Among the many questions facing the return of college sports is that of fan attendance. Will fans be allowed at all at college sports events this year? If so, will there be a numbers cap (that seems almost certain at this point). In football, which has to deal with the greatest numbers, how will actual seat assignments be made to meet social distancing requrements?
Of course, simply getting the football season off the ground and played will be a monumental task, given the increasing spread of COVID-19 and the disinterest of a significant percentage of the population in taking even basic precautions to help prevent it. However, administrators at many schools have been looking at different scenarios for attendance caps and ways in which to keep attendees more safely separated.
Among the biggest questions to be solved are:
- How to spread out entry and exit to prevent log jams and gates
- How will concessions be handled, if they are present at all?
- How to seat those who are allowed in to prevent casual contact?
There has been some discussion around this topic, but at this point it’s still of an anecdotal variety. Iowa State had mentioned a cap of some 30,000 — a bit less than half of the capacity of its home venue of Jack Trice Stadium — but has later heard calls from some health officials to ban fans altogether. Similarly, the four Big 12 Conference schools in Texas figure to be affected by Governor Greg Abbott’s declaration that fan attendance would be limited to 50% in his state.
Abbott’s changing stances reflect the nature of the pandemic, and how quickly things can change. Just two weeks prior, Abbott had stated that attendance would be limited to 25%, but then doubled that as he began a “reopening” of business, which has resulted in record highs of positve tests and infection rates.
Obviously, there are political and business considerations involved in making these calls, in addition to what should be the priority — the public health good.
The 50% threshold has been used in many scenarios as a strong possibility for a cap, but that too leaves a number of questions — some perhaps solvable, some problematic.
First is that at half full, most of the general seats in football stadiums don’t provide anywhere near the six-foot separation recommended for effective social distancing. On a row basis, if every other seat is occupied, the space between fans would be no more than two to two-and-a-half feet in most stadiums. And that solution wouldn’t provide any space between rows, which should optimally see every other one left empty. Executing that wold drop maximum attendance to something closer to 25%, rather than 50%.
That drop could be offset by seating family or other grops that have already been in close contact with each other side by side and row by row, but managing that process would be difficult. First, it would assume that all of the tickets purchased together in a group would be used by families or those who spend a good deal of time together. It would also not take into account the resale of those tickets to others, or the fact that a number of season ticket orders are comprised of multiple families or group of people who have no daily contact with each other.
Schools are also going to be faced with the unenviable job, if they choose the social distance route, of moving many season ticket holders to different locations this year. The majority of season ticket holders have the best seats, clustered between the 20-yard lines. To make social distancing a reality, many of those ticket holders will have to be spread out, and while those can be prioritized by current donor programs and points that exist at most schools, it still won’t be met well by a certain percentage of the fan base.
Looking at West Virginia specifically, several numbers stand out. Season ticket sales stood at about 16,000 at last report. Those fans, clearly will have first call on seats. Then there are students. In a normal year, some 10,000 seats are currently held for them, and while they are sometimes not used, thost sections are generally pretty full, albeit not until after kickoff.
For assumptions sake, lets say WVU sells another 4,000 season tickets. That would put it right at the 50% mark, also assuming that the number of student tickets allocated remains the same. There are no firm plans yet in any regard to attendance scenarios, but it is likely that only season ticket holders and students will be in the stadium this year, barring the appearance of a vaccine for COVID-19.
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What sorts of numbers is WVU, and each Big 12 school, looking at in terms of potential attendance scenarios? From Athletic Director U, here’s a look at the 10 conference schools, their capacities, and the numbers from 20%-50% attendance.
Big 12 Football Seating Capacities and Percentages