Do Sports Need Fans

As sports begin to dip their toe into what their post-pandemic product will look like, fans haven’t been a part of the equation. NASCAR, UFC, some European soccer leagues and now the PGA Tour have held competitions, but no “in-person” fans have been allowed.

Without fans, races have been won, fighters have had their hands raised and money has been doled out to golfers. So do they even need fans?

Watching the Colonial this week on television I didn’t miss seeing fans there. Charities in Ft. Worth won’t benefit from money generated by the tournament, but the actual competition didn’t suffer. As an individual sport, most of the players in golf naturally “social distance.”

They’re reportedly going to allow fans at The Memorial in Ohio next month. Early indications are that about 8,000 will be spread out over the 18 holes at Murifield Village allowing everybody their own space.

When the first UFC event was held here, former NFL player Greg Hardy won his match and said afterwards, “Thank God for not having the crowd,” Hardy explained after winning a unanimous decision. He was able to hear the announcers next to the octagon doing the broadcast and took some advice.
“Shout out to D.C. (Daniel Cormier) I heard him tell me to check him, so I started trying to check him. Game changer.”

Professional wrestling had its stars in the era of Bruno Sammartino, Jim Londos and Gorgeous George Wagner but it wasn’t until it moved onto television did the sport gain any traction. In fact, most regional wrestling groups started as a “studio” sport: no fans, just the performers and the announcers in a television studio.

That popularity led to the massive crowds that are on hand now at every appearance. It spawned the movie careers of Dwayne Johnson and John Cena. But if need be, wrestling could go right back to a TV production and not skip a beat.

For decades, the NFL has fought against being a studio sport. You’ve probably seen and heard the commercials produced by the Jaguars about “being there.”

It’s true, the sights and sounds and even the smells of being at a sporting event give some context to what that sport is about. That doesn’t translate through the television screen.

I’ve often said everybody should go to at least one Daytona 500. The spectacle of that day is jarring to the senses and gives you a sense of how invested fans are in the sport. To see the coordination of what happens on pit road and in the garage is impressive. The smell of grease, gasoline and burnt rubber, the sound of forty cars coming across the start/finish line make it unmistakable that you’re at a racetrack. You don’t get that on television. Seeing it in person is a whole different experience. But even without fans there, the racing, the pit stops, the preparation all happens the same way.

In 2017, the New York Knicks played half of a game against Golden State at Madison Square Garden presenting the game in what they called “it’s purist form.” No music, no PA announcer, no iconic organ in the background. Just ten players on the floor, shoes squeaking and the trash talking that goes on between teams.

Everybody hated it.

“It felt like church,” Warriors Head Coach Steve Kerr told the media outlet The Ringer.

Draymond Green was more direct

“That was pathetic,” he said. “It changes the flow of the game, it changed everything. It was ridiculous. It just helps you get into a certain area. It takes you to a certain place.”

Perhaps that’s why the NBA is considering piping in crowd noise from their NBA 2K video game when they resume their competition, without fans.

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has told teams there’s a real possibility that no fans will be allowed at games through next season as well. Will they use paper cutouts or perhaps robot dolls as some teams in the Korean Baseball League have?

“There’s no excitement. There’s no crying. There’s no joy. There’s no back-and-forth. …” LeBron James said on the “Road Trippin’” podcast in March when asked about playing in front of empty arenas.

“That’s what also brings out the competitive side of the players, to know that you’re going on the road in a hostile environment and yes, you’re playing against that opponent in front of you, but you really want to kick the fans’ a** too.”

We would get a little closer to the games with no fans according to Steph Curry. “It would be raw,” he said on the Jimmy Kimmel Show. “This would take it a whole ‘nother level of just pure insanity of what we say on the court. That trash talk that happens. That might be something that’s really appealing from a fan perspective to get real up close and personal with what we do on the court.”

Hockey could probably do the same as basketball because it’s indoors. Pipe in crowd noise, have music and the PA announcer to give it the right ambience. But it still might have the feel of a glorified scrimmage once the players take the ice.

How many times have you been watching an event on television and heard the broadcaster, who’s in the arena say, “You can really feel the momentum shifting here.” None of that would be a part of the competition.

Could sports get along without fans from an economic standpoint?

Every viable professional sport has a television contract that makes it a profitable enterprise. It’s not whether the teams and the owners will make money; it’s only about how much.

In the NFL, the TV contract the league has and shares with the teams covers the total operating cost of running the franchise. Ticket sales, parking, concessions, club seats, sky suites, local radio and TV contracts and in stadium sponsorships all go right to the bottom line. It’s why the Giants and the Jets owners will always make more money than the Jaguars owner.

The local broadcast money available in in New York alone dwarfs what’s available in Jacksonville. It’s why the Jaguars, sellouts or no sellouts, will always be in the bottom half of revenue earners in the league.

Ticket sales in the NFL account for around fifteen percent of their total revenue. A 65,000-seat stadium, sold out at an average ticket price of $50, (which is probably a low number), brings in $3.25 million. Multiply that by ten games and you get a sense of how much money is flowing through that sport. They could get along without fans, no problem.

Minor league baseball and college football are a different story. With no major television deal and small rights fees, if any for radio broadcasts, minor league owners around the country rely on ticket sales, concessions and in stadium sponsorship to stay in business.

College football television contracts mostly are negotiated with the conference. It’s why college football programs count on ticket sales and in stadium purchases for 75% of their revenue. When you look at how many other programs on campus the football program supports, you can see how they need fans in the stands to flourish.

As we move into the summer, the prospect of Major League Baseball having a season becomes more remote. It’s not that they couldn’t play, but the players and the owners can’t come to an agreement on how much money both sides will make. Player’s contracts are guaranteed for the season if only one game is played. But the owners don’t want to pay full salaries for a limited number of games, which are moneymaking opportunities. Both sides have rejected the other’s offers.

“It’s going to be strange,” Angels All-Star outfielder Mike Trout told FOX Business when asked about playing with no fans. “I think any baseball is better than no baseball, so if we have to do it, we have to do it. It’s definitely something to get used to. It’s the world we’re living in right now.”

And as much as they’ve talked about fans or no fans, all of the team sports are also dealing with the health of the players with Covid-19 still around. The leagues are putting out guidelines on how to do things, social distancing and cleaning, but the team sports we’re talking about are all “contact” competitions in one way or another.

So there’s a risk to the players no matter what precautions are taken. But fans or no fans, with the money there is to be made, no doubt games will be played.