If you’re one of those people who thinks spectator sports were more enjoyable when the owners didn’t spend their days doing backstrokes through 500 cubic feet of hard currency in their publicly-financed money pits, you may be in luck. But if you’re one of those people who find it difficult to replicate the energy and experience of watching tightly-contested competition while standing or sitting shoulder to shoulder with twenty or forty or sixty thousand other human beings, I’m curious to hear your thoughts on a question that has been rattling through my mind for the last week.
When do you think the fans will come back? And how certain are you that they ever will?
This has as much to do with society’s pre-COVID-19 trajectory as it does with the impact of the pandemic itself. It might take awhile, but, at some point, the acute psychological trauma will subside, and most of us will return to the halcyon days where we could forget to wash our hands before touching our face and not spend the next 14 days checking our body temperature every hour on the hour. Through war and depression and pandemic, normalcy has always returned, and we shouldn’t expect that 2020 will be any different. The question in my mind involves normalcy itself.
Even before the Great Sports Shutdown locked the gates and left people scrambling to find that shadowy dude on Craigslist who sold them a ticket to an April Sixers home game, attendance at major sporting events was down across the board. Over the last seven seasons, Major League Baseball and Division I college football have both seen average attendance drop by nearly 10 percent. Last year, NFL regular-season attendance was the lowest it has been since 2002, when the Super Bowl quarterbacks were Brad Johnson and Rich Gannon and Joe Jurevicius carved his place in Philly sports lore. While the NBA has been mostly immune, pre-shutdown attendance was lower than it had been since 2013-14. The last time any of the major sports leagues saw attendance increase by statistically significant amount was 2016.
Plenty has been written about the potential reasons for such declines. There is no prime suspect. As is usually the case with group behavioral dynamics, momentum is probably a function of a host of variables. There’s an argument to be made that the for-profit sports industry is like any monopolistic endeavor, where the market dynamics of a captive audience results in a business model that prioritizes the maximization of revenue-per-customer ahead of the expansion of the customer base. If you want to watch major college football in Pennsylvania, you have no choice but to watch Penn State play whatever team it decides to schedule. That, or you can watch whatever team schedules Pitt. Thus, you get a system where Penn State schedules Idaho and Buffalo to start the season, counts two sellouts as money in the bank, and outscores them 134-20 in a couple of games where the guys who still have zits on their face get to play.
My intuition suggests that an equally culpable dynamic is the collective dwindling of society’s ability to spend three consecutive hours actively engaged in any one activity. In a world where even a home-cooked meal is a photo op and home itself has multiple different connections to the outside world, perhaps it hardly qualifies as a phenomenon that people are increasingly reluctant to spend an evening or afternoon sitting in a hard-backed chair where the beer costs $12 and is served in plastic cups.
Whatever the case, I don’t think it is outlandish to think that our current circumstances hasten an end to an era that history will regard as the glory days of spectator sports. And I think it would be wise for ownership groups to spend some of their newfound downtime thinking about ways in which they might adapt to a world where attendance figures are more reminiscent of the ‘70s and ‘80s than the ‘00s and ‘10s.
This is particularly true for the sports that are most reliant on gate receipts, namely, pro baseball and college football. In 2012, Major League Baseball set an all-time attendance record when an average of 30,806 fans passed through the gates. By the end of last year, that number sat at 28,198, the lowest it had been since 2003, when teams averaged 27,831 fans per game. The decline has been steady, with average attendance falling by at least 200 tickets in five of those seven seasons.
It’s a similar story in college football, where average regular-season attendance has declined by at least 300 tickets in each of the last seven seasons. In 2013, Division 1 FBS schools averaged 45,192 fans per game, according to the NCAA. Last year, that number sat at 41,129.
Sports have always been a significant thread in the American fabric. I’m not suggesting that will not continue to be the case. The question is what the crowds themselves will look like, and whether we might see a significant contraction in the astronomical revenue that such crowds generate. Last week, I asked Sixers general manager Elton Brand if he’d had any conversations about the impact that this year’s revenue losses might have on the organization’s payroll spending.
“You know, I think it’s a little early to speculate on what it is,” Brand said. “I know we want to contend year after year, and that’s going to be our goal. So I can’t speculate there. I don’t know how the ownership group or managing partners are doing personally, but I know they want to win, and they are giving me the green light to continue to do that and figure out ways we can win.”