Wojo: When fans can return, will it be a sports world they embrace?

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News

Detroit — Even now, after most of us have accepted the new reality, it still seems unfathomable. We will have sports again, if not by the force of passion, by the force of money. And by most projections, there will be no fans in the stadiums or arenas, not for a while.

Sports could become what it’s essentially been for many people — a TV show. Perhaps as early as July, you could binge-watch an 82-game Major League Baseball schedule. Or hey, check out the other channels showing continuous episodes of the NBA and NHL playoffs.

If it’s the only way to make it work during the pandemic, I suppose we do it. But I’m concerned once the no-fan curiosity wears off, the games will look like stilted exhibitions. And here’s what else is concerning — what if it works too well? What if leagues grow accustomed to the arrangement, and fans find it adequate to sit at home and watch? What if sports entities find the easiest way to address safety issues is by keeping fans away even longer?

Celebrations in baseball will be toned down with a no high-five or fist bump edict.

I’ve often wondered, if a quarterback falls in a forest of tacklers and no one is there to make noise, did it happen? OK, I’ve never wondered that. And I understand ticket revenue must be recouped. But what if teams find it lucrative just to put up more advertising in the arenas and stadiums with more people watching on TV, theoretically?

The Grand Experiment began Sunday in Darlington, S.C., with a NASCAR event featuring no fans in the stands, the first of seven races in 11 days. The infield was barren, the cars sped past empty stands and Fox had only one reporter — wearing a face-covering — in the pit area. It was a sterile look, not unlike the baseball games on ESPN from South Korea, where they’re playing in empty stadiums, not counting the life-sized cardboard cutouts of fans.

New normal

This is new to all of us, and the logistics are incredibly daunting just to get players back in uniform. In MLB, there’s already a fight brewing between owners and players over revenue. Eventually, financially, sports will need fans in the venues, and it shouldn’t be treated as a luxury that requires years to figure out.

Planes will be nearly full again. Malls and amusement parks and cruise ships will be operational again. The problem for sports is, people don’t need to attend to enjoy them. People need to fly on planes to reach destinations and go on vacations. The amusement-park experience can only be felt in-person. Retail stores have suffered because of online shopping, which used to be a matter of convenience and now also is a matter of safety, a cautionary tale for any business.

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Sports, which have incurred attendance drops for a while, could face the crisis that movie theaters face, with the in-home experience safer, easier and cheaper, although perhaps not as fulfilling. I’m not being an alarmist, quite the opposite. I’m suggesting leagues and college football commissioners need to appreciate the full-fan experience when mapping plans to reopen. There should be an abundance of caution, but 100-percent safety is unattainable, even with a vaccine. Eventually, people will have to accept at least minimal risk, and many sectors of the economy already have.

Restrictions will be necessary, according to the medical professionals, and that’s fine. By wearing face masks and practicing social distancing, fans could gradually be let in. Some will be more eager to attend than others, but with space between seats and rows, there won’t be 70,000 tickets available anyhow, not initially.

The fan-less environment will stir curiosity at first, and if the competition is spirited, ratings will rise. But only so much music and crowd noise can be piped in to enhance the viewing experience. March Madness was going to provide the empty-arena test case, but the plan was scratched as the coronavirus spread. College sports are different than the pros, with campus traditions and amateur athletes and rabid fan bases.

The NFL is plowing ahead with its plan to play on schedule in September, and TV ratings for the draft were monstrous. The fan-less concept has taken time to grasp, with all the possible quirks. The other day, Matthew Stafford mused about the oddness, with a slight twist.

South Korea's professional baseball league started its new season on May 5, initially without fans.

“It would be an adjustment for everybody,” Stafford said. “But for a quarterback, quiet is great. I love that, I can talk, I can hear what they’re saying on defense and try to use it to my advantage. Like playing a home game everywhere you go.”

Other players might miss the noise-induced adrenaline rush. Fans influence outcomes, with statistics to prove home-field advantage. And of course, crowds add to the spectacle. Would Magglio Ordonez’s home run to clinch the 2006 World Series berth be as memorable without the Comerica Park fans shrieking and waving towels?

Latest spit-take

It wouldn’t just be a bizarre look in the stands. In a 67-page proposal released over the weekend, MLB outlined safety measures it’s considering. After getting rightly criticized for leaping straight to the money issue, the owners’ health proposal is especially imposing, almost like a scare tactic. With such stringent rules for players, it’s hard to envision a reasonable guideline for fans.

Among the items in MLB’s Operations Manual sent to the players:

No mascots, bat boys or bat girls on the field. No exchange of lineup cards at home plate. No high-fives or fist bumps. No licking (fingers) and no spitting (good luck enforcing that). For players, no unnecessary socializing with an opponent (good luck telling Miguel Cabrera).

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In the proposal, a baseball will be removed after it’s handled by several players, and throwing it around the infield will be discouraged. Third-base coaches won’t be allowed to touch their face to give signs. Managers, coaches and batting practice pitchers would wear masks, and everyone would get temperature checks twice a day. Some players would sit in the stands near the dugouts to achieve social distancing.

On road trips, use of Ubers and subways won’t be permitted, and team personnel will be banned from eating in restaurants. Players will be encouraged to arrive at ballparks in uniform, and discouraged from using the clubhouse showers. And yes, everyone must stand six feet apart during the national anthem.

When players digest all this, I’m not sure they’ll want to come back, and I’m not even kidding. The only people who truly might enjoy it are the umps, who will be protected from face-to-face arguments and won’t have to hear all that clever heckling from the stands.

There’s more, including complicated protocols for anyone experiencing COVID-19 symptoms. It makes sense, health-wise. But if it takes that much to get a team and its support staff safely into and out of a stadium, how can it work for fans?

It can’t, not at first, and then not with large crowds. But that must remain the goal, to get people back as quickly as possible, understanding risk will always exist. At some point, it’ll be up to the fans to decide if it’s worth it.

Twitter: @bobwojnowski