When sports return after coronavirus pandemic, fans will have changed — if they even come back at all

At some point, sports will be back. They will likely be altered significantly by the fallout from the coronavirus pandemic, but it’s a good bet that they will reclaim their high perch in our Western popular culture. 

But can we just assume that every fan will return as well?

It’s been almost two months without sports and people have rearranged their lives accordingly. They have developed new routines, new interests, new hobbies. After such a long layoff, can we just assume that every fan will fit sports back into their lives? Could there be a contraction of fandom? A sports-specific recession, exacerbated by the actual recession?

“It takes 30 days to break a habit, but that is typically for habits a person knows they should give up but just can’t manage to do so,” says Andrew Billings, executive director of the program in sport communication at the University of Alabama. “There doesn’t appear to be much evidence that sports fans feel that way about their sports habits; instead, they are seeing sports fandom as the epitome of what society is missing: a common shared kinship and interaction.”

Like all of the professors quoted in this story, Billings pointed out that any answer was speculative and unscientific. There is, after all, barely a precedent for this situation, a lacking data set for how fans react to a pandemic. 

But there is this: After the 1918 Spanish Flu ravaged the nation, Major League Baseball attendance rebounded to record highs. This case study, however, is complicated by World War I and the 1919 Black Sox scandal. From 1916 through 1918, attendance slipped from 6.5 million to 3 million – with that last year hit especially hard by the grinding endgame of the war and the pandemic.

A decent amount of fans may not return to sports after the coronavirus pandemic subsides. And if they do, they'll be changed in ways we can't yet fully comprehend. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

By the next season, attendance bounced back to 6.5 million. In 1920, even as the Black Sox case slowly unspooled in the press, 9.1 million people filed through the turnstiles. By the time the public understood the full scope of the crookedness in the thrown World Series, a more-than-robust 8.6 million still showed in 1921.

Likewise, the end of the COVID-19 pandemic, whenever that may be, could result in a big uptick of sports consumption. The sports nuts, in other words, will binge, an overcorrection of consumption triggered by the return of the thing they were accustomed to but had been unexpectedly deprived of.

But what about all of those sports consumers who aren’t superfans?

Daniel Wann is a professor of psychology at Murray State University. He’s also the leading authority on the psychology of sports fandom who created the Sport Spectator Identification Scale, which quantifies identification with the teams you root for. 

Wann believes that people at the low end of that scale – the casual or marginal fans, in other words – could be moving on. “They might be finding something else to do,” he says. “So to assume that the lowly identified fans are going to come back to even their low level of interest in a sport or a team, I think that’s probably a faulty assumption.”

Those who aren’t about to give up their sports habit might nevertheless take a new approach to it. “For the individuals that are highly or moderately identified, I do expect them to come back,” Wann says. “The issue really isn’t, do they come back and do sport as much? The issue is how they do sport. [That] may be impacted.”

Rewatching a lot of old games, as those in a kind of sports withdrawal are forced to do, also gets those viewers used to games unfolding more quickly, with most breaks and halftimes skipped in the re-airings. The games are quicker, with fewer interruptions. This creates a new expectation.

“Sports fans are adapting how they’re consuming sports,” Wann says. “[When live sports return] it’s going to seem different. How is this consumption going to be impacted? I don’t think the amount, but people’s psychological experiences of sport may be impacted and altered.”

Then there is, of course, the attendance piece to all of this. Until a vaccine emerges, packing stadiums the way we once did seems out of the question. And even when we’re all vaccinated, we may have new compunctions about how tightly we’re willing to be squeezed into large venues. There will be other pandemics, after all – it’s an inevitability. 

“How similar is the new to the old normal?” asks Stefan Szymanski, a professor of sport management at the University of Michigan. “When it comes to attending games, I think there will be an age divide. Young people will return to the stadiums; older people will be more reluctant. This means a revenue hit, since young people don't have the same spending power. Broadcast revenues will return, but stadium revenues will be lower in my view.”

There is a sense, however, that any drop-off in attendance from one demographic could be offset by a boost from another. But all of that could be made moot by an upswing in ratings and heightened coverage.

“At least in the short term, gate receipts will be substantially lower, but somewhat mitigated by increased media interest,” Billings says. “Many people have worked their way steadily down their DVR and Netflix queues and scripted programming will have ceased production for several months. Live sports, even without fans, will likely easily win the day over networks airing reruns and people considering something that used to be ranked 22nd on their Netflix watch list.”

The flip side of that, Billings points out, is that all of those major sports events that have been delayed could all overlap or coincide at the same time, suppressing the attention paid to all of them.

The audience will still be there when the coronavirus pandemic ends and sports resume. It may be smaller, at least for a while, but hungrier too. But that audience will have evolved in ways big and small, which will alter the sports business in all kinds of ways not yet foreseen.

Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.

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