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How Long Will Coronavirus Hold Sports Fans Hostage?

With the Olympics postponed, is football season the next sports victim of the Coronavirus?

Iowa v Nebraska Photo by Steven Branscombe/Getty Images

The last two weeks in this country have been surreal as the COVID-19 Coronavirus has pretty much put everything on hold to keep everyone at home as much as possible to thwart the spread of a new disease that threatens to kill millions of people in this country if nothing is done to slow or stop it. When Rudy Gobert of the NBA’s Utah Jazz was confirmed to have the disease, the emergency brake on sports in this country was pulled. Within 24 hours of the news, the NBA, NHL and Major League Baseball all shut down. The NCAA not only cancelled March Madness, but after quickly realizing this wasn’t going to be under control soon, shut down all spring sports, including the College World Series.

Now, the 2020 Summer Olympics are also on hold. So what’s next at risk?

Our national pasttime: Football.

Nothing has been decided yet; in fact, we’re probably months away from having a definitive answer. But fans need to start preparing for the possibility that stadiums will sit empty this fall.

At this time, medical experts don’t have any definitive solutions for COVID-19 other than implementing social distancing. Staying 6 feet away from others makes most sports difficult, if not impossible to continue. (Well, maybe golf...) Yes, doctors are investigating treatment options, but none have been clinically tested yet for effectiveness. Vaccines are being tested, but vaccines typically take a year to be tested.

And football season is supposed to start in about five months.

Nevermind trying to figure out how to salvage Nebraska’s remaining 13 spring football practices for 2020; we’re staring in the face of a reality that suggests that the 2021 spring practices could be at risk as well. And if we should be worried about next spring, we should be scared that this fall’s football season might not happen as well.

Note the “might”; it’s just speculation, as I don’t have any more information than you do. But when SEC commissioner Greg Sankey is hedging on the likelihood of this season kicking off as scheduled, you have to be concerned as well.

ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit sounded a much more ominous tone on Thursday, suggesting that the powers-that-be should shut it down now.

What has to happen to make football viable this fall? I think there some basic questions we need to get answered first before we can start thinking about resuming football:

  1. Can players be safe from the Coronavirus in their locker rooms and on the field in competition with other teams from other parts of the country?
  2. Can coaches and other staff members be safe in getting players ready to play?
  3. Can teams safely travel to games on airlines and staying in hotel?

That’s not even considering the fan component; this is just the raw essence of putting on a game. We’re tasked with trying to ensure that 200 or more people could somehow interact on the field and in meeting rooms. Could they be kept isolated long enough before resuming practice and then keep them isolated enough to ensure that they have no contact with anybody else who could have the virus.

Want fans in the stands? Well, we’ve got to be in a position where social distancing isn’t a concern anymore. Memorial Stadium allows each person 18 inches on the benches, so keeping everyone six feet apart means that four seats next to each occupied seat has to remain unoccupied. Oh, and probably every other row being kept empty as well. Dividing Memorial Stadium’s 85,000 capacity in half and then by a fifth, you MIGHT theoretically be able to allow 8,000 fans into the stadium... if you could ensure that fans would be willing to sit in the upper reaches of the stadium instead of trying to sneak into a prime empty spot near the 50 yard line.

And who decides who gets the limited number of tickets for each game, when Nebraska has sold out Memorial Stadium for 58 season? The logistics of trying to figure out how to allocate tickets, who might be able to go to which game is simply an impossible scenario to resolve. So barring some sort of overall solution to the pandemic, either because stay-at-home choices by people around the world cause this virus to be extinguished or science finds some sort of answer, it seems likely to expect the stands to be empty.

End of the sellout streak if the games are played? Hardly. A sellout implies that there are were unsold tickets; in this situation, there would be no tickets available.

But is it worth it to try to play in an empty stadium? It’s a decision that needs to be made by players, coaches and the schools. But for fans, it’s better than the alternative. The last two weeks have been a shock to the system for most of us; the double whammy of staying home with no sports to watch while you are stuck on the couch is a shock to the system. We’re supposed to be watching the NCAA basketball tournament along with the start of the Major League Baseball season. Coming up was supposed to be the NBA and Stanley Cup playoffs along with the Master. Oh, and Nebraska baseball too.

I have to admit... the thoughts that this might still be the case this summer and fall are more depressing than anything else I can think of sports-wise. (Definitely not as depressing as the thoughts of family or friends coming down with this Coronavirus.) The return of sports on television would something to look forward to as we go through the next few months and a welcome diversion once the games begin.