One Twitter user says he'd rather stay home and watch the game from his couch if he's not going to get the "full stadium experience." Another posts that the resale value on tickets sold for a reduced-capacity game would be astronomical. A commenter simply states that this will "never work," while another laments that it would be impossible to ask people who may be drinking alcohol to stay apart.
The tweets are in response to renderings of what social distancing might look like on game day in the Ohio State University's Horseshoe, which has a seating capacity of 102,780. The renderings were produced by Troy Sherrard, architect at MoodyNolan in Columbus, who says he was asked by the ABC affiliate there to come up with a vision for what it might look like to host a Big Ten game at reduced capacity with social distancing strategies in place.
"It's just one idea," Sherrard says, noting that he's not entirely sure that big-time college athletics and social distancing are necessarily a match made in heaven. Nevertheless, all options are on the table for all levels of play — from youth to professional sports.
To come up with this toned-down vision of football Saturdays, MoodyNolan looked at how fans could sit in groups of two, three and six — with four rows of spacing in between.
"With this model, fans would fill 18.5 percent of Ohio Stadium, which translates to 19,240 fans on a fall Saturday," Sherrard says, acknowledging how disappointing this setting might be for hardcore Buckeye fans when a major rival like Michigan comes to town.
However, Sherrard's social distancing scenarios aren't pie in the sky by any means. In fact, they're pretty close to what the Miami Dolphins are envisioning should the NFL season proceed as planned. The Dolphins recently announced the team will limit attendance at 2020 games to 15,000 fans at Hard Rock Stadium, which has a maximum capacity of 65,000. Operators of Hard Rock say that fans will have reserved times for entering and exiting the stadium, and all concessions will be ordered from their seats with a text sent when their order is ready to avoid long lines in the concourse.
At the college level, Iowa State University has committed to reduced-capacity games. ISU athletic director Jamie Pollard recently sent a message to Cyclone fans that notes state and local guidelines would allow 50 percent capacity at Jack Trice Stadium this fall, which would mean 30,000 spectators would be allowed at each game. As a result, the school will limit fan attendance to anyone who has renewed their season tickets — that would amount to about 22,000 ISU fans at any given game. Any fan who did not renew their season tickets and make their Cyclone Club donation by June 12, will not be provided the opportunity to attend any games this fall.
Best-laid plans aside, the dynamics of social distancing are admittedly in opposition to the high-energy environment of a college football game. Sherrard notes that standing and watching the game from one's assigned seat location, or even restricting access to only a designated "neighborhood" of the stadium, wouldn't be a problem in his model. However, he says fans shouting and cheering for their team could create more exposure. Also, entering and leaving the stadium would require more time and patience.
"What do you think happens after a big win?" asks Sherrard. "Can you imagine a crowd at one of these big games leaving quietly, everyone staying six feet apart?"
"The other thing here is the bottom line," Sherrard adds. "Do these venues raise ticket prices if capacity is reduced to 18 percent?"
It's true, there is a cost to be paid for safety, but there's an even bigger gash in profits should games be staged in empty stadiums. According to Forbes, the NFL collected more than $5.5 billion from stadium revenue in 2018. That includes concessions, sponsorships, parking and team stores. A socially distanced stadium could recover at least some of that lost revenue.
Could this once-in-a-hundred-years event have even farther-reaching impact? Might physical infrastructure look different in stadium design moving forward?
"We'll have to wait and see," Sherrard says. "We are all hoping we successfully navigate this COVID-19 pandemic and can phase our way back into live college sports. It seems too premature to make any permanent modifications to existing seating bowl configurations at this point."
This article originally appeared in the July | August 2020 issue of Athletic Business with the title "Is social distancing in the stadium bowl a viable solution?" Athletic Business is a free magazine for professionals in the athletic, fitness and recreation industry. Click here to subscribe.