So if you’ve watched any of the men’s or women’s NCAA Tournament this past week, you probably noticed a couple of things. First, a lot of upsets, particularly in the men’s side. I know this because Oral Roberts managed to beat my Florida Gators in a game that will be the subject of years of therapy sessions. Second, you probably noticed a lot of open seats. Like thousands of them. These NCAA tournaments, like most sports you’ve seen recently, are held in something of a semi-bubble in Indianapolis and San Antonio. Which means that teams play in one of a small number of courts and then go back to their hotel room to wait until the next game, assuming there is one.
It also means that only a small number of fans get to actually watch the games in person. That’s somewhere around 17% capacity for women’s games, and 25% for the men. Which means that in an arena that seats 20,000, you’d get around 5,000. Which is fine for a pre-season game on campus, but less exciting for the Madness of March. Add to that no bands, and you’ve got the feel of an Atlanta Hawks game in the mid 90’s. It also means that no Cinderella can rally the fans as they push for an upset – although to be fair, it didn’t seem to bother Oral Roberts. It also means players might lose the sense of the moment, something nearly impossible to do over the din of a filled stadium but much easier to accomplish when you can clearly hear a couple in the stands talking about where they’re going to go for dinner. Maybe that’s part of why we’ve seen so many upsets; it’s easy to forget what a big deal it is. Or maybe it’s because Illinois just isn’t that good. Either way, this NCAA Tournament feels, well, different, as would be expected.
That said, this would be a good primer for anyone planning to participate in the Tokyo Olympics this summer. Games organizers have recently announced that no foreign fans would be allow to attend, which means that everyone from Australia or China or the US that wanted to see some Olympic greatness will have to do so from the comfort of their own couch in their own country. It also means that good seats may still be available for the 5th place volleyball match, or probably the lion’s share of track and cycling, especially since the majority of Japanese residents don’t want it there anyway – at least not this summer. Which means it may be especially still right before the start of the 100-meter dash. And during the entire rest of the race.
This, obviously, has been the story of sports and Covid, when they’ve played at least. Outside of, say, Texas, most every professional and elite amateur team has played in a nearly empty house, which has ramifications for pretty much every part of its operation, from economics to how teams play. It’s a lot different shooting a last second game winning free throw in relative silence than in something akin to a rock concert. So for all the accomplishment of being able to contest sporting events through the pandemic – and I know not everyone things we should – it’s also true that this plan can’t last forever. There’s no way that professional or major college sports can go too much longer playing in front of cardboard cutouts and mannequins. Even if we kind of get used to it, for a lot of these sports, gate revenue is a big, big deal.
Which is why we’re going to start seeing more of what the Miami Heat just announced – sections 117 and 118 will be for vaccinated only. Those seats will only go to card carrying vaccinated folks – which for the record, a lot of us can’t be even though we desperately want to. They’ll have a separate entrance and only one seat in-between each other – heck, as close to 2019 as we’ve been in a long time. That seems like the next cautious step towards normal. And realize, even with that, the Heat will only generate a fraction of the good old days.
But that’s the plan, as far as anyone can tell. Get everyone vaccinated, hope it works, and fill up the stands. If you work in sports, that can’t happen fast enough, assuming you want to remain in sports. Whether people are ready to go, that’s another question. But it may be the only thing that makes the Tournament feel truly mad once again.
Keith Strudler is the director of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler
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