Last week, North Carolina men’s basketball coach Roy Williams sat down for a virtual news conference in Chapel Hill to discuss the uncertainty ahead in college basketball.
To adjust to the circumstances, Williams said the school will move chairs apart on the sideline so players can keep their distance from one another. He also said he and every member of his staff will wear masks during every game. But the most impactful difference for the 2020-2021 season, he said, could unfold in the bleachers.
“I think we’ll have college basketball,” Williams told reporters. “I don’t know how many fans, if any, will be in the stands to see it.”
With the season set to begin less than a month from now on Nov. 25, coaches, athletic directors and commissioners throughout the country must field questions about rules on attendance, while also projecting the potential budgetary impact of empty venues or arenas with limited capacity because of the coronavirus pandemic. College basketball will be the first major indoor sport in America that will attempt to play without the bubbles that were successfully employed by the WNBA, NBA and the NHL.
Dr. Jaimie Meyer, an infectious disease specialist at Yale University, said the combination of basketball’s designation as a high-risk sport by the Centers for Disease Control — due to close contact among players and the science showing the virus is more apt to spread indoors — the sport might not see any fans in the stands for a long time. She said the uptick in infection rates around the country are a factor, too.
“When games take place in communities that have a high level of COVID transmission, it makes it more likely that a fan has it and doesn’t know,” Meyer said. “I really find it hard to imagine a scenario where it will be safe to have fans [in college basketball], even if they’re wearing masks and distanced.”
College basketball’s variety is among the key to its popularity, as nearly 350 schools representing 32 different leagues compete in the NCAA tournament. This year, schools of all sizes and profiles share the same concerns about the possible loss of revenue from ticket sales.
At the Football Bowl Subdivision level, which includes all Power 5 schools, ticket sales in all sports combined to account for 17% of the $8.3 billion revenue earned collectively in the 2018-19 academic year, per Knight Commission data. At the Football Championship Subdivision level, which features many of the sport’s low- and mid-majors, ticket sales account for only 5% of total revenue. But that’s largely because those schools acquire 69% of their revenue through institutional support and student fees, a pair of categories that could be jeopardized by the pandemic.
The unknown has left programs searching for the right responses to anxious season-ticket holders.
Last week, Saint Mary’s College, located in Moraga, California, and a member of the West Coast Conference, held a Facebook Live session with season-ticket holders to discuss the school’s upcoming plans.
The school only recently was cleared to host games at home by its county officials, and it is not intending to host fans at McKeon Pavilion, its 3,500-seat venue. Mike Matoso, the school’s athletic director, said the program has offered season-ticket holders three options for the upcoming year: donate their season tickets to boost the program’s budget at a difficult time, defer their season tickets until the 2021-2022 campaign or request a refund.
McKeon Pavilion is one of the nation’s rowdiest sites — during big games like its annual battle with Gonzaga, fans spill into the aisles and corridors. Matoso said California’s COVID-19 restrictions probably won’t shift to allow fans this season, stripping the building of the atmosphere and cash from which the school benefits each year.
Matoso said his school will spend $400,000 on testing for athletes this season. Saint Mary’s has already had layoffs and furloughs. A world without fans in the stands makes those expenditures all the more difficult to offset.
“How do we not hurt the success of our programs?” he said about the situation. “It’s definitely a social event. Our fans live for this.”
Matoso is not alone as he tries to navigate the hurdles.
Although the season begins in less than a month, every school contacted by ESPN said its plans for fans were in flux and far from solidified. The lack of clarity for some universities is enhanced by unknowns around whether students will be allowed on campus during basketball season. Concerns of a winter outbreak of the virus have caused some to announce they’ll transition to a remote learning-only model after Thankgsiving.
At BYU, where fans were not allowed in the stands for the school’s first three home football games because of state and local regulations, officials haven’t finalized plans for the basketball season.
“At this point, we don’t have answers to those questions,” BYU men’s basketball spokesman Kyle Chilton said. “We’re in the process of figuring things out, but it would be premature to discuss anything publicly right now.”
Creighton athletic director Bruce Rasmussen recently sent a letter to fans — the school was ranked fifth nationally with an average attendance of 17,314 last season — that emphasized the financial challenges ahead for a school without football that relies on men’s basketball as a key financial pipeline.
“Your passion and commitment have allowed us to provide a first-class athletics program,” the letter said. “The reality is that this pandemic threatens our ability to sustain the success we have built over many years. Everything we pride ourselves in — competing at the highest level while developing young men and women to make a commitment for and with others — relies on our ability to financially support our student-athletes and we could not do it without you.”
Local officials have allowed Tennessee to fill Neyland Stadium to 25% capacity this season — just over 25,000 people — for football. Similar measures could be implemented for men’s basketball, which finished fourth in Division I average attendance (18,990) last year at Thompson-Boling Arena.
The school’s women’s volleyball team is currently playing this fall with fans, although they’re restricted to specific sections of the arena. Officials there continue to assess plans for men’s basketball but they hope to create a socially distanced concept with some fans in the stands.
In normal years, Tennessee generates about $6 million from ticket sales with men’s and women’s basketball, per school officials.
“As with our fall sports that welcome fans — football, soccer and volleyball — we will align with The Tennessee Pledge and all SEC health and safety event recommendations,” said team spokesman Tom Satkowiak. “This includes, but is not limited to, facial covering requirements, mobile [contactless] ticketing, physical distancing and enhanced cleaning and sanitization throughout our facilities.”
Syracuse led the nation last season with an average attendance of 21,704 fans. But fans have been barred from sporting events in the state of New York, so the school would need both state and local approval to allow spectators into the Carrier Dome this season.
Officials at Iowa State, where athletic director Jamie Pollard has announced pay cuts and discussed possible layoffs in recent months, said they can’t discuss plans for basketball yet because of the remaining logistical unknowns. Louisville officials are having conversations with the governor’s office in Kentucky about how many, if any, fans they’ll be allowed to have at the KFC YUM! Center this season. (Editor’s note: U of L announced on Oct. 28 that it would allow 3,000 fans, or 15% of capacity).
In addition to state and local protocols, conferences could implement their own rules to regulate attendance, too. Only family members of players and coaches can attend Big Ten football games this season, per league rules.
While the NBA has been praised for its success in its bubble, the league also spent more than $150 million to create that sanitized environment and provide testing — all without fans in the stands. College basketball, which lost last year’s NCAA tournament and the sizable payout for each conference that comes with it, won’t have the access to the same resources.
“There have to be a lot of precautions,” Yale’s Meyer said about the risks attached to the upcoming season.
It’s the new reality and a new concern for a sport that just hopes to get off the ground next month.
The abnormal vibe that could accompany this unprecedented season in college basketball, however, might be something we all have to get used to, Williams said.
“I am optimistic,” UNC’s Williams said during his virtual news conference last week. “But I’ll say this: I don’t know that we’ll ever get back to the normal that we knew.”