Major League Baseball is toying with the idea of playing games at Spring Training facilities. The NBA, NHL and other leagues try to figure out when it’s safe to return to action (all because of the coronavirus pandemic), potentially without fans in attendance.
But that begs a very large question: if you open the gates will people show up? Some researchers looked into it.
“I hadn’t seen any polls about sports fans activities so we felt like, let’s just go for it,” says Rick Gentile, Director of the Seton Hall University Sports Poll and former senior vice president of CBS Sports.
Turns out the answer to whether or not fans will go to games is, at least right now, is a resounding no. In a nationwide study, Seton Hall found 72% of Americans will not return to a sporting event until there is a coronavirus vaccine. That number does not drop significantly for U.S. sports fans.
“Among people who identify themselves as sports fans, people who follow sports very closely or closely, it’s 61%, which is still a really big number,” says Gentile.
Sports fans have, justly, earned the reputation of being intense, almost to the point of radical. So, the results came as a surprise to someone who’s spent several decades in the sports world.
“Honestly I wasn’t surprised by the American number, the general number, but I would have thought once they opened the doors sports fans would be clamoring to walk through them,” says Gentile.
Of course, this leads to several other questions, the most obvious being why? Sports fans have braved severe weather, the fear of terrorist attack in the wake of 9/11, and a bevy of other things to see the games they love. But this pandemic is something very different.
“What’s come out in the poll is that America has a very deep respect for this disease. They’re not fooling around,” says Gentile. ‘”It’s a surprise but kind of a refreshing surprise.”
This can be seen as an encouraging sign that the message of maintaining social distance and flattening the curve seems to be getting through. People are even willing to hold off on the National Football League, the most popular sporting entity in North America.
“What we have traditionally seen is the fervor of the sports fan … particularly a football fan … is it’s almost like there’s nothing that’s acceptable in terms of taking football away from us. We’ll put up with almost anything but don’t take our football away from us,” says Gentile. “This is absolutely the first time in the 14 years I’ve been doing this that even football fans are saying we can wait.”
As for when we can all get back together in an arena? Another part of the poll revealed Americans want to let medical experts determine that, not government officials or the individual leagues themselves.
“I don’t think there’s a light switch you turn on and say OK we’re back,” says Gentile. “We need to get some sense that we’re close to closure on this thing before anything happens.”
This has not had an impact on watching televised games. When asked if games were played without fans 83% of people said they would be as interested or more interested in watching the event on TV, which may spark leagues to continue trying to figure out ways to have their games go on in front of empty stands so they can fulfill their TV contracts.