How Are Countries Getting Ready for the Return of Sports?
It’s the moment we’ve all been waiting for: starting in late June, American sports leagues will be pushing ahead with reopening. The NWSL is the first U.S. sports league to return, with its Challenge Cup beginning on June 27th. NHL training camps open July 10th, MLB opening day is set for either July 23rd or 24th, and the NBA season restarts July 30th. The major leagues have all devised unique strategies and playoff scenarios to allow their teams to be able to play, but so far not many of the plans include live spectators just yet.
However, it’s hard to ignore the fact that COVID-19 cases in the U.S. are still on the rise. How can teams and venue operators act as role models for prioritizing public safety and operate responsibly? In this blog, we look at other sports leagues around the world to see if we can learn from their experiences.
South Korea: Players will likely test positive… what happens then?
South Korea has been hugely successful at containing the pandemic, and because of that, the Korean Baseball Organization was able to restart play back in early May. Its plan started with vigorous testing of players and staff, contact tracing and tough restrictions. On the Vox podcast, Today, Explained, Korean sports reporter Jeeho Yoo said these restrictions include reporting their temperatures multiple times a day, no spitting or high-fiving with bare hands and umpires and coaches wearing masks for entire games.
Another major limitation: no fans allowed. The plan was to eventually allow spectators to come back, but when teams started reporting players with fevers, it was clear the league couldn’t move forward with this initiative. The spike in positive tests led to an extended ban, and while this was a difficult decision, it was made in the best interest of fan safety.
In the U.S. it’s also inevitable that there are going to be positive cases once things start up again. A few Houston Texans and Dallas Cowboys, including star running back Ezekiel Elliott, have tested positive for the virus. According to the NBA, in its opening round of testing, sixteen players have tested positive out of 302 tests. Players who test positive will have to remain in self-isolation until they meet safety protocols and can be cleared by a physician.
Europe: Teams make their players safe, and venues make their fans safe.
The top three European soccer leagues — English Premier League, La Liga and Bundesliga — have all made their return, and have been setting protocols to prioritize fan safety.
The Spanish league, for example, decided that “fans will have their temperature checked and will need to wear face masks when they are eventually allowed back into soccer stadiums in Spain, according to protocol guidelines sent to clubs.” There will also be restrictions on human contact, so no high-fives or hugs, and fans will be encouraged to keep a safe distance from each other and stay in their seats as much as possible.
Some concession stands have opted to use a mobile ordering platform so that fans don’t need to leave their seats to place an order or wait around the concourse areas. When the order is ready, customers will receive a text notification for contactless pickup or in-seat delivery.
Other protocols being considered include reducing capacity to about ⅓ the usual number of fans, allowing season ticket holders the chance to buy tickets first and assigning designated times for when fans can arrive.
Forsyth Barr stadium hosts one of the first major sporting events attended by fans since the start of the pandemic. Photograph: Joe Allison/AP, via The Guardian.
New Zealand: Above all, managing the pandemic is key.
While most other countries have reopened sports without fans in attendance, New Zealand — which is “coronavirus free” according to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern — saw almost 20,000 spectators show up for a rugby match between the Otago Highlanders and the Waikato Chiefs at Forsyth Barr stadium. New Zealand has made great strides in getting rid of the coronavirus, taking its number of active cases from 1,366 all the way down to zero, which is why rugby fans were able to cheer on their favorite teams together.
Aren’t we all imagining the day when the number of COVID-19 cases in the U.S. is also down to zero, and that we can truly experience sports exactly the way as before?
There’s still hope in the U.S. that fans will be back in stadiums soon. The Kentucky Derby, which got pushed back to September 5th, will be allowing live spectators under “strict guidelines,” which include recommendations to wear masks, practice social distancing and frequently wash their hands while roaming around the track. The NFL and many college football teams are preparing themselves to host fans in stadiums this fall. If and when fans come back, make sure your venue is prepared for re-opening with FanFood’s Guide to COVID-19.