PRESS BOX: VCU sports need fans back in the stands 

Illustration by Isabelle Roque

Ryan Grube, Contributing Writer

When VCU’s spring sports shut down in March, plans seemed to revolve around getting players back on the court. But as COVID-19 continues to bar sporting events from the starting line, the idea of packing VCU’s stands with spectators is still cloudy.

On a national scale, as more games are played without supporters and hecklers in the stands, it’s becoming increasingly clear that people at home are becoming less interested in tuning in to watch the big games.

The most recent evidence came from Games 1, 2 and 3 of the 2020 NBA Finals, which were played without spectators in attendance. The matches topped the list of the least-watched NBA Finals games in recorded history, dating back to 1988, Sports Media Watch reported.

MLB attempted to add a crowd element in the form of cardboard cutouts. The notion eventually wore out, however, as the league began to gradually allow larger capacities of fans for divisional playoffs held at bubble sites in San Diego, Los Angeles, Houston and Arlington, Virginia. 

The decreasing viewership in professional sports outlines why venues like Stuart C. Siegel Center and The Diamond must be filled with fans for the upcoming seasons. By not having fans in the seats at contests, VCU runs the risk of people losing interest while watching at home. 

An October statement from VCU Athletics stated the school will continue to seek advice from the state on fan capacity for 2020-21 men’s and women’s basketball games.

“Regardless of capacity limit, if fans are permitted, a seating manifest that adheres to social distancing guidelines will be generated,” the statement read. “In addition, VCU athletics will transition to fully digital ticketing to eliminate contact between fans and game-day staff.”

According to a survey by the Marist Center for Sports Communication, 35% of sports fans said concerns around COVID-19 resulted in a decrease in their watching live sports broadcasts.

Fake crowd noise is a popular fill-in, particularly in the NBA, NFL and MLB, as major sports venues begin permitting small percentages of fans back in their respective seats.

But even that interim solution has been largely unsuccessful. According to data compiled by Sports Media Watch, these top-level sports leagues are facing considerable negative viewership within their contests.

The NBA’s bubble playoffs were viewed by 37% fewer people than last season’s normal playoffs, while the 2020 Finals declined by 49% from 2019.

Meanwhile, the MLB experienced a 40% drop in its divisional series, and the NFL is witnessing a 14% early-season drop-off from last year’s viewership numbers.

Simulated crowd noise will likely have the same underwhelming effect at the Siegel Center or at The Diamond, where VCU’s baseball games are held.

The Siegel Center, VCU’s home for men’s and women’s basketball, currently holds 7,637 fans. The building is the site of 152 consecutive sellouts at men’s hoops contests.

The arena has not only become a staple for entertainment in the local Richmond area, but also in all of college basketball. The packed crowd creates an electric atmosphere that draws in thousands of viewers to every game.

Reducing the capacity of spectators severely diminishes the home court effect, which the black and gold have taken to a whole new level since the home sellout streak began in January 2011 with a VCU victory over UNC Wilmington.

The VCU Peppas can only create so much noise, and many of the chants they lead don’t carry the same effect without a substantial amount of black and gold fans. 

Mike Mulvihill, the head of strategy and analytics for Fox Sports, said sports and social connection go hand-in-hand to create a productive business.

“For obvious reasons, our whole environment of social connection is completely inside out,” Mulvihill told The Washington Post. “So sports and the ability of sports to act as a unifying force is really undermined.”

It’s understandable that the vast majority of sporting events are operating at a reduced capacity due to COVID-19 risks. 

With the majority of sports essentially put on hold around the commonwealth, University of Virginia, Liberty and Virginia Tech remain the only in-state schools currently in season, as they advance through their respective conference schedules. Virginia announced in September that fans would not be allowed at fall sporting events. Liberty’s Arthur L. William Stadium holds a limited capacity of 1,000 patrons, and Tech fills Lane Stadium with the same number of guests plus another 1,000 cardboard cut-outs.

 Leagues of all levels of competition are following social distancing guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, requiring a safe, 6-foot distance between yourself and others. 

But there are obviously ways to enforce these measures and still have spectators present inside stadiums and arenas.   

Take the temperature of fans as they enter. Spread people out accordingly. Make everyone wear a mask, but make it happen. VCU Athletics needs fans back in the stands for the approaching seasons, or the university’s sports teams could become the latest victims of dwindling viewership. 

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