coronavirus

As Top Leagues Move Closer to Return, Fans Are Increasingly Open to Crowd-Less Sporting Events

Fans grow more likely to back leagues' return as soon as possible, even if it means playing in empty venues

Borussia Dortmund players walk onto the pitch ahead of the Bundesliga match between Borussia Dortmund and FC Schalke 04 at a fan-less Signal Iduna Park on May 16 in Germany. Forty-one percent of sports fans would prefer to resume sports as soon as possible, even if they must be played in empty venues. (Martin Meissner/Pool via Getty Images)
May 26, 2020 at 12:01 am ET

Nearly three months into a drought of live sporting events from top North American competitions, U.S. sports fans are increasingly willing to settle for the best that leagues can deliver amid the coronavirus pandemic: televised games without fans in attendance.

The results of a May 19-21 Morning Consult poll show that 41 percent of self-identified sports fans favor a timely return to play, compared with 38 percent who prefer waiting until it’s safe to host crowds on site. 

That represents a major shift from an April 3-5 survey, in which 70 percent of fans said they would prefer leagues wait until fans can attend to resume competition and just 16 percent said they would favor events resume in empty stadiums right away.

Those responses, which were gathered among U.S. adults who identified as sports fans, have a margin of error of 3 percentage points.

With a consistent drumbeat of news over the past several months about prominent sports leagues’ efforts to return to play without fans in attendance, fans have become more comfortable with the proposition. In addition, NASCAR, exhibition golf and soccer from the German Bundesliga returned earlier this month without cheering fans in the stands.

MLB has reportedly shared a proposal on the conditions for a return to play with its players’ union, a plan that would have teams play in their home ballparks. The NHL and NBA are each reportedly developing plans to resume play in one or more centralized locations. It is unclear whether college football programs and NFL teams will be able to host fans — either as usual or in limited numbers — if their seasons begin as scheduled in August and early September.

Playing games without fans in attendance drastically reduces potential revenue streams available to clubs, but allows top-tier leagues to meet broadcast commitments to national media partners worth hundreds of millions of dollars annually. Teams’ local broadcast commitments to regional sports networks are also a factor in determining return-to-play plans for the NHL, NBA and MLB.

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