Watching sports has remained a constant in American culture throughout the best of times and the worst.
When America was entering World War II, the commissioner of baseball at the time, Kenesaw Landis, wrote to President Franklin Roosevelt asking if the upcoming season should be canceled. Roosevelt wrote back the very next day, “I honestly feel that it would be best for the country to keep baseball going.”
Being a spectator at a sporting event has always been one of the country’s favorite pastimes. Fans have the opportunity to tune out their everyday problems and watch the best athletes in the country compete at the highest levels for three hours. People gather with their friends to watch, drink, eat and enjoy the game.
No matter what problems were going on in the country, sports served as an escape. That was until the coronavirus shut everything down.
As the world began to deal with a global pandemic, there was uncertainty on whether or not being able to play a game was possible, let alone a whole season. Nobody knew for sure how deadly the virus was or exactly how it spread. Cases continued to rise, and teams could never have predicted how serious and long-lasting the situation would become.
The NFL, MLB and NHL all had their seasons interrupted, and it was looking as if their 2020 seasons would be canceled altogether. Fans across the country were left in the dark as the sports world came to a screeching halt.
Resuming the season was not going to be easy. The NBA had the best solution to play out the rest of its season, creating the, now famous, “bubble” located in the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex at the Walt Disney World Resort. The NBA created a safety plan over 100 pages long to ensure players’ safety and minimize outbreaks.
Masks were required for everyone not on the court. Players, referees and bench players and coaches who sat in the first row of seats were not required to wear masks. Social distancing was mandated around the bubble, and testing was done daily. Players and staff could not hang out in each others’ hotel rooms. No fans were allowed in the bubble lowering the risk of exposure to the outside world.
The NBA bubble is a shining example on how sports can and should work during a pandemic. Nobody tested positive for COVID-19 during the three months that teams were in Florida. According to Forbes, the NBA spent $180 million on the bubble. While it sounds like a lot, spending that money prevented the sport from losing $1.5 billion.
The success of the NBA bubble led the MLB to adopt a similar approach for its playoffs. Playoff teams from the national league played in Texas, while teams from the American league played in Southern California. The NHL followed soon after, announcing that it would have all its games in two cities, Edmonton and Toronto.
Of course the success of these plans is mostly dependent on the players, coaches and team personnel to follow COVID-19 protocols. With so many people involved, there’s bound to be a few who try to bend the rules. Houston Rockets forward Danuel House Jr. was kicked out of the NBA bubble after he had an unauthorized guest in his hotel room.
Cleveland baseball pitchers Mike Clevinger and Zach Plesac broke protocols after leaving the team hotel to go out for the night. Nobody tested positive, but the team subsequently took them off the major league roster and sent them back to the alternate training facility.
Even with the occasional rule breakers, keeping players healthy and safe can be done. When you add fans into the equation however, things become more complicated.
MLB had done an amazing job with the 2020 season, allowing no fans in the stadium and ensuring no one could get in close contact with players. When the playoffs came and with the neutral site in Texas, with loose COVID-19 restrictions, the league saw an opportunity to soften its overall losses from the year. Back in October, before any vaccine had been administered, 11,500 fans were allowed to attend every game in the National League Championship series and the World Series.
The NFL left it up to teams to follow their state guidelines on whether or not they would allow fans in the stands. Teams like the Rams, Patriots and Raiders played in empty home stadiums, while teams like the Dolphins, Bengals and Browns allowed fans in at some capacity. When it came time for the biggest sporting event in America, the Super Bowl, 25,000 fans lined the stands.
Filling a stadium with thousands of people is a mockery to all the health care workers who sacrificed so much to battle this virus. It’s as if we are pretending there isn’t a pandemic raging that has killed over 2.8 million people globally.
Every venue has rules people are supposed to follow. Masks are required, you can only sit in your seat and social distancing measures are in place. But people are just supposed to follow the rules — they are not strictly enforced.
If you look around the stands at these games, you will see a lot of people following the rules. You’ll also see a lot of people walking around, masks on their chin conversing with people not already with them. When a foul ball is hit into the stands, maskless fans swarm around trying to be the first one to pick it up. The importance of social distancing goes through the window once fans see an opportunity to get memorabilia.
Some fans are disciplined if they brazenly ignore the rules. A maskless fan was kicked out of a spring training game in March after being rowdy and refusing to wear a mask. This conflict, which puts people’s health at risk, could all be avoided if the major sport leagues would be patient on letting fans back in the stands.
Instead, these billion-dollar franchises are using their revenue losses from last year to justify the need to sell tickets. MLB teams collectively lost over $3 billion, and the NFL lost almost $4 billion.
With more vaccines being administered around the country, every sports team is now allowed to have fans at some capacity. The Texas Rangers are allowing 100% capacity, which is 40,300 people. President Joe Biden has called this decision “a mistake.”
Even as vaccines are becoming more accessible, there has been another surge in coronavirus cases across the country. Being too hasty when it comes to allowing fans in the stands might add unnecessary fuel to the fire.
Fans are eager to return to their favorite team’s stadium. The experience of a packed house full of diehard fans is an experience that few others can compare to. However, risking all the progress the country has made to watch your favorite team in person, rather than at home, is not worth it.