Empty Seats: How Many Sports Fans Is It Safe To Host In 2021?

By Matthew Casey
Published: Monday, November 2, 2020 - 12:02am
Updated: Monday, November 2, 2020 - 8:15am

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Salt River Fields
Matthew Casey/KJZZ
The Diamondbacks host the Cubs at Salt River Fields in March 2017.

This story is part of a six-part podcast project called Empty Seats, the pandemic versus a sports capital. Download Episode 5 to hear more about whether fans can safely go to games when play resumes. Visit emptyseats.kjzz.org to get a new episode every Monday through Nov. 9, 2020.

A packed crowd roared as they watched the then defending world champion Chicago Cubs play the hometown Diamondbacks on March 23, 2017, at Salt River Fields.

“A spring training game, for the majority of our fans, is what brings them here in the first place. And then as a result of that, they stay here multiple nights,” said Bridget Binsbacher, executive director of the Cactus League.

This is the offseason for every major pro sport except football. The trio of leagues not playing now have to work with health officials to figure out whether fans can safely go to games when play resumes. The answer has huge implications for Arizona in 2021. The year before COVID emerged, more than 1.7 million people went to spring training baseball games in metro Phoenix.

“Driving tourism, not just impacting tourism, but driving tourism in a big way by what happens year after year. So when you compare us to other mega events, some are every five years, eight years, whatever it might be. The Cactus League is here year after year after year,” Binsbacher said.

New years for hockey and basketball will reportedly start in a couple months. USA Today says the NBA commissioner wants at least some Suns fans to fill seats inside a mostly renovated Talking Stick Resort Arena.

NHL teams like the Coyotes are more dependent on having attendance than other major sports.

Surprise Stadium
Matthew Casey/KJZZ
Surprise Stadium in 2019.

The 2021 Cactus League schedule is out, but you can’t buy tickets yet.

“That's definitely the big question. Will we have fans? Will we not have fans?” Binsbacher said. 

In Arlington, Texas, Major League Baseball let fans fill roughly 27% of the seats for the recent World Series.

“I think you have to kind of learn by doing here, I think you start low and you go up slow,” said Dr. Shad Marvasti, public health director at the University of Arizona medical school in Phoenix.

With the virus surging now, Marvasti said slashing the positivity rate and having a relatively calm cold and flu season are key to whether it can be safe to allow some fans at events in the metro Phoenix sports capital next year. Masks and social distancing are a must.

“I think if we can take that seriously, then we can have the opportunity to enjoy ourselves and watch sports,” Marvasti said.

The Arizona Department of Health Services has not set benchmarks for when sports venues can go back to full capacity. State officials still consider them high-risk, which should be weighed with personal risk before choosing to go to a game.

Marvasti said herd immunity or the virus mutating into a less lethal form are needed for sellout crowds on game day to be safe again.

“I think conferences, you know, conventions and large sporting events, they're going to be at the end of the list from a public health perspective, before they kind of come back online the way they were before,” he said.

Peoria Sports Complex
Matthew Casey/KJZZ
Peoria Sports Complex in 2016.

Danger from the virus means spectators indoors to see the Suns or Coyotes are less likely than outdoors at the Phoenix Open golf tournament or spring training. Around 25% capacity would fill about 4,000 seats in Sloan Park, the biggest Cactus League stadium. Executive Director Bridget Binsbacher’s goal is to be ready for whatever happens. 

“I would like to be able to be in a position where we're more in a planning mode than we are a reaction mode,” she said.

Spring break in Arizona has become a destination for people, said the Peoria City Council member and self-described baseball mom. The Cactus League is a homegrown mega event that draws them here.

Game-day crowds like the one who showed up to see the Cubs and Diamondbacks in 2017 would be a sign the state is bouncing back.

“I really believe that we will be such a critical part of, you know, bringing the state's tourism and economy back to where it needs to be and beyond,” Binsbacher said. 

Exactly when it happens is up to forces beyond control.

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American Family Fields of Phoenix
Matthew Casey/KJZZ
American Family Fields of Phoenix in 2019.