It has been a roller-coaster year for sports, and we’re nowhere near done. In recent weeks, the advent of rapid testing for COVID-19 appears to have led several college conferences, the Big Ten and Pac-12 among them, to reverse earlier decisions and declare that they’ll play a fall football season after all. Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott went so far as to call the conference’s agreement with Quidel to provide daily rapid-results testing “a game-changer” that will give student-athletes “the opportunity to pursue their dreams.”
We’ll be watching the coming weeks to see how that plays out—but the truth is, it’s probably not the biggest challenge facing the sports industry. No, the biggest challenge is this: How, and how soon, can conferences and leagues get fans back in the stands?
The abrupt restart of the college season has brought that question to the fore, as have plans by the National Football League (NFL) to play a full schedule. After eight months of watching on our screens and amid clear COVID-19 fatigue, the idea of a contest played in front of a packed house of electric-energy fans is beyond enticing. It’s the feeling of being part of something bigger, something communal, that appeals to so many sports fans.
But considering how many teams themselves are having trouble staying COVID-free, is the idea of fans in the stands even remotely worth considering? We’ll get to what we know about that (and what we don’t) in a moment. For now, staying true to sports, let’s look at the statistics.
In the NFL, money driven by in-stadium attendance is estimated to account for about 30 percent of league-wide revenue—somewhere in the area of $4 billion to $5 billion annually. So, as you might expect, the NFL is aggressively trying to figure out how soon it can fill the stands. It has left that decision to the individual teams. Of the league’s 32 franchises, 17 have plans to permit fans or are already doing so, but their approaches vary wildly, with the Dallas Cowboys permitting close to 25,000 fans per game, while the Pittsburgh Steelers and Philadelphia Eagles have been allowing about 5,500 in recent weeks. Following tumultuous recent weeks, with games being postponed and rescheduled, fan attendance will continue to be a hot topic.
In college football, the numbers change by the day. Already some 30 teams have plans to bring back 10,000 or more fans to their stadiums, and many more will do so in the thousands. Here, too, the financial incentive is powerful; college football teams generate revenue that can range from tens to hundreds of millions of dollars annually, and, in high-powered conferences like the SEC, Big Ten and Big-12, their success often is used to fund other athletic programs at their schools.
All of it matters. And none of it is possible unless having fans games can be deemed safe. So, is it?
“The idea of just opening a stadium and letting the crowds come back to capacity in