Los Angeles – When North American sports leagues return to action after the coronavirus crisis, questions are sure to linger over whether the fans will be willing, or have the resources, to pack stadiums as they once did, sports analysts have said.
The pandemic caught the sports world by surprise, but after the NBA suspended its season on March 11, leagues around the world followed suit, culminating in the unprecedented postponement of the 2020 Games by a year.
How fans respond when the gates reopen — and it's anyone's guess how long that will be — depends on how this unique crisis is perceived, experts said.
After the leagues halted play following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, sports fans, many fueled by a new sense of patriotism, surged back into the stands.
The 1948 Olympics in London were pared down but still a success as fans celebrated the first games in 12 years following the end of World War II.
But COVID-19 is a different kind of crisis, one where the patriotic thing to do right now is stay home and fans may not be so eager to sit next to strangers again so quickly.
One problem is the very nature of live sports can contribute to the pandemic. For instance, a Champions League soccer match in Milan in February between Atalanta and Valencia likely helped fuel the spread of the virus in hard-hit Italy.
"In the past we've celebrated sports as a great return to normal," said Victor Matheson, a specialist in sports economics at the College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts.
"I think it will be a much more muted atmosphere (this time) because you're going to be looking at that person in the seat next to you," he said.
"That will be problematic until we get an all clear.
"That first game back, I think will be a little bit nervous."
On the other hand, the pent-up passion of fans to cheer on their favorite teams could win out, said Bob Dorfman, a sports marketing pundit with Baker Street Advertising in San Francisco.
"Absence makes the heart grow fonder and, assuming the world returns to some semblance of normalcy, I expect fans to have a greater appreciation of sports than ever before," he said.
"Attending live events will take on extra significance, the enthusiasm and fervor in stadiums and areas will be more intense, the passion for favorite teams and players heightened."
Another issue teams will have to grapple with is the changed economic landscape.
A record 3.3 million Americans filed for unemployment last week and the amount of discretionary income the public has to spend on live sports, already an expensive excursion, will be greatly diminished.
Dorfman expects teams to be sensitive to their patrons' needs.
"I think leagues and franchise owners will show greater appreciation for their fans, with more affordable tickets, lower-priced concessions, free or discounted parking, more free giveaways and special promotions," he said.
"Fan Appreciation Day will become Fan Appreciation Season. The economic repercussions of this pandemic could last quite a while, and fans with less disposable income mustn't be ignored."
A lot depends on the type of economic setback that lies ahead.
If it's V-shaped, where stalled economic activity bounces back quickly after the immediate crisis passes, leagues and fans may be able to return to normal relatively quickly.
But if it's a longer, U-shaped recession, the economic pain could carry on for years and have a more lasting impact, Matheson said.
It could especially hurt the backers of new, multi-billion NFL stadiums like the ones set to open in Los Angeles and Las Vegas next season.
"Everyone is hoping that we will be able to pick things back up right where we left off," he said.
"I don't know that any economist has a good answer for that right now."
Live sports were already facing competition from the rapidly improving home viewing experience, and the coronavirus pandemic could hasten the move from the coliseum to the couch, Matheson said.
"Sports face a long-term problem in that people's living rooms have simply gotten to be too good a place to watch sports," he said.
"In a world where you can buy a 65-inch TV with ultrahigh definition for the price of one family outing to an NFL game, that's a problem."
To be sure, the most popular leagues and franchises make the majority of their money licensing their games to broadcasters, not by selling tickets.
For example the NCAA's annual March Madness college basketball tournament, another event that was canceled due to the coronavirus, rakes in nearly a billion dollars from its telecast and less than $100 million from ticket sales.
"I think we'll continue this trend of moving away from the live venues and towards the home theater," Matheson said.
"Sports has a long-term problem that could be accelerated by this."
Dorfman said the residual reluctance of some fans to gather in large crowds will lead leagues, teams and networks to make the home viewing experience better than ever.
"I expect we'll see better cameras, more viewing choices, more players and managers mic'd up, more streaming opportunities, more social media access," he said.
"Fans will need to feel closer to the players, action and live experience, even as they might prefer to stay more isolated."
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