On Twitter, I was recently part of a discussion over how the ticket-buying public will behave when big-time American spectator sports are again open to fans.
When fans are free to attend Kentucky Wildcats games, other college events and NBA, MLB and NFL matchups, what will happen?
Will a pent-up demand for normalcy lead to throngs of fans packing our nation’s major sports venues the first chance they get?
Or will the combination of the lingering threat of COVID-19 plus the economic dislocation caused by the government-mandated shutdowns of American businesses lead to persistently smaller crowds?
In the current vacuum without live sports, there are metrics that suggest how much the games are missed.
The TV ratings for ESPN’s telecast of the WNBA Draft on April 17 were up 123% over 2019.
In its first two installments shown last Sunday night, ESPN’s 10-part Michael Jordan film, “The Last Dance,” drew the largest audience ever for a documentary on that network, an average of 6.1 million viewers.
Thursday night’s first-round of the 2020 NFL Draft also drew 6.1 millions viewers on ABC alone. That is more than 1.5 million viewers more than the 2019 first round drew — and does not include the multi-platform numbers.
People, clearly, are seeking a sports fix. But will that translate into game attendance once that again is possible? Seeking theories, I surveyed some prominent Kentucky sports figures.
“I think (sports fans) will come back as soon as they can,” says Kenny Rice, the NBC Sports television reporter who lives in Lexington. “I definitely think people are going to be clamoring to get back to doing something, and sports will be a big part of it.”
Alan Stein, the Lexington-based, former minor league baseball executive/team owner, is not so sure.
‘I think there will be an initial euphoria about going back to (ballgames),” Stein says. “I believe it will wane quickly and be a very tepid rebuild to get back to where we were. I don’t think it will even come close to that until and unless we get a vaccine for this thing.”
Whether the public has confidence in its safety as part of crowds when the quarantine ends — whether that is the result of an effective coronavirus vaccine or some other measure — is the key to the successful relaunch of fan-attended sporting events, Kentucky Speedway General Manager Mark Simendinger says.
“I think once people gain the confidence to know they can congregate, I think people will choose to congregate,” Simendinger says. “People enjoy (being in a crowd), they miss that.”
As of April 23, a whopping 26 million Americans had filed for unemployment since the coronavirus-containment shutdowns of businesses began.
Given those grim numbers, one would surmise that the level of disposable income available to buy sports tickets will not be the same as before the pandemic.
“I will be shocked (if the current economic distress) doesn’t have an impact on virtually every spending decision,” Simendinger says, “whether it has to do with sports or entertainment or even just purchasing in general.”
If there is a positive in the current situation, Simendinger says, it is that once the various state governments start allowing businesses to operate again “you can’t open things back up without (re-hiring) some employees. So you will immediately have some people, at least, coming back.”
Stein says his father and the generation that survived the Great Depression were impacted by that experience for the rest of their lives. “Those who lived through the Depression were much more parsimonious, much more conservative (with money), even as the economy grew stronger and they did well in life,” he says.
Stein thinks young people now going through the current economic tumult might be affected in a similar manner. “Even when we have recovered from this, which we will, I think there may be an attitudinal change about how we spend and what we spend on,” Stein says.
In the meantime, it seems possible that major American pro sports will recommence at some point this summer with no fans in the stands.
“We may have a summer full of football and baseball being played in empty arenas for the sake of television,” Stein says. “If that happens, and those habits get ingrained, that’s a very dark prospect for spectator sports as we know them.”
Against these headwinds, we will have to see if the rush of adrenaline that comes with being a part of big-game crowd and the fun of spending time with buddies in the stands will still put fans in seats in traditional numbers.
“The whole camaraderie thing is as much a part (of the experience) as watching the game or the horse race you are attending,” says NBC’s Rice. “That’s the biggest part of it, to share it with your friends.”
A Notre Dame graduate, Simendinger says he has spent part of his time during quarantine watching video of the epic Fighting Irish men’s basketball upset of No. 1 UCLA in 1974 that ended the Bruins’ 88-game win streak.
“You watch all the Notre Dame people storm the court, it’s the crowd that makes (the moment) great,” Simendinger says. “That’s what people miss, and that’s what they will want to be part of again.”
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