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What Would It Take For Sports Fans To Feel Safe?

The American sports world has largely been shut down since mid-March, when the NBA suspended its season and most other major leagues followed suit. But momentum has been building for the sports to make their comeback — in some form. MLB is set to propose its return plan to the players union this week, and NBA team practice facilities are beginning to reopen right now. Baseball is reportedly targeting early July for its opening day, while NASCAR and the PGA Tour are scheduled to return even sooner.1 With or (far more likely) without fans in the stands, our sports-less odyssey is about to end, at least for now.

To help gauge how fans feel about these developments, FiveThirtyEight partnered with the market research firm Ipsos to conduct a poll of 1,109 Americans in early May,2 tracking their attitudes on sports’ long absence and impending return — and what it would take for them to watch a game in person against the backdrop of a pandemic.

To the latter point, it’s no surprise that most Americans would be unlikely to attend sporting events now, even if restrictions were lifted. Only 24 percent of respondents in the FiveThirtyEight/Ipsos survey said they would be either very likely or somewhat likely to attend an event in person; 58 percent said they would be “not at all likely.”

How likely would you be to attend a sporting game or event in person right now, if government restrictions were lifted?

Responses in a FiveThirtyEight/Ipsos poll conducted May 5-11, 2020

Response Responses Share of Responses Cumulative Share
Very likely 72 6.5% 6.7%
Somewhat likely 192 17.3 24.0
Not very likely 204 18.4 42.4
Not at all likely 639 57.6 100.0
Total 1109 100.0

Note: Two respondents (or 0.2 percent of those polled) skipped this question.

(Granted, 70 to 75 percent of the sample said they were not really attending baseball, basketball or football games even before the coronavirus crisis. But even among that group, the share who say they would probably not attend a game now is nearly 80 percent.)

What would help people consider returning to the stands? Roughly 35 to 40 percent of those polled said mandatory mask-wearing at games, social distancing requirements within stadiums, fever checks before entering or a declining trend in local COVID-19 cases would make them at least somewhat more comfortable with the idea. But in each of those cases, the plurality of respondents said such measures wouldn’t help convince them it was safe to attend a game in person.

How much would each condition help you feel comfortable with attending a sporting game or event in person?

Responses in a FiveThirtyEight/Ipsos poll conducted May 5-11, 2020

Would help…
Condition A lot Some A little Would not help
If there was a COVID-19 vaccine 51% 13% 9% 27%
If all fans were required to wear masks 21 16 22 39
If new coronavirus cases in your area have declined two weeks in a row 17 20 23 40
If fans were required to keep 6 feet away from each other 18 18 24 39
If there were temperature checks to detect fevers for all fans 18 17 21 43
If there were walkway directions in the concourse or aisles 14 16 21 48

Note: Sums may not add to 100 percent for each option because some respondents skipped the question.

The overriding factor that would make fans feel comfortable attending a sporting event in person again seems to be the development of a COVID-19 vaccine. About half of those polled said a vaccine would help “a lot” in convincing them to return to the stands, and nearly three-quarters said it would help at least “a little.” But that does little good now, given that a vaccine isn’t likely until 2021, even if everything goes right. Until then, we’re left with a bunch of short-term options that most Americans feel will barely improve their safety at a game, if at all.

And, perhaps tellingly, 27 percent of those polled said even a vaccine would not help them feel comfortable attending a game. We don’t know why they gave that answer, but it may indicate that — likely having lived through their first pandemic — a not-insignificant portion of them will never feel safe at a large gathering again.

Combine that with a mixed attitude about paying to attend games when it is possible, and the gate-receipts model that has dominated pro sports for as long as they’ve existed could be in jeopardy. Of those polled, fewer than 50 percent said they’d be willing to spend the same amount for tickets as before the pandemic, while 33 percent “strongly” disagreed. Fans have long complained about ticket prices, but with the country going into a historic economic downturn as a result of measures to slow the virus’s spread, fans may have less disposable income to spend on entertainment than ever.

Yet, the appetite for televised (or streaming) sports remains strong. According to the FiveThirtyEight/Ipsos survey, 62 percent of respondents said they would be somewhat or very likely to watch sports on TV if they came back now.3 And 80 percent of those polled agreed with the idea that “sports are a way for people to connect with others,” while 39 percent said they missed sports more than they expected during this hiatus.4 Most fans were also having trouble getting into replacement programming: Just 21 percent of respondents said they were turning to old games (our remedy of choice), while only 12 percent said they have started watching esports or online competitions as a result of the shutdown.

So the demand for sports should still be high, even if fans can’t (or aren’t inclined to) attend in person. But in terms of when sports should come back, nearly half of those polled said it shouldn’t be until the coronavirus is under control, and about a quarter said it shouldn’t be until a vaccine is available. Here’s a breakdown of those opinions by sport for (in order) baseball, basketball, football, hockey, golf, soccer and NASCAR:

When should each sport restart games or events?

Responses in a FiveThirtyEight/Ipsos poll conducted May 5-11, 2020

Restart when… ⚾️ 🏀 🏈 🏒 ⛳️ ⚽️ 🏎
Immediately 12% 10% 11% 10% 13% 10% 13%
Government gives OK 17 17 17 18 18 17 19
Coronavirus is under control 46 45 45 46 44 45 44
Vaccine is available 24 26 27 26 23 26 23

Note: Sums may not add to 100 percent for each option because some respondents skipped the question.

Aside from small variations between sports — slightly more golf and NASCAR fans want an immediate return, while fewer soccer, basketball and hockey fans agree — the rates for each sport were roughly in line with each other. No matter the league, the plurality of Americans believe the virus should be controlled before sports resume play at all. Depending on your definition, that condition is probably not being met across the country as a whole.

Also telling were respondents’ feelings about how the sports should resume. The proposal with the most support from those polled was a requirement that all players get tested for COVID-19 before games, which 82 percent supported and 17 percent opposed. The notion of playing in empty stadiums or arenas without fans was slightly less popular: Seventy-five percent supported it, with 24 percent in opposition. And the least popular proposal: setting up an isolated “bubble” with players and teams sequestered in just a few locations to minimize risk of infection. That idea was supported by just 67 percent of those polled, with 32 percent opposed.

(That last idea was one of the aspects of a plan floated by Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, that outlined how sports might return. MLB seems to have abandoned it, though other leagues are still considering the idea.)

In general, all of these results square with other polling showing that most Americans think it’s too soon to return to the way life was before the coronavirus shut down the country. The majority of citizens remain somewhat or very worried about the virus, which shows up in their aversion to the idea of returning to sporting events as spectators. The way we will have to consume games at first — over the airwaves, and not in person — could change some of the fundamental pillars of the sports industry forever. But the poll also shows that people do miss live sports and would mostly jump at the chance to watch them again, even if it’s only from the isolation of their homes.


Why it only took one player with coronavirus to shutter sports

Footnotes

  1. Overseas, the Premier League and other English sports could resume in June as well.

  2. May 5-11, 2020.

  3. This among a group in which only slightly more than a third had said they watched anything more than the major games or finals in baseball, basketball and football before the crisis.

  4. Although, interestingly, 39 percent also strongly disagreed with that statement. Perhaps this was the slice of population who were not already interested in sports to begin with.

Neil Paine is a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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