In my perfect world, every college football stadium in America is packed to the brim with fans every fall. Crowds present massive home-field advantages and a college football game provides the best in-stadium experience of any sport.
My perfect world, however, doesn’t exist. It especially doesn’t exist this fall. The likely reality that all college football programs are facing because of COVID-19 is that stadiums aren’t going to be sold out. If that’s the price that needs to be paid in order to have a season, well, it’s worth it.
Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith said a few things that made sense. He met with reporters and addressed the decision to allow Ohio State players to return to campus for voluntary workouts beginning on June 8. He admitted that he’s not 100% sure that there will be a college football season this fall, and that if there is, there should be a range of 20,000-22,000 people at Ohio Stadium to adhere to social distancing practices.
Then, he went on Twitter and made a comment that didn’t make any sense.
“Just want to clarify,” Smith wrote. “The number of fans we could host in Ohio Stadium this fall under physical distance guidelines could be as low as 22K, but also may be as many as 40-50K if guidelines are relaxed.”
Um, that’s not happening.
If “guidelines are relaxed,” does Smith expect there to be some cutoff of 55,000 people? Like, imagine a public official declaring that the biggest public gathering allowed will be 55,000. That’s where the draw the line. Um, what would that rule out besides college football games for the programs with massive stadiums?
For someone who usually doesn’t misstep when he comments publicly on something, that was a head-scratching thing to say. There’s no such thing as social distancing with 50,000 people in one place. That’s just a fact.
Local Tennessee TV station WBIR did a mockup of what the social distancing model would look like at Neyland Stadium, which holds 102,455, which is just north of Ohio Stadium’s 102,082. Here’s what it showed:
A social distanced Neyland Stadium could look something like this:
– one fan every six feet apart = 16% capacity or roughly 16,400 fans
– two seats together = 18% capacity or 18,400 fans
– a combo of singles, doubles, and triple seats = maximum capacity of 35% or 35,800@wbir pic.twitter.com/EbffMfG1RI
— Madison Blevins (@Madison4Blevins) May 15, 2020
So to recap, Tennessee’s social distancing capacity of 35,800 would only happen if triple seats were allowed. Therefore, 50,000 people is a ridiculous number.
In a weird way, I’d almost respect it more if Smith said that the goal was still to have 102,000 fans every fall Saturday at The Shoe. That looks next to impossible, but I’d argue that has a better chance of a half-capacity stadium.
He didn’t say that, though. Instead, for whatever reason, he felt the need to circle back and throw out a number that doesn’t seem like it could possible fit any guideline or non-guideline. That feels more like someone who is telling people what they want to hear, and not what’s realistic. What’s that good for?
Obviously Smith wants as many people as possible at Ohio Stadium, and the last thing he wants to do is create a panic that 1/5 of the fans who normally attend games will be allowed in the stadium. I get that. What I also get is that while a lot can change in a few months, Ohio Governor Mike DeWine said as recently as this week that public gatherings in the state are still limited to 10 people.
Whatever phases of this are coming, it’s hard to imagine a phase that includes a max of 50,000 people in a public place. And if you can find a way to take everyone’s temperature before entering the stadium, why would you able to make it work for 50,000 but not 100,000? What’s the point?
That didn’t make sense. What did make sense was what Smith said about actually having a season in the right conditions.
“I am cautiously optimistic that I’m gonna reach 100 percent comfort level, but I’m not there yet. Just like I’m not there 100 percent with fans in the stands,” Smith said to media members during a teleconference on Wednesday. “I think we have to be sensitive to the fact that our medical experts – not athletic directors or commissioners or everyone else – have to give us the proper environment and operations in that environment that will allow us to play the game. And we haven’t had that in-depth conversation yet.
“And frankly, it’s a little early, because we still are studying the virus.”
It is still a little early. I don’t know what stadiums are going to look like. A couple months ago, it seemed like after the conference commissioners met with Vice President Mike Pence that college football couldn’t be played in empty stadiums, and that a football season would be entirely dependent on students getting back on campus.
Now, hearing that places like Ohio State are expected to allow players back on campus to participate in voluntary workouts makes it seem like we’re at least trending toward making a season happen. Again, though. It’s still early. This is an experiment that even the pro sports who returned without fans like UFC and NASCAR didn’t take on.
There are still plenty of things to figure out in college football. What happens if there are 10 players who test positive in a week? What’s the liability for these schools when workouts are no longer voluntary? What about the teams who are under state-order to stay home and not begin voluntary workouts?
I don’t know. I don’t think Smith or other athletic directors know the answers to those questions yet.
But if there’s one thing I’m confident in, it’s that having a stadium with 50,000 people isn’t social distancing, and it’s hard to imagine a world in which that would make sense.
Smith should know that.