'We're back!': With capacity restrictions lifted June 1, Tigers, MSU, UM prepare for full stadiums

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Goodbye extra leg room, hello high-fiving a total stranger.

At Dow Diamond in Midland on Thursday, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced outdoor capacity restrictions will be entirely lifted June 1, meaning sports teams can start selling as many tickets as their facilities fit. Whether sports teams do that immediately is up to each one.

Tigers fans soon will have fewer empty seats around them at Comerica Park.

Most are ready to go, with a couple of notable — and probably temporary — holdouts.

The big decision, given the season, involves the Tigers, who didn't provide specifics Thursday — but made their intentions clear in a Twitter post Thursday afternoon.

"We can’t wait to celebrate with 41,083 of our closest friends!" the post read, adding that ticket information would be coming "soon."

Later in the day, in a statement to The Detroit News, the team said: "The Detroit Tigers are looking forward to filling Comerica Park with the best fans in baseball. We encourage fans to follow the Tigers' social-media channels for further updates and information on seating capacity and ticket sales as they become available."

The Tigers have been playing with an 8,200-fan limit since their season opened a month and a half ago, and have been selling single-game tickets on a month-to-month basis amid the restrictions. They already have put their June tickets on sale based on seating pods and capacity restrictions — waiving ticket fees for May and June through 1:17 p.m. Friday, to celebrate Spencer Turnbull's 117-pitch no-hitter.

Most Comerica Park seats have been zip-tied to promote social distancing.

Michigan State was quick to announce plans for a full Spartan Stadium in the fall, as coach Mel Tucker begins his second season at the helm.

In 2020, Big Ten teams played an abbreviated schedule in mostly empty stadiums.

“As a department we are planning to have a full and robust Spartan Stadium and deliver as traditional a Spartan football experience as we possibly can,” athletic director Bill Beekman said in a statement. “I know personally I can't wait to see the camaraderie among Spartans at the pregame tailgates. And after a lifetime of attending Spartan games, I still get shivers down my spine when the band comes out of the tunnel.

"We all have our own favorite moments, but it's being in attendance at Spartan Stadium that connects us all.”

Michigan State's home opener is Sept. 11 against Youngstown State, and plays Nebraska on Sept. 25 in its first Big Ten home game.

Michigan, meanwhile, discussed Whitmer's announcement during Thursday's Board of Regents meeting. Regent Sarah Hubbard said, "I hope we'll be able to," in regard to capacity attendance at football games. Michigan plays four home games to start the season, starting Sept. 4 with Western Michigan, followed by a prime-time game against Washington on Sept. 11, then Northern Illinois (Sept. 18) and Rutgers (Sept. 25).

Michigan president Mark Schlissel was noncommittal to Hubbard's comment.

"The key to all those things remains continuing our efforts around vaccinations. So those of you who haven’t yet, please do," Schlissel said. "It’s the surest way forward and the safest way forward.”

Later Thursday afternoon, Michigan athletics put out a statement, with the headline, "We're Back!" saying the order "clears the path" for "full capacity beginning with fall competition," pending federal, state and local guidelines. Michigan will continue to require face masks indoors, and at outdoor gatherings of 100 or more.

Whitmer made her announcement at the home of the Great Lakes Loons, the Los Angeles Dodgers' Single-A affiliate. Michigan has three affiliated minor-league teams, in Midland, Comstock Park (Whitecaps) and Lansing (Lugnuts). Their seasons were canceled in 2020.

The teams started 2021 seasons this month, with limited capacity. That's going to change soon.

"We traded bleachers for couches, catchers' masks for face masks and live sports and entertainment for binge-watching TV," Chris Mundhenk, president and general manager of the Loons, speaking at Whitmer's press conference. "Sports fans from across our state put their fandom and rivalries aside and came together as one team: Team Michigan. And today, we have won the game."

The Lugnuts, the Single-A affiliate of the Oakland A's, will go to 100% capacity June 1, as will the Whitecaps, the Single-A affiliate of the Tigers.

The Lugnuts also are encouraging all fans to get vaccinated.

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"We’ve been working toward this announcement for a long time, and so we are beyond excited that the day has finally arrived,” Lugnuts owner Tom Dickson said in a statement. “We thank our city and state officials for their hard work and service and we thank our community for following health guidelines, staying socially distanced, wearing masks and getting vaccinated, and we’re ready to welcome a full ballpark of Lugnuts fans."

The Whitecaps have been playing home games in front of 2,000 fans maximum, selling out five of their first six home games.

Their first home game under the new order is June 8. Tickets for July, August and September games go on sale June 1.

“It’s been a fun start to summer," Jim Jarecki, Whitecaps vice president and general manager, said in a statement. "But every additional fan means more fun, a deeper connection to the community, and a better experience.

"Regardless of the changes, we remain committed to providing a safe experience for Whitecaps fans. Fans will find that baseball at LMCU ballpark is better than they remember.”

Other sports teams in Michigan were quick to celebrate the news, including the United Shore Professional Baseball League in Utica. It had 61 sellouts in 2018, then played a shortened season in 2020, with just 100 fans allowed — resulting in revenue drops of 75% or more. 

The league opens its sixth season May 28, and plans on crowds of 1,000 to 1,500 for the first weekend, before opening up. Jimmy John's Field can hold nearly 5,000 fans.

"Obviously, we're thrilled with her (Whitmer's) decision, and it's great the science is finally working for us," said Andy Appleby, founder and CEO of the USPBL.

"We'll go full bore on the first."

The PGA Tour's Rocket Mortgage Classic in Detroit, played without fans in 2020, already had announced fans would return for the 2021 event July 1-4. But tournament officials haven't said how many tickets will be sold. There was no update Thursday. Tickets go on sale May 27. The LPGA Tour's Meijer Classic (Grand Rapids, June 17-20) and Great Lakes Bay Invitational (Midland, July 14-17) were canceled in 2020. They will go on in 2021, with both having no capacity restrictions, the tournaments announced after Whitmer's news conference. The Champions Tour's Ally Challenge in Grand Blanc, set for Aug. 27-29, was played with no fans in 2020.

The news also is welcome for typically well-attended events like NASCAR at Michigan International Speedway (Aug. 20-22) and IndyCar on Belle Isle (June 11-13).

One local sports team, Hamtramck-based Detroit City FC, declined to make a statement on Whitmer's order, saying it is "still taking in all the information." Safety remains DCFC's "highest priority," a club official said Thursday.

The state lifted the outdoor face-mask order earlier this month, and plans to lift all restrictions July 1.

Staff writers Matt Charboneau and Angelique S. Chengelis contributed.


Twitter: @tonypaul1984