There have been several watershed moments in sports fanhood scattered across history: sports debuting on television, night games, the advent of ESPN, free agency, the internet, and so forth.
Each had a lasting impact, such that it’s easy to recall what sports consumption was like before and what it was like after. And while the coronavirus has had a similarly profound impact, Daniel Wann does not consider it to be one of those watershed moments.
“Fandom will return to normal,” Wann said.
He would know. Or, given the unprecedented nature of the coronavirus, at least have the best guess. Wann, a Murray State professor who has a Ph.D. in social psychology, has been studying sports fanhood for more than three decades. ESPN dubbed him “Dr. Fandom.”
Whenever live sports return from its current, unparalleled hiatus, there will likely be a dip in attendance due to health concerns, and there could be some casual fans who lose interest. But Wann hypothesizes — he’s quick to note that, with literally no precedent, there are no guarantees — the coronavirus will not be a catalyst for change in the same way as previous moments.
“I don’t really think this is going to be one of those things,” said Wann, who co-wrote "Sport fans: The psychology and social impact of fandom."
The KFC Yum Center hasn’t hosted an event since the Lumineers played to a big crowd on March 10, just one day before the sports world began to unfurl. When sports do return, will fans be eager to squash themselves into tightly bound stadium seats or walk through sardine-packed concourses?
A Seton Hall Sports Poll of 762 respondents conducted this month found that 72% would not attend games without the development of a vaccine.
That could be a ways away.
Researchers estimate it will take 12 to 18 months to create and distribute a vaccine. Perhaps even longer. Perhaps not at all.
“It’s hard to anticipate a brand new vaccine coming on board any faster than that,” University of Kentucky epidemiologist Kathleen Winter said, “because we really have to get through many different stages of development before you can even begin production.”
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Some foreign sports leagues have returned to play without fans, and that option is being considered in the United States, too.
But part of the fan experience is the act of attending the game or hearing the roar of the crowd, and Wann said that fans will be surprised at how strange they find a televised basketball game played for a crowd of empty seats with nothing but squeaking sneakers as a soundtrack.
“I think that, as a matter of fact, (fans) may find it stranger than no sports at all because it’s going to be a different product,” Wann said.
Sports with live audiences will return, though, and when they do, there could be a dip in attendance. Following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the NFL saw a slight and temporary drop in attendance as some considered large gatherings to be potential targets. According to a 2010 study, MLB saw as much as a 12% decrease in attendance during terror alerts in 2002 and 2003. As time passed, though, terror alerts became less of a factor on attendance, and in 2006, the league set an all-time attendance record.
The coronavirus — a different threat, but a safety concern nonetheless — could have a similar impact as 9/11 did on event attendance: notable, but temporary. Wall Street analysts forecast that it will take roughly two years for Disney parks to reach their pre-pandemic attendance levels. Perhaps sports will follow a similar timetable.
Sports fans are fiercely loyal, though, and often unreasonably so: 47% would at least consider donating an organ if it meant a guaranteed championship for their team. So, it’s reasonable to believe the diehards will remain steadfast.
“When fans are given the opportunity to go back, they’re gonna go,” Wann said. “I can’t point to a specific study or data set that says that because, believe it or not, we actually don’t have any research on how fans respond to pandemics because this has never happened before.”
Winter said that, once a vaccine is found or there is enough natural immunity to alleviate concerns, it’s unlikely the public will behave much differently than before.
“Eventually, I don’t think that should be an ongoing fear,” Winter said.
Louisville City FC was slated to play its home opener — the first match at Lynn Family Stadium — on April 11. As the club and its league, the USL Championship, consider a return to play in 2020, LouCity President Brad Estes said that all options remain open, including playing games in front of socially distanced fans.
He doesn’t foresee lower attendance when the venue eventually does open.
“I think fans are going to be chomping at the bit to come to games,” Estes said.
There could be other enduring impacts. Wann wonders how the socialization of sports will be altered. Might children who are without sports during this foundational time period develop a different relationship with sports?
It’s all uncharted territory.
“No one knows, and that includes me,” Wann said.
It is known, of course, that the coronavirus’ impact on sports has been drastic and unprecedented. It’ll be long-lasting, too, in terms of absences and asterisks in the record books. But it may not be the next watershed moment in the consumption of sports; fanhood and fascination with sports will continue.
The coronavirus is creating a drought, but not a defining moment.
Hayes Gardner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @HayesGardner.