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Spectators are Returning and Event Owners Say It's Past Time

6 Nov, 2020

By: Mary Helen Sprecher

From the NFL to the PGA TOUR to local tournaments, event owners are becoming aware that there’s nothing like the roar of the crowd to create a better experience.

Even when the crowd isn’t that big.

Such was the case in late November when the Florida Gators and Texas A&M went head to head. Texas prevailed but Florida coach Dan Mullen, in the words of The Eagle Newspaper, “paid the 12th man the ultimate compliment.”

“The section behind our bench, I didn’t see an empty seat,” Mullen said. “It was packed, the entire student section. Must have been 50,000 people behind our bench going crazy.”

Mullen was right about the crowd making a difference, but 50,000 was actually an overstatement. The official attendance was less than half that at 24,725. And of that, 10,718 were students.

The article noted, “It sounded like more because the fans were passionate, and it was an entertaining game. The crowd looked bigger because the student section was more populated and since they were standing, the empty rows didn’t show on television.”

“Great atmosphere out there,” Mullen said. “[The] crowd was certainly a factor in the game.”

On the other end of the spectrum was PGA pro Justin Thomas who, when playing in the ZoZo Championship, told the Golf Channel he found it hard to maintain his competitive edge without the adrenaline a crowd provides. And, he noted, he wasn’t alone. Many players have talked about life on the PGA TOUR without fans and how difficult it is to stay mentally sharp.

“I've got to find a way to kind of just stay a little bit more focused out there,” Thomas said. “It's crazy, but sometimes it's hard to just kind of keep the killer instinct and stay in the zone when it's as quiet as it is out there. It's tough, but we're all dealing with it and I just have to find a little bit better way to cope with that.”

In some cases, the fact that spectators can’t be hosted has led to the decisions not to host specific events. The Stadium Business noted that the NHL had decided to postpone its 2021 Winter Classic and All-Star Weekend events, citing the need for fans as being crucial to the successful staging of both events.

“Fan participation, both in arenas and stadiums as well as in the ancillary venues and events that we stage around the Winter Classic and All-Star Weekend, is integral to the success of our signature events,” said NHL senior executive vice-president and chief content officer Steve Mayer. “Because of the uncertainty as to when we will be able to welcome our fans back to our games, we felt that the prudent decision at this time was to postpone these celebrations until 2022 when our fans should be able to enjoy and celebrate these tentpole events in-person, as they were always intended.”

Unfortunately, that means a loss of economic impact to the cities where the events were to be hosted. In 2019, the NHL All-Star Game and Weekend were held in St. Louis, where officials told KMOV-TV they expected to see a $20 million gain as a result. When St. Louis was gearing up to host the Winter Classic, the NHL had an equally rosy forecast, stating, “The total economic impact of the 2017 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic® includes direct visitor spending and direct operations at Busch Stadium, which is expected to total $9.6 million. The direct expenditures will ripple through the local economy to generate about another $8.9 million in indirect and induced expenditures. Collectively, these sums total $18.5 million positively impacting St. Louis.”

And not having fans can even be a factor in the awarding of a major sports event. Even venerable Wembley Stadium, which was given the rights to host the 2020 Euro UEFA Finals, might lose that because fans are not allowed.

Little by little, sports event owners and governing bodies are recognizing the fact that while COVID-19 isn’t actively going away, it can be prevented by social distancing in arenas and stadiums. And cities are recognizing that with their economies in a slump, one of the best things to do is bring back spectators who will not only buy tickets but eat in restaurants, shop in stores and stay in hotels – all key sectors that have been damaged by the pandemic.

The University of Cincinnati men's and women's basketball teams are hoping to have a "limited" fan presence inside Fifth Third Arena for their upcoming seasons, UC Director of Athletics John Cunningham said.

"If we can do it, we will," Cunningham told The Cincinnati Enquirer. It was an about-face for the AD, who had previously announced there would be no season tickets, and it may be a harbinger of a better season than last year.

Outdoor events by far, have had the most success in bringing back people. The NFL has allowed its individual teams to set up rules for attendance; a team-by-team synopsis can be found here. Attending games at stadiums across the country depends on where and when, and guidelines vary from state to state regarding the coronavirus pandemic and the level of COVID-19 cases.

As mentioned earlier, the PGA TOUR had been closed to fans since COVID hit in March, although in September, the Champions Tours Sanford International was played at the Minnehaha Country Club in Sioux Falls, South Dakota – and spectators were present. South Dakota has no COVID restrictions, and according to The Morning Read, a golf blog, there were approximately 2,000 spectators present – with no problems.

“If the Sanford International is any indication, and if what experts are saying about the slim chances of outdoors transmission of the coronavirus is accurate, it appears as if having 2,000 spectators at a golf event should be OK. We also know that the PGA TOUR's medical staff would not have signed off on the Bermuda Championship and the Houston Open having spectators if they perceived it to be a problem.”

The Houston Open, according to The Golf Channel, hosted 2,000 fans per day on property.

GolfWorld offered this excellent synopsis (the whole story is here):

“We’ve gone almost seven months without fans, and when we first came back we wanted to make sure first and foremost it was safe for the players, caddies and all the essential people at the course and make sure it could run smoothly,” said Billy Horschel, a five-time tour winner and a member of the tour’s player advisory council. Horschel contends 2,000 a day is easily a “manageable number to maintain safety for the fans.”

Horschel also noted that “sponsors have also been pushing to have fans back, and we understand why. Everyone takes a financial hit without fans.”

Which brings us to the second point: money.

Simply put, holding tournaments without fans isn’t a financially viable option long term, not when title sponsors are investing between $8 million and $13 million (or more). Recently, the tour started allowing pro-ams again, a revenue stream that’s worth a seven-figure sum at some events. Then there are the fans on-site and all the ways they contribute to the bottom line.

Even in the small numbers of this week, the revenue is meaningful. Tickets for the first three rounds are $79 and $109 for the final round. That adds up to nearly $700,000 for the week, not including parking, merchandise and food and beverage sales.

“We have the opportunity to think about our events returning to profitability,” said Tyler Dennis, PGA Tour senior VP and chief of operations. “That is charity in our world.”

To Dennis’ point, finances played a role in one tournament—the John Deere Classic—not being played at all last summer and impacted many of the ones that were held in a reduced amount of charitable dollars going back into the local communities due to a lack of spectator revenue. (Seriously, the whole GolfWorld article we just quoted from is great; make sure you read it in its entirety).

Amateur events, particularly at the youth level, have been a little trickier when it comes to hosting spectators – but many have established guidelines. The 2020 AAU Junior National Volleyball Championships in Orlando, Florida, for instance, did not allow at-large spectators for the indoor tournament, and in order to limit the number of people in the facility, noted that each team could bring 15 players, 5 bench personnel and 10 chaperones.

The National Travel Basketball Association (NTBA) hosted three national championship events (two for boys, one for girls, all ranging in age from third to twelfth grade) that took place indoors at the Myrtle Beach Sport Center in July. And according to John Whitley, NTBA’s president, it was wire-to-wire communication, smart practices and cooperation between all parties involved that generated the big win.

Spectators were required to adhere to regulations concerning wearing masks and sitting apart (with the exception of family members).

“We did allow spectators, but we used a formula; for every 1,000 square feet in the facility, we had five people. That meant that at any given time, there was a maximum number of 500 inside. The Myrtle Beach Sports Center actually has 4,679 seats; it’s a 100,000-square-foot facility.”

After each wave of games took place, the arena was emptied of spectators, officials and athletes. Sanitization then took place; the area was fogged and all surfaces that had been touched were wiped down. The end result was a tournament that generated uniformly positive reviews.

“Overall, what we found was that kids had been cooped up and they were just dying to get out there and do something fun. The coaches said they’d been begging to get out and play, and to do that in a safe manner. We were able to give them an outlet they didn’t have when they were in quarantine.”

Bonus round: The events generated over $2 million in economic impact and provided a much-needed boost to local vendors and merchants – as well as a good experience for the kids.

Another youth event allowing spectators was the AAU’s Junior Olympic Games, held on Florida’s Space Coast. AAU did take precautions, with temperature checks, mask requirements and plenty of instructions listed on prominently posted signage. And the organization’s officials went so far as to not have the pole vault, high jump or triple jump events, only because of safety issues with bouncing off and touching the mats or landing and touching the sand pit area. They also cordoned off various rows of bleacher seats to encourage social distancing.

According to Florida Today, the four-day track and field event — the marquee of the two-week long national AAU showcase in Brevard County — attracted 2,148 athletes, including 290 teams, from 44 states. There were 661 total heats and flights.

Want some more impressive numbers? The total AAU event might have generated as much as $1 million in revenue for local hotels and $50,000 in Tourist Development Tax revenue for the county, in addition to the economic impact to restaurants, retail shops and local attractions.

It was so much fun here," Jeff Starr (Junction City, Oregon) told reporters. "You have a beautiful place. And we got to see a rocket launch. How about that? A chance of a lifetime."

Starr, who came to see his daughter, Calley, compete in the 3,000-meter race walk, added that he had no concerns about the virus that has intimidated so many youth sports tournaments this season.

“The community did a fantastic job,” Starr said. “The people at AAU took precautions; it was all about safety. A great job."

While many events are still playing to empty arenas – some populated with everything from cardboard cutouts of fans to teddy bears (seriously – don’t miss the incredibly adorable picture), it appears spectators are making every bit as much of a return as sports themselves. But like sports themselves, their return will be a gradual process, rather than an immediate event.

But it makes a difference, according to the article in The Eagle about college football, which noted that the presence of South Carolina fans, 15,000 strong, could be felt during the Gamecocks’ 31-27 loss to Tennessee and 30-22 win over Auburn at Williams-Brice Stadium.

“To tell you the truth, you couldn’t really tell it was empty,” Tennessee linebacker Henry To’o To’o told The State newspaper. “South Carolina’s fans did a great job of coming out and supporting them playing. It might have looked empty, but it was still loud and they bring that energy for them.”

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