plans to hold sporting events in the last quarter of this year. The tentative steps of some allow us to intuit what will happen.
Iowa State University intends to sell only half of the tickets usually available for football games at Jack Trice Stadium. Notre Dame has warned that there will be fewer spectators and will impose limits on the celebrations that some make in the parking lots.
In the NFL, the Miami Dolphins unveiled some ideas they consider, such as using only half of the turnstiles to enter the stadium, dividing spectators into different sections, ordering them to come out organized by each row, and using technology to minimize contact between people as much as possible.
Once the fans return, it will be crucial to leave space between each seat. And it will not be an empty space.
Teams and leagues are investigating the possibility of using temporary signs, spread across entire sections of the stands and with messages from sponsors. Doing so would help make up for lost revenue from unsold tickets.
Similar posters are already used for decorative purposes at concerts and other events. Some were visible over the weekend at Bristol Motor Speedway during the NASCAR race in Tennessee.
Another idea is to turn sections of the bleachers into temporary “suites,” where groups of 10 friends or family can witness the encounters, away from other people – and potentially paying a higher price.
“There are many different things that can be done,” said R.J. Orr, whose Arizona-based Bluemedia company specializes in these types of temporary grandstand structures. The organization has already worked with Arizona State and other universities on similar projects.
The next challenge is keeping fans apart when they leave their seats. A company called WaitTime has security applications linked to security cameras, which allow spectators and stadium operators to see how crowded certain areas are.
A motion analysis company, iinside, uses sensors to detect crowds that would prove dangerous.
“We are working on tools to place crowd density images on stadium maps,” said Sam Kamel, CEO of iinside. “These maps would later warn fans if they should avoid something or when is the safest time to buy a hot dog or a Coke, and when the food facilities are too crowded.”
Thus, it is clear that the experience of the spectators will be very different.
At baseball games in Taiwan, a maximum of 1,000 spectators have been allowed to enter, who cannot bring food. Food and drink stalls are closed. Fans must leave a distance of three seats from each other.
And the situation could be similar in much of the world for some time.
AP journalists Dave Campbell, Larry Lage and John Pye contributed to this report.