Covid-19 has turned the world upside down and people all over the world are trying to learn, adapt, survive, and even thrive in our “new normal.” Sports are no different as leagues around the world attempt to return to the field or court of play while also keeping athletes, coaches, personnel, and fans safe.
As a writer and avid sports reader, it’s been challenging both creating and digesting content. Many of the articles I see are written as if sports will go on just as before, and I’ve yearned to read more about what changes we might see going forward.
With that in mind, I’m creating a short series of articles revolving around the effects of Covid-19 on the New Orleans Saints and the NFL as a whole. This week, I want to dive deeper into the logistics of game day with an emphasis on what this new normal means for the fan experience, particularly the season ticket holder.
I’ve written before how I was grappling with keeping my season ticket even before the pandemic, but all of this made it easier for me to finally say good bye to my season ticket up in the illustrious section 602.
Last week, the state commission that runs the Mercedes-Benz Superdome and Smoothie King Center commented that there was a “worst-case” scenario where 13,000 fans could attend each game next season. The Superdome usually holds more than 74,000, but a socially distanced seating chart would allow a limited number of fans to maintain six feet distance within the Superdome.
Dome officials are trying to find creative ways to expand the number of fans the Superdome can safely hold. For instance, there is a scenario where some fans may get to sit in pods. One thing is for sure, I do not envy those whose job it is to figure out how to maximize fan attendance while maintaining CDC safety protocol.
Sure, fans could sit six feet apart; but how would they maintain proper social distancing while getting to the venue, waiting in line for security, waiting for the bathroom, and getting to their respective seats? It is a sea of people going in and out of the Superdome on gameday, and we are often right on top of each other the whole time.
The commission is discussing staggering fans as they enter and exit, though no exact plans have been released. One of the best features of the Superdome is its’ accessibility. I can ride my bike from my house to the Superdome in under 10 minutes. I often left my house around 11:15am and was still able to lock my bike, drink a beer, clear the security line, and find my seat by kickoff at noon.
That’s not going to be the case anymore. Fans may have to enter at specific times or wait in even longer, more spaced out lines than they did before. The Superdome’s ease of access from the downtown area is no longer going to be easy. I was already spending three plus hours going to the home games and with the new entry and exit procedures that time spent could easily eclipse four hours.
I have no idea how this will also affect social distancing measures in the Superdome, but it may be important to note that the Superdome is at the very beginning of a four year, mutli-phase renovation. Some of the expected upgrades include expanded concourses, new entry gates, escalators, enhanced food and beverage services and more efficient stadium technology.
Hopefully, Covid-19’s emergence at the front end of this enormous project will allow the Superdome commission to integrate the necessary changes over the course of the renovation.
Just imagine if the Superdome had finished a $450 million renovation only to find out many of the upgrades were now antiquated or even unsafe. The timing of this pandemic could even be a blessing in disguise and help the commission utilize that $450 million budget with greater efficacy.
According to their website, the Mercedes-Benz Superdome continues to follow the precautionary guidelines of the CDC and other public health organizations, which include:
- Increased signage outlining advisable precautions (e.g. frequent handwashing, safety recommendations, etc.),
- Regular cleaning of high touch point areas such as, escalator handrails, stair railings, door handles, purchase devices and elevator buttons with CDC recommended products,
- Regular cleaning and sanitizing of facility public spaces and restrooms, and increasing additional hand sanitizer stations in various locations throughout the facility.
The venue will also work with local public health and government officials as this is an ever evolving situation. Some rules and regulations from the federal and state level may not be as strict or stringent as those made at the local level, so that will be something to monitor as each NFL franchise attempts to get back to work.
One of the reasons I got rid of my season ticket was that I wanted to spend more time with friends watching the games in a more intimate setting. Now I see what a premium it is to “choose my bubble” of friends to hang with. It takes a lot of trust to spend time with anyone these days, and I can much more easily vet my own friends rather than thousands of strangers sitting around me.
It hurt letting go of my ticket, especially before such a highly anticipated season that features an absolutely stacked NFC South. But, I have no regrets and a reduced sense of anxiety knowing that if the season does happen as scheduled, I can watch from the comfort and safety of my own, or a friend’s home.
I am a young and relatively healthy person, but I’m still living very carefully. I wonder how this new way of strategic thinking will affect the fans who are more compromised due to age, race, access to healthcare, and contraindicated health issues.
There might be the most avid Saints season ticket holder living with Lupus or maybe they are a caregiver for someone immunocompromised at home. It’s in their best interest not to surround themselves with crowds of people or touch surfaces literally hundreds of others may have too.
No matter how many safety precautions the Superdome may take, is it simply inherently risky to sit in an enclosed space for three plus hours with air circulating the droplets of thousands of fans screaming at the top of their lungs?
I think so, but I can only make that decision for myself. Other fans will have to weigh out their own individual pros and cons to decide how they want to cheer on their team. Of course, this situation is always evolving and the fans may not have a choice at all if the NFL ends up operating like the European League of soccer with only players on the field and no fans in attendance.
Because the Superdome provides one of the loudest and most passionate fan bases, Saints players, particularly those on the defensive side of the ball, have benefitted from one of the strongest home field advantages across the entire league.
Saints know to stay quiet when the offense in on the field, and they know to scream their brains out when it’s the defense’s turn. Sean Payton knows more than anyone how fanless stadiums will affect certain franchises like his own.
“If you just said from a strategic standpoint, playing without the fans, who does that impact the most? It impacts the stadiums that are the loudest,” Payton said. “The Superdome, Seattle, Kansas City, Minnesota, wherever those stadiums are hardest to hear in, it kinda neutralizes the playing field.”
Perhaps no fan will be more neutralized than Saints superfan Leroy Mitchell, aka Whistle Monsta. The Guiness world record holder for the loudest human conjured whistle is one of the most sincere and die hard fans I know. Leroy and I have been friends for 15 years since first bumping shoulders at the Maple Leaf Bar back in my college days.
He is a fifth generation New Orleanian who has not missed a home Saints game in over 20 years. If anyone would have a hard time accepting a fanless environment on game days, it’s certainly Whistle. But when Nola.com’s Luke Johnson asked him what he thought of that possibility, he was surprisingly understanding.
“How do I feel about that? Honestly, I feel we have to do what’s right, right?” Mitchell said. “I’m on the record saying this, and this is what I feel in my heart: Not one life is worth any basketball game, football game, baseball game, hockey game, soccer game, any festival.”
“Hopefully the NFL does the smart thing to do, you know? That means that any precaution they’re taking, I have to respect. I may not like it, but I have to respect it. If we don’t do it the right way, then it’s going to not work and it’s going to tear into humans, and it’s going to make us wait longer.”
Saints fans and NFL fans alike will have to wait a while longer before they find out how many, if any, fans will be in attendance this coming season. Finding out what that will be like for the fans, players, coaches, and Superdome workers will take even longer.