Sports Are About to Look Like 2019 Again

Remember this? Photo: Rob Carr/Getty Images

By the time you read this — assuming I am not hit by a truck on my way to a grocery-store pharmacy — I will have received my first shot of the Moderna vaccine. To begin the vaccination process is an undeniable personal milestone for anyone. And with the widespread inoculation happening around me, it feels like we might (hopefully) be entering the final stages of one of the most tumultuous, cataclysmic experiences you, I, or anyone else have ever lived through. It’s all sort of a big deal. Yet the prospect of getting a shot prompts thoughts less lofty and more banal and basic. Primarily: I want to know when I can go sit in a crowded stadium and watch a baseball game.

Let’s see … March 15 … second dose is April 12 … the CDC says two weeks after the second shot … that’s April 26. The Cardinals host the Phillies that day … $26 tickets for the Infield Terrace … flight booked.

Amid some confusion about what, exactly, people can do once they’re fully vaccinated, the country’s scientific apparatus has taken a cautious approach; the CDC only recently advised those in the clear that it was safe to gather together without masks. But the world of sports has never been the sort of place that waits around for anyone’s approval. Leagues and teams have been allowing fans into their buildings for months: reduced capacity for college football’s entire season, 22,000 fans at the Super Bowl, and 30,000-plus — the largest crowd of any American event since the pandemic began — at the Daytona 500 last month.

Now things are about to ramp up dramatically. The Texas Rangers announced last week that they will be opening up their stadium to full capacity (40,518) for Opening Day — though, strangely, they’re going to limit capacity on games after that, as if the virus will be too scared to attack people on April 5 but will be ready to take another run at it later that month. This is probably an academic discussion for the Rangers, who are terrible and highly unlikely to sell out their stadium consistently in any case. But even if a baseball team can’t sell 40,000 tickets, the WWE sure can. Wrestlemania will be held this April 10 and 11 at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, where the Super Bowl was just played. The WWE is aiming to sell 45,000 tickets, and it’ll more than likely get there. To be clear, all these stadiums are outdoors, where transmission of COVID is far less likely — but 45,000 people is still 45,000 people.

It is widely understood that until games and events are open to full capacity for all fans, every night, the economic catastrophe that has befallen sports over the last year will not abate. Forbes estimated that the four major North American professional sports leagues and the NCAA have lost more than $14 billion so far, and while the publication’s sports accounting is notorious for being a little shaky (and more than a little owner-friendly), there’s no question COVID-19 has been a disaster for all the major leagues. They need fans back, and they need them back as quickly as possible.

The vaccine rollout was expected to go slower than it has, which is one of the reasons Major League Baseball originally wanted to postpone the start of the season a month. When the players union rightly pointed out that there was no need to push the season back on the heels of one in which the league went two months without a positive test (albeit before COVID cases began skyrocketing last fall), MLB decided to just go ahead and let fans in anyway, at least in metro areas or states that would allow them. That turns out to be almost everywhere. (Even the Toronto Blue Jays, though they’ll be playing Florida since Canada still isn’t letting Americans in.) Nobody other than the Rangers are letting everybody in, but give them time. As we saw with the return of sports last summer, all it takes is a slightly cracked door for teams, leagues, and states to barge through. One day you’re playing in a bubble, the next day you’re getting screamed at by a drunk fan sitting just a few feet away.

Sports have a financial incentive to keep pushing the envelope. If COVID numbers continue to fall — and with the deluge of vaccinations and the warm weather coming, they are expected to — it stands to reason the stands will just get more crowded. Assuming that Wrestlemania and the Rangers’ full-capacity events aren’t superspreaders (if that could even be determined afterward, given the still sad state of contact tracing), the gates will just open wider and wider. The Atlanta Braves are already preparing for a full-capacity crowd at the All-Star Game they’re hosting this July, and by then it surely won’t have been the first one. There’s every reason to believe stands will be full of fans by May — if not before.

Will the COVID numbers be low enough to justify that? It doesn’t particularly matter at this point. Even as the pandemic continues to slowly ebb, little of American life resembles “normal” at this point, and everyone’s definition of “normal” is different to begin with. But if one of the things you have missed most during the pandemic has been sitting at a sporting event with a beer as a crowd roars around you, that opportunity is coming soon. Teams would probably prefer if you, like me, waited until you were fully vaccinated to do so. But they will happily show you to your seat regardless. Sports is going to back to normal, ready or not.

Sports Are About to Look Like 2019 Again