NFL and MLS about to start letting fans in, is this a terrible idea or what?

So far, the restart of sports in the U.S. has gone reasonably well: Sure, there were a few embarrassing pratfalls like the Miami Marlins having to stop playing games for a week after they had a dozen players test positive for Covid when they played a game right after initial positive tests because their shortstop said it was okay, but overall, things are working out much better than one might have feared. No league has actually had to stop play entirely (yet) as the result of outbreaks, and leagues playing in “bubbles” like the NBA and NHL have avoided even interruptions for individual teams.

The one thing that major North American leagues haven’t tried yet, though, is allowing actual fans to attend games. That’s about to change big-time, though, as two MLS teamsReal Salt Lake and Sporting Kansas City — are about to join FC Dallas this week in holding games before limited-capacity crowds. (FC Dallas played its first home game before a reported 2,912 fans two weeks ago, though it didn’t look like no 2,912.) And then the floodgates are set to open September 10, when the NFL season kicks off with the Kansas City Chiefs, Indianapolis Colts, Dallas Cowboys, Miami Dolphins, and Jacksonville Jaguars all set to play before about one-quarter-capacity crowds, with a dozen other teams either considering letting fans in or not yet having announced plans. In each case, there will be rules in place to protect fans — staggered entry times, mask requirements (except when eating or drinking), buffer zones between groups of seats, etc. — or at least to make fans feel more reassured that they’re being protected.

The question everyone wants to know the answer to: Is it safe? The answer, unfortunately, isn’t easy to determine: Sure, lots of overseas sports leagues have readmitted fans without ill effects, but those were all in nations with very low Covid rates — if you collect 13,000 people in one place and none of them are infectious, that’s not much of a test of how fast the virus can spread at a sporting event. The new-case rate in the U.S. has fallen by about a third over the last three weeks, but it’s still higher per capita than anywhere other than Peru, Colombia, Brazil, Argentina, or Spain. And certain states remain far worse than that: Texas would have the third-worst numbers of any place on the planet if it were its own nation, yet the Cowboys are preparing to reopen to fans for their first game, and the Houston Texans possibly for their second home game starting in October.

The science behind viral transmission at sporting events remains the same as it’s been since the spring: The more time you spend near someone, the closer you get, the more indoors with poor ventilation, and the less effective mask wearing, the more likely you are to get sick. So in theory, all the measures being taken by sports teams should help reduce risk, though item #1 suggests that if the NFL is really serious about fan safety, it should reduce the length of games to one quarter.

Trying to determine the exact risk level from attending one of these games is impossible, and in any case kind of beside the point. Will you get sick from Covid by going to an NFL game, even if fans don’t strictly obey all the new rules? (Sporting K.C. is talking about a “three strikes you’re out” rule, which isn’t exactly reassuring given that security will have to be policing more than ten thousand people while also keeping track of their card count.) Probably not — even during the Atalanta-Valencia disaster plenty of people didn’t get sick.

But in epidemiology, what’s important isn’t whether you get sick but rather whether somebody gets sick, and sticking 13,000 people in one place, even one socially distanced place with masks on, is a whole lot of dice to roll at once. And the risk then isn’t even just if you go to the game — check out the Maine woman who died after a Covid outbreak at a packed indoor wedding that she didn’t even attend, after she caught the virus from one of the 30 people who caught it there.

Really the question, then, is less “Is it safe to go to an NFL game in the middle of a pandemic?” than “Is it safe for a nation in the middle of a pandemic to allow people to go to NFL games?” The only way to know for sure is to do a huge experiment, with human subjects — and for better or for worse, that’s what we’re about to get.

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16 comments on “NFL and MLS about to start letting fans in, is this a terrible idea or what?

  1. Orlando City is allowing fans into their games as well (https://www.orlandosentinel.com/sports/orlando-city-soccer/os-sp-orlando-city-fans-stands-20200819-pt5w24di3jaxnd5wlcu636eynq-story.html)… on top of Florida State and Miami both announcing that they’ll let some fans in, and I’d almost bet my life on at least one other in-state team doing the same in the coming days and weeks as well.

    That last graf is pretty instructive to me, given that Florida is basically one massive social experiment, and a not-insignificant portion of our population sees firm edicts and definitive mandates as mere suggestions (i.e. I find it impossible to imagine that any of the social distancing and masking guidelines at these games would be followed or enforced to the greatest possible degree).

    1. Since flori-duhs governor was on hand to announce the dolphins plan and touted it as “huge news” I have no doubt you’re right.

    1. Hey, this could be Jerry’s last chance to make money off the dead fans (unless they signed PSLs that require them to make license and ticket payments even after death)… as we’ve heard before “he’s just a guy trying to run his own business”. You can’t blame him (ok, yes you can).

      Will the octogenarian owners put their health where their money is by showing up and gladhanding fans at the games this fall?

  2. Alabama already has fans at high school sports events, and after the first week there were many cases of not social distancing and not mask wearing, so I am expecting a large increase of cases in two to four weeks. If Florida and Texas are following the same course, the professional teams may figure that they may go for the gold, since there will be superspreading events no matter what they do.

    1. I get what you’re saying and don’t disagree that they may think that way, but more superspreading events is still significantly worse than fewer. Or to put it another way: “All the other kids are doing it” isn’t a great public health strategy.

  3. Allowing people to go does not mean that people will go. I have no idea what normal NFL ticket demand is at this point, but the secondary market never seemed to materialize. The Cowboys had the most tickets available on stubhub (both average and for a single game, which likely means most season ticket citizens and brokers), but it does not seem like they were actually selling. It is not like people were priced out of games. The Cowboys also had the cheapest tickets based on the average lowest available seat ($49) and the lowest available seat for a regular season game ($25). Maybe people are put off the credit only refund policies. Who knows?

    TV ratings are okay at best for other sports. The idea that everyone would rush back to sports might not be correct. I am sure some people would go, but I doubt the demand will be as high as some believe.

  4. Neil,

    If the polls are to be believed, and I don’t (actually I think they are embellished on purpose) the public is irrationally freaked out (when you put your faith in mask mandates but pay no mind to the fact they are to be used when social distancing is not possible) about Covid so its not relevant what the NFL does (if they are to be believed). People won’t go. We will soon find out if my hypothesis is correct.

    1. Actually, masks are pretty much universally useful if you’re either indoors or outside in close proximity for more than a few minutes at a time. If anything, social distancing is the magic beans — it helps, but only in certain circumstances, and not by all that much.

    2. No, the public isn’t irrationally freaked out. It’s freaked out! People are rational. But the media drumbeat cheerleading of the irrational end-of-the-world narrative can cause even normal people to panic. They’ve promoted the phony science of the mask mandates(counterproductive), 6 foot rule(arbitrary), capacity limits(arbitrary), infection projections,(discredited), lockdowns(unproven), quarantines(of healthy people?), and mortality rates(exaggerated) to provide cover as emboldened bureaucrats mandate the cowered public into submission;

      Hopefully, there are enough free thinking Americans, who prefer “essential liberty” to pretend safety, that.begin defying these diktats and start showing up in droves at sporting events and prove the experts wrong again. I’m in.

      1. The woman in Maine who died because other people went to an indoor wedding without masks begs to differ.

        1. Right. We know about the woman in Maine because the media made sure you knew about it.

          Did you hear about the lady in Missouri that died from the flu caught at the grocery in 1994 because there were no mask mandates back then? Of course not. The media was busy with OJ.

          Sorry Neil World B. Free gets the point on this one. You’re up

          1. It’s really easy to tell how many people are dying from Covid vs. die from the flu, and that’s to count.

            https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/08/12/us/covid-deaths-us.html

            I realize this is a link to “the media” (as opposed to the other “the media,” the one that tells you not to believe anything you read in the media), but there’s a link to the CDC’s excess death spreadsheets in the first paragraph, if you want to do your own count.

          2. My argument isn’t against mask. Heck I wore a mask and face shield when I go to the airport. I put that sucker on when I someone gets close to me.

            My argument is against the premise that the state needs to mandate a action that could potentially prevent harm trumps another’s liberty. If that is the case, mandate masks for the flu, the common cold Mandate hazmat suits. Those viruses kill too. Its about saving lives

          3. We’re back to driving on the sidewalk again. The government is always in the business of constraining some people’s “liberty” to put other people’s lives at risk — it has every right to do so regarding the flu, if it thought that the gains would be worth it.

  5. So long as these so called masks bear official NFL branding marks and are purchased from our officially licensed merchandise partners, we are one hundred percent behind people’s right to wear masks (as many as they want whenever they want). We would suggest it is safest to remove and discard your official NFL (TM) mask at the end of each quarter before replacing it with a new disease free one from it’s original pandemic proof packaging. It’s only four masks a game (*barring overtime), and you can’t put a price on your safety.

    Although we do. $29.99 per mask or four for $100.

    I’ll have to get in touch with Jerry about these branded coffins. Maybe I missed a memo but this is the first I’ve heard about them.

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