The Fans Can Go to Games Again. Will They?

A Los Angeles Dodgers fan celebrates catching a foul ball during game one of the National League Championship Series between the Dodgers and the Atlanta Braves. Photo: Ron Jenkins/Getty Images

If you watched game one of the National League Championship Series last night — a game that featured teams from California and Georgia but played in Texas — you might have noticed something that you have not seen at any other Major League Baseball game this season: fans. MLB decided, for the NLCS and the World Series, both played at Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas, to allow some 11,500 fans to attend per game. There are certain safety protocols in place (cashless transactions, roped-off sections where fans can’t sit, masks required, with two warnings and then an ejection if you don’t comply), but the fact remains, these are the first professional baseball games in North America to allow fans since spring training games in March, when the nationwide shutdown began because of COVID-19.

While it might be a surprise to see fans back in the stands, MLB is actually one of the most conservative sports in this regard. Nearly half the teams in the NFL are allowing reduced capacity for fans — the Cowboys, just next door to where the World Series is being played, are allowing the most fans, nearly 22,000 — but the doors have swung open the most for college football. Because there is no overarching authority in charge of college football (and thus having no universal protocols throughout the sport), most leagues and universities are allowing fans — with the exception of the Big Ten teams, which will begin play in two weeks. Here in Athens, Georgia, the University of Georgia has hosted two games with at least 25,000 fans, and while much of the stadium has a well-designed seating arrangement to keep fans in set groups of four more than ten feet away from each other, student sections are, uh, not as regimented:

For those of us who have been closely following sports’ attempts to crawl back from the sudden stoppage of play in March and salvage whatever we can from the 2020 season, it’s a bit surprising to see sports embracing fans in the stands so liberally. After all, one of the earliest horror stories of the pandemic was a February soccer game in Italy in which 40,000 fans packed San Siro Stadium in Milan to see Atalanta beat Valencia 4-1 in the Champions League. Two weeks after the game, cases exploded in Lombardy and Bergamo (where Atalanta is based and where fans presumably traveled to and from to see the match), and epidemiologists have estimated that nearly 1,000 people may have died as a result of that game alone, calling the game a “biological bomb.” That nightmare scared American sports from having fans initially — but only initially. The first American games to have fans were actually in the MLS (again, just down the road from where the World Series will be played, in Frisco, Texas), when fans booed players who kneeled during the national anthem. Great to have you back, fans!

The dam on having fans in attendance probably broke during the first NFL game of the season in Kansas City on September 10, when 16,000 fans were allowed in. It set the tone: If your local officials say it’s okay, it’s full speed ahead. (Perhaps inevitably, ten fans had to go into quarantine after that opener, and a week later, a COVID-positive fan made it into a field box, despite not being able to show a negative test.) The 25,000-plus fans at SEC games arrived shortly after that, and now, in the wake of Florida governor Ron DeSantis’s controversial decision to move to “phase three” of the state’s reopening plan, which allows stadiums (and restaurants) to be open at full capacity, Florida sports teams could have everyone packed shoulder-to-shoulder in the stands if they wanted to. So far most Florida schools and teams aren’t taking him up on it, but considering that Dan Mullen, the head football coach at the University of Florida, saying he wants “90,000 fans” for the Gators’ game against LSU on Saturday, it seems to be just a matter of time. If the way sports, particularly football, have acted in 2020 have taught us anything, it’s that schools and teams will be more aggressive, not less.

What’s strange about this is that, for most sports, in-game attendance is not a major driver of revenue. Owners and schools always claim that ticket sales are desperately needed, but the evidence for this is scant. Sports have increasingly relied on television rights as their primary revenue source over the last decade, and for good reason: NBA television-rights fees nearly quadrupled over a 20-year span. ESPN pays $5.6 billion just to air the college football playoffs; the NFL, the biggest TV get of all, was, at the beginning of the pandemic, thought to be eyeing nearly $10 billion in TV-rights deals in 2022, when most of their deals expire. A few bucks on tickets here or there, particularly in stadiums with reduced capacities, are just drops in the proverbial buckets. It would seem not worth it to push fans back into stadiums. The whole point of rushing sports back this year was to salvage TV contracts. Why press your luck?

There are two primary reasons. The first is 2021: Even with the games returning this year, the truncated seasons (not to mention lower-than-expected ratings) have cost teams and leagues a lot of money this year, and they need to get back to some semblance of normal next season. The best way to lay the groundwork for full (or fuller) capacities for full seasons in 2021 is to let a few fans in now; it’s easier to justify 75 or 100 percent capacity in 2021 if you successfully pulled off 25 percent in 2020. The second reason is that, well, so far there hasn’t been a massive outbreak of cases resulting from a sporting event. Those positive tests from the Chiefs game were a month ago, and while there’s reasons to be skeptical of the rigors of contract tracing in the states of Missouri and Kansas, there doesn’t seem to have been a huge uptick of cases that can be directly blamed on the game itself. This could change as college football gets further into its season — certainly here in Athens, all of us parents trying to get our kids back in school are warily eyeing the local numbers since the first home game ten days ago — but until there is something here in America like the Atalanta situation in Italy, teams, leagues, and schools have many incentives to keep pushing it.

As usual, though, the people with the power here are probably the fans. The people actually paying to attend these games may not necessarily share the rosy, power-of-positive-thinking optimism of the teams, leagues, and schools. Even at reduced capacities, many NFL teams haven’t been selling all their tickets; the Jacksonville Jaguars, for example, probably don’t need to worry about whether or not they should allow 90,000 fans if they can’t sell out their stands at 15,000. And look at secondary ticket markets — that first baseball game with fans last night, the one with reduced capacity? You could have gotten into that game for 45 bucks, a fraction of what a full-capacity NLCS game would generally cost you. You can get into tonight’s game for even less than that. That Florida-LSU game that Dan Mullen wants 90,000 people to go to? The University is still only letting 17,000 fans in, and you can get in for 100 bucks — much cheaper than a Florida-LSU game would be in a non-pandemic year. As economists have tried to warn every lockdown-opposing absolutist for months, you can’t fix the economy if people do not think it is safe enough to go out. Sports can pretend it’s normal to have fans in the stands. But most fans — the vast, vast majority of fans — don’t want any part of it. Considering how cases are starting to creep back up across the country, it’s difficult to blame them.

Sports, like the president who has pushed so hard for them to come back, can try to wish the virus away all it wants to. But despite all the viral photos of crowded student sections, it’s clear that most fans know better. And if the virus isn’t more under control in 2021, sports are going to have the same problem. You can always open your stadium doors. You still need people willing to walk through them.

The Fans Can Go to Games Again. Will They?