Fans in the fall? 4 COVID decisions facing colleges

A new study from Seton Hall University shows that those fans are optimistic, but cautious, about attending games.

Clemson University, the University of Texas and the University of Alabama are among a confident group of institutions that have promised full capacity for athletic events in the fall.

However, in the states where they plan to host football games at their sizable stadiums – with upwards of 100,000 guests – none has more than 35% of their populations fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

In fact, 26 states still haven’t hit the 40% mark, including many in the South, based on New York Times data. So how will those stadiums look if those rates don’t soar in the next two months? Will pandemic protocols be part of attendance policies?

If fans had an option now, they would remain in place, according to a new report released by Seton Hall University.

A surprising 60% of fans from the survey done of more than 1,500 adults – many of whom attend college games – say they favor policies that include COVID vaccination for entry. Another 72% want social distancing inside stadiums.

A slight majority say they do want to attend live sporting events but are guarded about what they will see when enter through those turnstiles.

“Sports fans seem cautiously optimistic, but also seem to favor precautions regardless of the official relaxation of restrictions over the last month,” said Charles Grantham, director of the Center for Sport Management within Seton Hall’s Stillman School of Business. This is a significant indicator of the trend to return.”

Seton Hall researchers posed a key question to those surveyed: “If you were to receive the coronavirus vaccine, would you attend a live outdoors sporting event in person, with personal protection equipment, socially distancing measures, and restricted attendance?”

  • 69% of avid sports fans would, compared with 39% last November
  • 51% of the general population would, compared with 28% last November
  • 27% of the non-sports fan would, compared with 8% last November

However, the numbers for indoor attendance looked less positive (59% for sports fans, 42% for the general population and 21% for non-sports fans).

Colleges and universities that go without any mitigation strategies might see fewer fans. Nearly a third of those polled opposed such strategies, while another one-quarter were undecided.

Looking to the fall

The “return to somewhat normal” experiment has gone well so far for the NHL and NBA, whose teams have increased capacities indoors during the playoffs, though time will tell if those sites have been 100% safe. In North Carolina and Nevada, where the full COVID vaccination rates are less than 40%, fans have packed Carolina Hurricanes and Vegas Golden Knights games indoors this past week … but with mask requirements. That hasn’t quelled the fervor inside those venues.

Those openings likely will serve as examples for colleges to boost capacities, especially outdoors and particularly if vaccination rates continue to rise heading toward the fall. Last year, for example, the University of Alabama had just 20% of fans at Bryant-Denny Stadium. Other Southeastern Conference schools, including Louisiana State University and the University of Mississippi, were allowed as much as 25%.

But a full stadium will mean fans want more protection, according to the Seton Hall study. As leaders weight their options, they could consider these four strategies:

Social distancing. Some teams, like the New York Yankees, have addressed COVID concerns by placing fans in designated sections – those who have been vaccinated vs. those who haven’t. Those in fully vaccinated sections don’t need to be socially distanced. From the poll, between 68% and 77% of fans and those in the general public, want those sections in their stadiums.

Vaccination. Mandating vaccinations has been tricky for institutions and business in some states, especially since the vaccines have not eclipsed emergency use authorization status. From the survey, the vast majority of avid sports fans – 71% – want to see COVID-19 cards checked by stadium security, though the general population within the survey was split.

Masking. In a potential sign of things to come, most colleges and universities recently lifted mask mandates for commencements based on CDC guidance. However, one other protocol remained at those ceremonies: social distancing. If colleges decide to plan for full stadiums with no social distancing – similar to those at NBA and NHL arenas – will they need to require masks? Passionate fans who were surveyed prefer that masks remain (59%).

Limiting attendance. Despite the urge to fully reopen, athletic events don’t have to be all or nothing when it comes to fans in the stands. Colleges and universities that don’t feel comfortable with their vaccination numbers or are concerned about potential spread or variants, could limit capacity to 50% or 75% to keep some social distancing in place.

Chris Burt
Chris Burt
Chris is a reporter and associate editor for University Business and District Administration magazines, covering the entirety of higher education and K-12 schools. Prior to coming to LRP, Chris had a distinguished career as a multifaceted editor, designer and reporter for some of the top newspapers and media outlets in the country, including the Palm Beach Post, Sun-Sentinel, Albany Times-Union and The Boston Globe. He is a graduate of Northeastern University.

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