Which fans can attend a College Football games this fall? Can social distancing work?


Big Al celebrates a touchdown in Bryant-Denny Stadium.AP

With growing optimism a college football season will happen this fall, attention has turned to the next big hurdle: Will fans be allowed inside stadiums?

NASCAR and golf have both restarted without fans, and the NBA and MLB are expected to do the same, at least initially.

College football isn’t scheduled to start until August, but there has already been a steady drumbeat of college athletics leaders pointing out how important fans are to the operation. Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick has said for weeks he couldn’t see a season without fans while Central Florida AD Danny White said Wednesday he’d rather push the season back to the spring if there couldn’t be fans.

Others have focused on a compromise: A limited capacity stadium that factored in social distancing to minimize risk.

“Because we play at Legion Field and it’s such a large stadium, we can do it and still have every single fan that wants to come and watch us; we can do it with ease,” UAB athletic director Mark Ingram said. “We may end up taking the tarps off the endzones if we had to.”

Not every school has that luxury, though.

If some form of social distancing is enforced inside a stadium, it’d substantially cut down capacity. Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith said Wednesday the school had a model that’d allow in 20,000 to 22,000 fans. Another athletic director told AL.com the range would likely be between 15 to 25 percent capacity for most schools.

When you are an SEC program like Alabama and Texas A&M, which regularly have more than 100,000 fans in attendance at more than 99 percent capacity, that creates significant logistical challenges, namely, who should get the tickets? In recent weeks, college administrators have offered scant details on how they’d fill out their stadiums, only that they had models to do so.

One Power 5 administrator, actively involved in figuring out the problem for a school that regularly sells out, allowed AL.com an inside look in the thought-making process. First, the administrator explained, you need to figure out just how many seats you have available. The expectation is you’ll need six feet of separation between fans unless they live together though it may need to be farther apart. (We’ll get to that later). Once you know that answer — he expected it to be in the 18 to 20 percent range of total capacity — you decide how to divide up the seats.

There are a few schools of thought on the best path. One is that a school can let its top 5,000 or so boosters buy up all the seats, shutting out a large chunk of the school’s season ticket-holders. That approach would appeal to the wealthiest of the school’s fanbase, but you can imagine the intense backlash on message boards and Twitter when fans who have been season ticket holders for 40 years are told they can’t attend a game.

Another option, one this Power 5 school is leaning toward, is dividing the games into different ticket packages. For instance, at a school like Alabama, that could mean creating one ticket package that features home games against Georgia, Texas A&M, and Kent State and another of Auburn, Mississippi State and Georgia State. You’d still risk upsetting fans who can’t go to every game, but it’d ensure far more fans can at least get into some games. And you could still let your top donors have first pick on the ticket package and seats they want.

“More palatable to give everyone a little taste,” the administrator said.

Josh Taylor, an Alabama football season ticket-holder from Moundville, doesn’t expect Bryant-Denny Stadium filled to capacity this season. His tickets are in the upper decks so he’s accepting of whatever Alabama decides.

“If they let a select few in, I’m cool with that,” Taylor said. “If I get squeezed out, I’m cool with that as long as I still have my spot and I get some kind of refund.”

A shift from the norm will likely require schools to move to digital ticketing and a new round of seat selection, which will take at least a few weeks to establish. The college administrator said a final decision wouldn’t have to happen until Aug. 1, buying the school some time to consider its options and see how local government leaders address large groups gathering again.

“You don’t want to rush if you are uncertain, things clear up and you say, ‘Damn, we could have had a full stadium,’” he said.

At the start of the season, college athletics leaders will likely be at the mercy of their local government leaders on whether they can have fans. Even within the same conference, some schools might be allowed to have fans, and others won’t. Oregon governor Kate Brown already declared any large gathering scheduled through September should be canceled or modified. Meanwhile, Georgia Governor Brian Kemp told the Paul Finebaum Show Wednesday he’s optimistic stadiums will be open to fans this fall. American Athletic Conference commissioner Mike Aresco said there wouldn’t be a conference policy — he’ll defer to the schools on how they want to configure their stadiums — but there still wasn’t clarity yet on whether it’d be safe to have fans.

“They’ve looked at their stadiums, and they’ve figured out ways they can configure the stadium,” Aresco said. “A lot of them can use their luxury areas because you can space people out more.”

It’s not only well-heeled boosters that attend games, though. You also have to factor in students, faculty, recruits, the marching band, among other groups. Swarbrick told Sports Illustrated he would start with the 11,000 student season ticket holders before getting his alumni ticket holders into the stadium. That might seem counterintuitive, but many schools receive millions of dollars in student fees that cover things like football tickets. If schools were to shut out the students entirely, it could not only hurt future enrollment but they’d risk forfeiting those student fees and plunging their athletic departments into even worse financial struggles. According to an NBC News report, Conference USA member UNC Charlotte collects a whopping $21.6 million in student fees. That same report showed multiple FBS schools, including Old Dominion and Florida International, deriving more than 50 percent of their athletic department revenue from student fees.

Alabama doesn’t collect any student fees but still generates massive money from football ticket sales.

The Crimson Tide’s football program made $36.1 million in ticket sales revenue in 2019, according to its NCAA financial report. That doesn’t even take into account all the donations needed to buy those tickets.

White estimated UCF would take a $30 million hit if there weren’t fans at football games. Minnesota estimated the same figure though it also factored in the possibility of a shortened season, according to The Star Tribune.

Lookup any major school, and you’ll see a similar story. There is a substantial financial incentive for schools to have fans in the stadium. Without that revenue, you could see more and more schools make decisions like East Carolina and Furman to cut non-revenue sports. There’s a lot riding on this topic and it’s why schools have continued selling football season tickets even with all the uncertainty.

But in talking to infectious disease experts and epidemiologists, there could be an equally high risk of allowing a significant number of fans into stadiums.

“I’d forget about the stadium for now,” said Dr. Michael Saag, a professor of medicine and the director of UAB’s Center for AIDS Research. “I wouldn’t even think about it. I’d just try to make sure I have a plan to get players on the field. I don’t see any way under the current circumstances we can make the stadiums safe.”

The potential issues are numerous. First, as Saag explains, is the increased probability of contracting COVID-19 by sitting next to someone who has it for three to four hours during a game. Saag, who tested positive for coronavirus in March, said it was similar to living with someone who had it. Arkansas athletic director Hunter Yurachek recently said fans could be asked to wear masks at games though he was still planning for full capacity.

Then there are problem areas like bathrooms and concession stands, which typically feature long lines and groups of people bunched up together. Dr. Neel Gandhi, associate professor of epidemiology and infectious diseases at Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health, said bathrooms are the lynchpin to the whole thing when you consider large groups of people will inevitably use them during a game.

“At that point, it’s not about six feet and if I cough or sneeze and will it land on someone else, it’s about the surfaces,” Gandhi said. “We are talking about surfaces in the bathrooms, railways, walkways. It’s not just about when everyone is sitting and social distancing, but how did they get there, how they get out and what they do while they are there.”

Another major logistical challenge is getting everyone in and out of the stadium. If you’ve ever attended a college football game, you’ve been stuck on a long line waiting to get through a metal detector and ticket-checkers to get into the stadium. Now add in temperature checks for everyone coming in, a popular suggestion, and imagine how many people could get bunched up together in one place. If you somehow succeed at getting everyone in a timely fashion without being on top of each other, you need to get those same thousands of people out of the stadium.

“You expect 15,000 college football fans to exit in an orderly fashion when their row number is called? I’m sorry, you’ve got a lot more faith in fans than I do, especially if some of them have been drinking,” said Zachary Binney, an epidemiologist at Emory University. “I don’t know how you reliably would keep people apart when they are entering and exiting a stadium.”

If you can safely figure out all those issues, the experts say, you then need to consider that six feet between fans might not actually be enough. The reason is that distance is based on an average of how people breathe and how far droplets typically travel when you cough or sneeze. But during a college football game, the average attendant isn’t breathing or talking at their normal interval the whole game — they are yelling. More yelling means particles could travel farther which means fans might actually have to be more like 10 or 12 feet away from each other, according to Gandhi, rather than the established six feet. That could cut down stadium capacity even below the 20 percent range.

In a similar vein, Ingram said UAB has already begun investigating what it needs to do with its band. If a band member is sick, playing an instrument like a trumpet or trombone could, in theory, propel those contagious droplets farther than six feet. There are no conclusive answers yet but it could impact how many band members are allowed in the stadium and where they’d be situated.

Researching how far particles travel isn’t something Ingram ever expected to be doing when he became an athletic director but illustrates all of the challenges at hand to get fans back in the stands.

“Every time you think, ‘OK, this is how I think we’d do this,’ it pops up a new thing,” Ingram said. “It’s like the game Whac-A-Mole.”

John Talty is the SEC Insider for Alabama Media Group. You can follow him on Twitter @JTalty. AL.com reporter Michael Casagrande contributed to this report.