A lesson from a pandemic year: Fans in the stands are vital for sport


Almost a year ago, the coronavirus brought American sports to a virtual standstill.

On the night of March 11, it was learned that Utah jazz center Rudy Gobert had tested positive for COVID-19.

The next day, major college sports leagues, including the SEC and ACC, canceled league basketball tournaments. Professional sports leagues were “on hiatus”.

Soon, the 2020 NCAA Tournament was canceled.

In that surreal first weekend after games were halted, I found myself watching the only live sporting events I could find via internet streaming – British professional basketball and the England final. a New Mexico high school basketball tournament.

I watched such obscure events because I didn’t know when there would be games to watch again.

Now, as we approach the one-year anniversary of the Great Disruption last March, two sports-related sentiments seem clear:

1. Those of us who enjoy the sport should be extremely grateful that ways have been found to allow the games to return as soon as they finally do and to the extent that they do.

At a time when American politics have been crude and divisive and the pandemic has made so much other news dark and depressing, the sport’s revival has provided a chance to think, fleetingly, of happier things.

It was a much needed service.

2. Having grandstands full of fans is undoubtedly vital to the “experience of sport”.

The first post-pandemic event I covered as a sportswriter was a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at an empty Kentucky Speedway due to the pandemic.

A thrilling four-legged pass on the final lap produced the race winner.

Yet, rather than an explosion of noise from the stands, the heart-pounding drama on the track happened in a vacuum.

It stank.

So did a Kentucky Derby in September at a nearly empty Churchill Downs.

A Derby with no women wearing elaborate hats, no men wearing crazy horse-themed ties, and no college kids partying in the infield didn’t look like an authentic “Run for the Roses” at all.

When University of Kentucky football returned a month later last fall, it was before crowds capped at 20 percent of normal capacity and tailgating prohibited.

Walking into Kroger Field without the smells of burger grilling, without hearing different groups of Cats fans handicapping how the UK might fare in the upcoming game, was experiencing Kentucky Football Saturdays without some of the most evocative parts.

If you think about it, perhaps few teams across the country have felt the absence of normal crowds this year more than the struggling Kentucky Wildcats men’s basketball team.

With attendance capped at 20% at Rupp Arena and varying degrees for games away from Lexington, the 2020-21 Wildcats (8-15 heading into Saturday’s regular season finale against South Carolina) have been been denied two of the biggest advantages of Kentucky basketball teams normally. to have.

They didn’t play a home game with the support of more than 20,000 roaring Cats fans.

On the road, they failed to take advantage of the ‘blue entry’ phenomenon that often sees UK fans take over opposition venues.

“It affects the game here. Go now,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said at the start of this season. “The fans here are a big reason why we have the kind of home (success) that we have had. Without them, it hurts us.

In the various sports at all levels, the players do not seem to show as much emotion, as much joy in playing, in matches played with little or no public. This too is a loss for those watching the games.

Before the pandemic, we had entered an era where sports attendance was softening.

As high definition television technology has improved, the experience of watching games at home has become so compelling that more and more fans have apparently felt less and less reason to attend. nobody.

Going forward, it will be fascinating to see what happens once coronavirus vaccines hopefully “return to normal”.

Will there be:

A. Huge pent-up demand for entertainment experiences that COVID-19 has taken away, forcing crowds of fans back to attending live games;

Or:

B. Will this past year when so few people have been able to attend sporting events and more people have fallen out of the habit of doing so only serve to reinforce the trend of shrinking crowd sizes ?

Those of us planning to get back to playing sports in person as soon as it is safe to do so will all have different things that bring us back.

I myself can’t wait to once again feel the electricity that emanates from the crowd in a sold-out Rupp Arena before Kentucky takes on a team that British fans see as a threat.

As I enter the high school gymnasiums, I will savor the sound and smell of popcorn popping.

Heck, I can’t wait to get stuck in traffic again trying to get into Kroger Field before Kentucky football games — because that will mean the fans are back in full force.

It is only then that we can say that the sport has fully “come back”.

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Mark Story has worked in the Lexington Herald-Leader sports department since August 27, 1990 and has been a Herald-Leader sports columnist since 2001. I’ve covered every Kentucky-Louisville football game since 1994, every basketball game UK-U of L match but three since 1996-97 and every Kentucky Derby since 1994.
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