The last time an arena in Philadelphia was full for a pro sporting event was Tuesday, March 10, the night before everything stopped. The Flyers played the Boston Bruins at the Wells Fargo Center, and it is not an exaggeration to say that it was the Flyers’ most consequential regular-season game since their finale in 2010, when they beat the Rangers to earn a playoff berth, then went on to reach the Stanley Cup Final. Boston was the best team in the NHL, and the Flyers, after seven years of dull mediocrity, had won nine consecutive games and had an opportunity to test themselves against a bona fide Stanley Cup contender.

That the Flyers lost, 2-0, feels less consequential now than the atmosphere that night does. The place was jammed. The reality of the coronavirus pandemic, the fear of it, and the instinct to protect ourselves from it had not fully seeped into the public consciousness yet – not until the following night, when the Sixers beat the Pistons in an arena that wasn’t close to full and the NBA started postponing games and the snowball started rolling.

Fans dressed in orange and black, and sometimes black and gold, moved en masse along the concourse. There was a steady buzz in the crowd throughout the game. After so many years of ennui while the Flyers were rebuilding and/or treading water, during a season in which they ranked 19th out of the NHL’s 31 teams in attendance as a percentage of home capacity, according to ESPN, a lively sellout crowd was already a sight to see.

A changing landscape

Over the three months since that game, the lockdown, for many fans, has turned the anticipation of sports’ return into a shaken bottle of seltzer. Just open the cap, and there will be an explosion.

The NHL is finalizing a plan to return to a couple of “pod cities.” (Donald Sutherland had better have a ticket waiting for him.) The NBA’s board of governors on Thursday approved a resumption of the season, with 22 teams, in Orlando in July. Major League Baseball … OK, never mind. And once these leagues get through the strangeness of playing in front of sparse crowds at neutral sites, people will flood back. Right?

Flyers fans, shown here honoring Oskar Lindblom and his battle against cancer, filled the Wells Fargo Center on March 10, before the pandemic hit.
STEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer
Flyers fans, shown here honoring Oskar Lindblom and his battle against cancer, filled the Wells Fargo Center on March 10, before the pandemic hit.

Maybe. But it’s worth noting a general trend throughout American’s major sports institutions before the pandemic hit: Fewer and fewer people were going to games even when they were allowed to go to games. Average NHL attendance had dropped by 1.32% from the 2013-14 season to the 2018-19 season. Over that same period, average NFL attendance had fallen by nearly 2%, MLB attendance by nearly 6%, and college football attendance by 7.6%. The NBA (a gain of 2.6%) and Major League Soccer (a substantial gain of 17%-18%) were the exceptions.

Yeah, but when they can, people will flood back, right?

Maybe. Maybe they’ll be so happy to get out of the homes (assuming they’re still cooped up in their homes) that they’ll buy up whatever tickets are available as fast as they can. Here’s the thing, though: There won’t be nearly as many tickets available, and the experience at the event won’t be the same.

“Think about why we go to football games,” said Jeremy Jordan, an associate professor of sport and recreation management at Temple. “One of the reasons we go is for the community. It’s the tailgating. It’s being part of a large shared identity. That’s not going to be available. Football’s going to come back, but we’re not going to have 75,000 people in Lincoln Financial Field. We might have 30,000 or 20,000, so one of the primary drivers of why people want to go is not going to be available.”

Yeah, but because they missed going to games and matches so much, people will flood back, right?

Maybe, but remember: The trends and conditions that led to fans’ pulling back from attending sporting events, that led them to stay home in greater numbers in the first place, haven’t changed. If anything, we’ve grown more accustomed to those conditions. Those of us who had to work from home, who could work from home, have gotten more used to working from home. Those of us who could afford to entertain ourselves learned how to entertain ourselves at home.

Why would a football fan who already has his man cave and his flatscreen and his RedZone and his neighborhood buddies and his cooler set up next to his favorite recliner decide that, come the fall, he’d rather shell out more time and money to buy tickets to a game, fight traffic to the stadium, and have a less comfortable and enjoyable experience for all his trouble? And what happens as tech companies continue to develop virtual reality? What happens when, say, the 76ers can sell that seat right behind the players’ bench a thousand times over to people on the Main Line, in Berlin, in Beijing, and the patina of being there delivers a more satisfying experience than actually being there?

Necessity and panic

“Sports organizations were pushing the envelope on pricing before the pandemic,” said former MLB executive Vince Gennaro, the associate dean of NYU’s Tisch Institute for Sports Management, Media, and Business.

“We were testing the limits with their pricing with where the fan could bear the price and still keep bodies in the ballpark to the extent where you still had the right ambience. All along, we’ve seen a better home-viewing or remote-viewing experience. Well, guess what? There only going to be more of a divide between the in-arena, in-stadium experience and the home viewing.

“Whatever was going to happen 2030 probably, because of the pandemic, is going to happen by 2025. The pandemic has accelerated the future and brought it closer to us because of the innovation that will be born, some of it out of pure necessity, some of it out of business panic.”

Yeah, but people will flood back, right? Especially in a place like Philadelphia, right? Because of social media and daily fantasy sports, many fans are more athlete-oriented today than they are team-oriented. But this is a parochial city, with a strong sense of geographic and tribal identity. Sports is who Philadelphia is. Nothing can keep them away – least of all, when the time is appropriate, the dissipating threat of a virus.

So people will flood back, right?

“I think TV ratings,” Jordan said, “will be really, really high.”