ESPN Study: Majority of Fans Favor Sports Returning Without Crowds amid COVID-19

Joseph Zucker@@JosephZuckerFeatured ColumnistMay 4, 2020

Empty seats are seen seen inside Busch Stadium, home of the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team, Wednesday, March 25, 2020, in St. Louis. The start of the regular season, which was set to start on Thursday, is on hold indefinitely because of the coronavirus pandemic. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)
Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

In a study conducted by ESPN, the majority of the 1,004 fans questioned from April 17-20 said they'd support the return of sports in arenas closed off to the general public amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Sixty-five percent of the respondents, who were all 18 or older, said they would be happy to watch sports without fans rather than wait until a time when staging major events for public consumption is possible.

The figure rose to 76 percent when the participants were presented with a hypothetical in which athletes "were kept in hotels and their contact with others was closely monitored."

ESPN's Jeff Passan reported on MLB's "Arizona plan" in April, which involves moving games to Phoenix and the surrounding area and sequestering players and other personnel at local hotels.

While not a definitive conclusion on the matter, the study's results speak to how the attitudes toward sporting events have shifted during the pandemic.

In early March, before the NBA suspended the 2019-20 season, Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James told reporters he wouldn't want to play without fans in attendance.

Over time, however, the long-term impact of the pandemic has become clear.

Zeke Emanuel, the vice provost for global initiatives and director of the Healthcare Transformation Institute at the University of Pennsylvania, posited in a panel discussion with the New York Times Magazine that we could be without large public gatherings for more than a year:

"Certain kinds of construction, or manufacturing or offices, in which you can maintain six-foot distances are more reasonable to start sooner. Larger gatherings — conferences, concerts, sporting events — when people say they're going to reschedule this conference or graduation event for October 2020, I have no idea how they think that's a plausible possibility. I think those things will be the last to return. Realistically we're talking fall 2021 at the earliest."

The Athletic published a roundtable Monday to update where things stand with the NBA, NHL and MLB, and all three leagues have considered scenarios where games are confined to one or a small handful of locations.

In order to bring live sports back as soon as possible, there's almost no scenario in which fans are part of the equation.