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Will fans return when college sports do start back?

By KEITH PEEL, Contributing Writer

It looks like college fall sports may be In jeopardy if other leagues follow the recent actions taken by the administrators of the Ivy League who suspended all sporting activities until January 1, 2021. That, along with the recent suspension of basketball player voluntary workouts at such schools as North Carolina, Kansas and Louisville due to Covid-19 positive tests, would lead one to believe that it may be impossible to hold fall sporting activities even without fans in the stands.

Since player, coach and fan safety should be the first priority in any decision making this is all understandable. It’s very heartbreaking for sports fans all across the United States, but understandable.

So, knowing that fall sports are appearing more unlikely with each passing day, a couple of questions come to mind. One, when will college sports return once again and  two, just as importantly, will they find as many fans still willing to engage and attend events once they do start up?

In past instances, such as professional sports strikes and player lockouts, those sports seemed to suffer a loss of fans overall when they did start back up. In 1994 when Major League Baseball suspended the season in August and ultimately cancelled the playoffs and World Series due to a player’s strike fans were apathetic at best and unhappy at worst and refused to attend games in 1995 in the same numbers as the early part of 1994.

In fact, per ESPN, fan engagement was off 20 percent for that 1995 season. In my opinion over the last 25 years Major League Baseball has still never recovered from that shutdown. The same type work stoppages have also occurred in other professional sports such as football and hockey.

Now, I understand that a player strike or owner’s lockout is much different than what we are currently experiencing with the Covid-19 pandemic. I realize that fans would love to attend college sporting events right now and were devastated by the cancellation of the NCAA Men’s and Women’s Basketball Tournaments along with the loss of all spring sports like baseball and softball but as time drags on and fans continue to be separated from college athletics they most likely will find other activities to get involved in.

The time they normally spent on Saturday afternoons watching college football will now be filled up with other hobbies and activities that they may come to enjoy just as much as college sports. After all, humans are very adaptable. If an activity becomes unavailable people adapt their lifestyle to a different activity and continue to move on.

So, if fans lose an entire annual cycle of college sports — winter, spring and fall — along with the potential of losing winter sports again in 2020-21 will they be willing to come back in 2021 or beyond or will they find out there are other activities they enjoy just as much?

With in-person attendance and ticket sales at past college sporting events on the decline it would appear that some fans have already decided to either not continue with college sports or only as an occasional viewer of events on TV.

It seems to me that the college sports world is in a definite quandary. They must delay providing their product to fans due to safety reasons but as they continue to do so they risk the possibility that more and more fans could find other outlets for their free time and entertainment dollars. That could be devastating to an NCAA organization that already has many member schools struggling to keep their budgets out of the red.

To me the bottom line is, will the average fan in this current pandemic world ever feel comfortable gathering in large numbers while packed tightly together in a small space such as an arena or stadium seating area? Will the average college fan find other hobbies or entertainment that fill the time void that the lack of college sports has created?

It’s a crazy world we live in today and only time will tell but one would think that a significant amount of fans may never return to live college sporting events, either due to fear, lack of funds or just plain replacement by other activities, and if that’s the case it will prove to be very disappointing.

College sports have always provided a kind of local and state rallying point for their residents and it would seem to be just one more nail in the coffin of communities continuing to lose their sense of unity and community spirit. At a time when all Americans need something that will bring us all together in unity it appears that, if things continue as they are, college sports won’t be it.

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