It’s clear that before things go back to normal, there will be “a new normal” until a vaccine for COVID-19 is made widely accessible. The NHL and other professional sports leagues have already begun blueprints for finishing current seasons that were abruptly brought to a halt. If the NHL chooses to play out the rest of the season, it will be without fans in arenas, but what does that mean for the near future?
I took the liberty to brainstorm a few scenarios.
1 – No fans until things are back to normal.
This isn’t ideal, and frankly no fun for anyone. Fans want to watch games in person, players want to play in packed arenas, and owners want to fill seats and collect revenue. However, there’s a chance the NHL will be played without fans during the 2020-21 season, especially if there is a second wave of the pandemic. Hopefully, this isn’t the case, and we can all get back to cheering on our favorite teams in person, but its also the reality we may be forced to face.
2 – Social Distancing Fan Experience
We are all incredibly sick of social distancing, but this may be the only way we can get back into stadiums in the future. It would look something like this: arenas are only filled to 50% capacity or less, face masks required to attend, and social distancing from other fans. Concession stands might not fully operate or be contactless, and pre and post-game activities for fans could be eliminated entirely. Although this approach would allow fans to be back in arenas, the experience won’t be the same. Only a fraction of the stadium will be filled, so say goodbye to sell outs and packed crowds. It definitely won’t be the same for players, but at least they’ll have a few fans cheering them on. Overall, the atmosphere would be mediocre, but its a step closer to getting back to normal. However, decreased capacity would almost certainly mean increased ticket prices. Despite costing more, the experience won’t be the same. The “social distancing fan experience” seems likely for NCAA teams, junior leagues, and minor leagues, who already have smaller arena capacity and aren’t as likely to sell out as the NHL giants. It will be interesting to see how organizations adapt to this in the future.
3 – One and only one fan per team
Think about it. An intense matchup on the ice. Bruins vs. Canadiens. Flames vs. Oilers. Whatever. On one end of the arena, one fan sits behind the net. On the other end, a fan of the opposing team. One fan per team, that’s it. It is up to them to cheer on their team, lead the chants, yell at the refs when a call is made against their team, hype up the players when they’re down, and celebrate the win. Is this a lot of pressure to put onto one person? Absolutely. But this way, you can revolutionize the fan experience while ensuring that there will be social distancing between the (two) fans. Teams could have a sweepstake for who will get to be the lone fan for that game. It would make for good publicity and good TV. The two fans will be required to stay on opposite sides of the arena, but that won’t stop them from going at it. If you can’t pack the stadiums, don’t. But the one fan per team scenario would be way more entertaining than watching a game with empty seats and would keep fans engaged in a time they can’t be there in person.
No matter what the NHL, NCAA, AHL, CHL, or whatever decide, we all want sports to come back. Especially considering covering hockey is my job, I really want it to come back. Most importantly, we want to ensure the safety of everyone involved, and that may mean making major changes to the way fans experience games.