Like bears ending their winter hibernation, many of us are emerging from months of isolation. During that time, we watched NASCAR and IndyCar continue racing via simulation, a virtual NFL Draft, every second of a Michael Jordan documentary and anything else that could be televised or streamed. But now, we’re eagerly anticipating the return to live sports. Actually, it’s a sort of return.
By the end of April, there were few left who still thought that sports could immediately come roaring back with sold-out grandstands. Until there is a COVID-19 vaccine, full-scale live events will pose the unacceptable health risk of recreating the Bergamo, Italy tragedy that was possibly caused by a Champions League soccer match.
On Sunday at Darlington, we saw the first of what will be a series of events without fans. That’s the first step. Step Two for spectator events will be a scenario some have dubbed “Fan Light.”
Just as light soft drinks have a lot less sugar, Fan Light events will have a lot less fans. Like, 75% less. Imagine a grandstand with 25% of the seats occupied with pods of families six feet apart. I’s not a rewarding prospect for promoters and leagues. Fewer fans means significantly less ticket revenue. If sponsors feel that lower attendance equates to lower return on investment, sponsorship revenue may be impacted as well. No matter what, from a financial perspective, Fan Light will be a bitter pill in 2020.
Despite the serious financial strain put on promoters and leagues, Fan Light may be safest route for sports’ return. In addition to lighter attendance, fans could see a variety of remedial measures to safeguard their health:
- Staggered arrivals to avoid clogged points of ingress to stadiums
- Screening, including temperature check stations or heat-sensing cameras
- Ordering concessions via smartphone apps and contactless food and beverage pick-up
- Heightened sanitation in common areas and restrooms
- Regulated stadium departures to avoid crowded points of egress
While at first these changes may irritate fans, I predict profound changes to how fans experience sports in-person. Frankly, it may lead to major improvements at live events. Last year, if I asked fans if they wanted easy stadium entry, no lines at beer concessions, more technologies to help them communicate better and restrooms cleaner than your house, the answer would be obvious. Today, once fans experience such conveniences, sports will be hard-pressed to reverse course tomorrow.
Someday, the grandstands will be sold out again, and the financial pain of 2020 will be in the rearview mirror. However, the fan experience may be improved in a way that promotes the long-term viability of live events. With luck, strong future support for the live sports experience will be the silver lining to the hardships experienced in the sports industry today.