As recently as a few weeks ago, it would have been inconceivable that student athletes would be gearing up to return to campus as early as June 1st in some places. Now that’s a reality. You would’ve been very optimistic if you thought the NBA would almost certainly return to competition in July. They seem to be on that trajectory now. A majority of college football programs in the top 25 have announced intentions to have students on campus this Fall.
Right now, it seems almost inconceivable that sports fans will return to venues anytime soon, but I’m of the opinion that at least some states will see reduced capacity seating by August or September.
The first thing that made me think this was about a week ago when I saw a rumor that Vince McMahon was ‘actively hunting’ for a way to move WWE SummerSlam from Boston to a region that would allow fans. Florida and Georgia, whose governors Ron DeSantis and Brian Kemp have been aggressive in reopening, make the most sense. SummerSlam is currently scheduled for August 23rd. I’ve done no reporting to verify if this rumor is true, but it would hardly qualify as a Stone Cold stunner if it’s moved to accommodate fans.
Wednesday night, Ohio State AD Gene Smith came off the top rope to indicate that loosened restrictions could yield half-full football stadiums this Fall:
Just want to clarify:
The number of fans we could host in Ohio Stadium this fall under physical distance guidelines could be as low as 22k, but also may be as many as 40-50k if guidelines are relaxed. pic.twitter.com/VEUPFPc4V8
— gene smith (@OSU_AD) May 20, 2020
Beyond the health debates, which are about the last thing you want me to get into right now, there is going to be a fascinating discussion about competitive balance. What will conferences or leagues do if some regions allow fans and some don’t?
Because the NBA is likely going to finish its season in empty venues, the first league that will have to figure all this out is MLB — if their players and owners ever figure out their own money squabbles first. Money from the gate (tickets, concessions, and in-stadium merchandise) is about 30-40 percent of their revenue. This is a sport that has always grappled with economic disparities with the gate and local TV deals. Beyond the extent to which the energy of fans affects games’ outcomes, financial differences be exacerbated if some teams can recoup a proportion of the lost gate and others can’t.
College football and the NFL will also have to grapple with regional differences. College football has the advantage of being able to go conference by conference for micro fairness, but the NFL could have a wild conundrum on its hands. Let’s say hypothetically Florida and Georgia allow full stadiums by like October, and New York and California do not allow fans at all. What the heck would the league do?
The one part of this equation that I haven’t addressed yet is that there are all types of surveys (like this one) that indicate people won’t return to big public before there’s a coronavirus vaccine. I reject this hypothesis, and believe that as soon as government regulators permit citizens to return to stadiums and arenas, they’ll do so in big enough numbers to make an impact.