Ben Malakoff, Contributing Writer
It’s been more than 250 days since men’s basketball last played a game at the Stuart C. Siegel Center. In fact, there has not been a game played in the Broad Street arena since March 3 due to COVID-19. Now with the team looking forward to a late November return, VCU is implementing a plan to allow fans back into games.
The Rams will travel to Knoxville, Tennessee, to play Charlotte on a to-be-determined date and the University of Tennessee on Nov. 27. The home opener hasn’t been announced yet, but the Rams will host Mount St. Mary’s on Dec. 5 and Old Dominion on Dec. 12 at the Siegel Center.
The Siegel Center will be following Virginia’s phase 3 reopening protocol, which allows up to 1,000 fans in the venue, said Nate Doughty, assistant athletic director for facilities and event management.
There will be 150 tickets put aside for students, as well as a group of tickets marked off for family and friends of coaches and student-athletes. The rest will be allocated for donors to the Ram Athletic Fund and sold as season tickets, according to Kevin Jackson, associate athletic director for external operations.
The facility’s E.J. Wade Arena, which normally seats more than 7,600 spectators, has sold out over 150 consecutive men’s basketball games, dating back to the 2011 season.
Fans will have to follow social distancing guidelines in the arena. Only households will be allowed to sit together in groups of four and two, separated from others by 6 feet. Students will have to remain 6 feet apart from each other at all times.
The first four rows of the Siegel Center will not be open to any fans, Jackson said, leaving roughly 25 feet of space between players and spectators.
“That creates a barrier from the fans and the people on the court and on the playing surface,” Jackson said.
Jackson said human contact will be limited by a shift to digital ticketing.
“The experience itself will be a lot of the same things you see around at the grocery store,” Doughty said. “Masks are going to be required for everyone. All the personal precautions — wash your hands, social distance.”
In comparison to University of Virginia’s John Paul Jones Arena, which seats more than 14,500 people, VCU’s guidelines are fairly similar. Both follow Gov. Ralph Northam’s “Forward Virginia” plan, which was announced in May to combat the spread of COVID-19 in the commonwealth. University of Virginia will allow up to 1,000 fans in the arena and require masks with six-feet social distancing at all times.
Concession locations at the Siegel Center will be limited, but the menu options will stay the same. The north concession stands across from team benches will “probably” not be open, Doughty said. Food and drink locations in the lobby will remain open and lines will be “queued appropriately.”
These guidelines are subject to change depending on future recommendations from the commonwealth, Doughty said. If restrictions are increased or lifted in the coming weeks, the Siegel Center will follow.
“We are definitely going with the flow,” Doughty said. “We can only do a thousand right now, but if in some circumstance in January, they open it up to 2,000 people, we will be ready to go ahead and release those seats to be sold.”
Doughty said since there is a limited number of fans, the normal entrances at the east and west lobbies will be used. There will be no set arrival times for fans coming into games, and doors will open an hour before tip-off.
Jishnu Purihella, a VCU alumnus and fan of the team, said he has mixed feelings on spectators being permitted in the arena.
“I think it’s great that fans are in if proper precautions are taking place, but it’s very risky,” Purihella said.
Purihella said he would not attend a game because he does not want to “risk possibly contracting COVID.”
Taylor Jackowski, a junior at VCU and social media director for the Rowdy Rams student section, supports the department’s decisions and will plan on attending games.
“Of course the inner fan in me wants everyone to be allowed in to create the havoc that we normally do on gameday,” Jackowski said. “However, the pandemic we’re living through right now shouldn’t be ignored, so we will just have to adjust.”