Plenty of unknowns remain about the return of live professional sporting events, but one thing is certain: Fans will not be in attendance for the foreseeable future.
NASCAR announced that its premier Cup Series season will restart without fans May 17. The PGA Tour will restart June 11 with no fans for at least its first four events. They’ll follow in the footsteps of the WWE, which has held events, including WrestleMania, without fans for two months.
The timeline is slower for major team sports leagues. They must account for more people — players, coaching staffs, officials, etc. — essential to the operation. Widespread testing for the coronavirus is considered a prerequisite.
Major League Baseball suspended operations during spring training March 12, but officials are confident they can hold some form of a regular season. NBA officials remain hopeful the league can salvage its regular season and playoffs. The NHL ruled out playing at neutral sites and the latest plan is to hold playoff games in NHL venues in four “hub” cities to minimize travel. It is considering playing into October and delaying the start of the 2020-21 season.
MLS will reopen training facilities for players next week and is tentatively scheduled to resume its season June 8. The WNBA is contemplating quarantining teams and playing in one neutral location. The NFL has time to wait it out.
None of the leagues are expected to have fans at games to start — possibly into 2021. They will be made for television with billions of dollars at stake.
It will be uncharted territory, for the most part. Only MLB and the PGA Tour have held events without fans. The American Hockey League, the NHL’s top minor league, has also staged games without fans.
They were similar in their strangeness. Here’s a look at those few examples, and a peek into what temporarily will be our new normal.
- The only MLB game played without fans happened five years ago last week. The Baltimore Orioles and Chicago White Sox played at an empty Camden Yards after unrest surfaced in response to Baltimore resident Freddie Gray’s death in police custody.
Riots forced MLB to cancel the first two games of the series. The finale was moved from night to the afternoon to comply with the city’s curfew. The decision was made to not allow fans entry.
The Orioles won, 8-2, in a brisk two hours and three minutes — an unusually short game. Music and the public address announcer echoed. Players pretended to sign autographs. A ball girl did her job, protecting the empty seats behind her. Stadium employees roamed the stands for foul balls.
After the game, Orioles first baseman Chris Davis, who hit a three-run home run in the first inning, compared the atmosphere to a spring training intrasquad game. Orioles manager Buck Showalter said every word could be heard on the field.
“When you’re rounding the base and the only cheers were from outside the stadium, it’s a weird feeling,” Davis told reporters. “I’ll take any home run I can get at any time I can get it, but it’s definitely more fun when there are fans.”
- The PGA Tour has held two full rounds without fans present: the third round of the 2012 AT&T National in Maryland and the final round of the 2016 Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines in San Diego. In both instances, fans weren’t allowed after inclement weather caused damage and toppled trees.
The third round of the AT&T National was played after a windstorm ripped through the area the previous night. The storm left more than 400,000 people and the course without power. The round began after a six-hour delay with the temperature approaching triple digits and debris on the course.
Tiger Woods chipped in for a birdie on the sixth hole, and the shot was met by silence.
“I’ve played in front of people like this, but not generally for an 18-hole competitive round,” Woods said.
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Fans were allowed for the final round the next day. They watched Woods shoot a two-under 69 to come from behind for his 74th career win.
- Weather caused a more recent example in hockey. On Jan. 17, 2018, the American Hockey League’s Charlotte Checkers hosted the Bridgeport Sound Tigers at Bojangles’ Coliseum. The arena was empty after six inches of ice and snow fell in the Charlotte, N.C. area and the Checkers discouraged fans from attending. The Checkers, an affiliate of the Carolina Hurricanes, won 4-3.
“It’s more fun to play with people out there, but we need to do our best no matter what the situation,” Charlotte centre Lucas Wallmark said.