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Sports fans want social distancing as NFL and NBA to start new seasons at full capacity

5 minute read | September 2021

After more than a year-and-a-half of starts and stops amid the disruption of the coronavirus, sports fans are eager for the arrival of the 2021 NFL season. As the most lucrative professional sports league in the U.S., the league is ready to welcome fans back to the 30 stadiums that host the 32 competing franchises. And to that effect, all stadiums are slated to allow full capacity when the season opens on Sept. 9. But how do fans feel about in-person attendance as certain areas of the country battle rising COVID-19 cases?

A return to live sports in the U.S. is not new—nor is full-capacity seating. Major League Baseball began allowing full-capacity stadiums this summer, and the finals of the NHL and NBA featured an assortment of partial- and full-capacity games. The NBA also plans for full-capacity games when its season gets under way next month.

The return of the NFL and NBA come at a time when COVID-19 cases are on the rise, which could affect fan attendance. All NBA games are played indoors, and one-third of NFL stadiums feature either fixed or retractable roofs, meaning many football games will be played indoors. Throughout the pandemic, health officials have maintained that outside gatherings present significantly lower risk than those held indoors. So it’s possible that some fans may think differently about attending if a game isn’t in an open-air environment.

To find out fans’ comfortability in returning to stadiums based on these upcoming seasons, Nielsen Sports conducted a Fan Insights survey with U.S. sports fans about their willingness to attend sporting events. To gauge their comfort level, we asked if they’re ready to attend, will be ready to attend in one-five months, or think it will take six or more months. We also grouped the respondents into four categories: sports fans, NFL fans, NBA fans and MLS fans. We fielded the survey between April and June, so respondents responding in the one-five month range fits with the start dates for the NFL and NBA seasons.

From a fan perspective, an overwhelming majority are ready to see live sports again. At the time of the survey, 80% of sports fans said they’d be ready to attend a live event at an outside stadium within five months, while 79% said they’d be ready to attend a live event at an inside stadium in the same time frame, well above the 26% who were ready to attend between April and June.

With the NFL season starting this week, and with stadiums planning to return to full capacity, it’s important to gauge how NFL fans feel about returning to the stands. One-third (34%) of NFL fans replied they were ready to attend a game outdoors during the time of the survey, and 81% said they’d be ready in the one-five month range, which coincides with the start of the season. The numbers are slightly lower for NFL fans’ readiness to attend indoor games: 28% said they were ready right away, and 78% in one-five months.

Despite the eagerness of fans to get back to live games, the leagues’ decisions to open at full capacity may not sit well with everyone. That’s because nearly half of NFL and NBA fans say some level of social distancing is essential, along with a requirement that fans wear face masks, when returning to stadiums in the one-five month range.

In addition to hoping for social distancing and face masks, sports fans are looking to the leagues and stadiums to help ensure broader safety measures at live events. This is a particularly relevant opportunity for leagues, teams and stadiums to partner with health care, cleaning and personal care brands to provide conditions less conducive to fostering the spread of germs and viruses. 

Sports venues providing safe and clean fan environments can help fans overcome their hesitancy: roughly two in five sports fans believe it’s essential that venues have updated cleaning regulations and policies (45%), provide hand sanitizers or antibacterial items (44%), and enforce safety protocols (43%) for them to consider returning. Providing a safer fan environment than before (47%), enforcing social distancing (46%) and having additional medical personnel (46%) are also nice to have.

Additionally, half of NBA fans interested in returning in one-five months believe contact tracing (49%) and some level of social distancing (48%) are nice-to-haves at stadiums. Those same NBA fans are 29% more likely than those who are ready right away to view limited crowds as essential. Those who won’t be ready for another six or more months are even more likely (53% more likely than those ready to go back right away) to view limited crowds as essential.

Fan safety and health speaks to an opportunity for brands to lead the charge to overcome hesitancy. One-third of sports fans (35%) believe brands should support the cause of providing accurate health and safety information surrounding COVID-19 (35%), followed by sports teams (31%), then professional athletes (30%).

Overall, there is little doubt that fans are eager to return to sports stadiums and arenas. Some have been eager for some time, and some are just now starting to consider attendance in reality. For those who are just now considering in-person attendance at NFL and NBA games, the leagues, stadiums, brands and players all have an opportunity to help ensure a safe experience that simultaneously provides the vibrancy and energy that fans can only come from in-person attendance at a sporting event.

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