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Volume 27 No. 7
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Careful, complicated planning will bring fans back

Professional sports are finally returning to action and generating revenue through televised events. But when can fans realistically return, and what can leagues do to accelerate the process? 

These are complicated questions requiring careful interdisciplinary analysis and planning. We start with two unavoidable features of the current state of affairs:

1) The virus is still out there: Cases have plateaued but generally not declined much outside of hard-hit New York and New Jersey. “Herd Immunity,” when enough people have sufficient antibodies to prevent the spread of the disease, is months or possibly years away whether it is achieved through vaccines or through community spread. Effective treatment is still a glimmer on the horizon.

2) It is quite contagious: On average, an infected person infects two to three others, but some can infect far more. Because the virus is spread mostly by droplets emitted when people cough, sneeze, and talk, you can’t simply clean your way out of the problem (although better sanitation will reduce the risk of infection from contaminated surfaces). That leaves social distancing, ventilation, and masks. These measures can reduce but not eliminate the risk of infection. Even one missed case can have enormous consequences: a single “super spreader” attending a mass event can inadvertently contribute to hundreds or even thousands of infections. We saw this famously in the Shincheonji Church in South Korea, where a single individual dramatically accelerated the course of their national epidemic.

Because of these features, even nations with aggressive, well-designed infection control programs have experienced a rise in infections after reopening sectors of their economy. The business problem is therefore simple: helping fans and athletes feel confident that returning to live sporting events won’t make them or their loved ones sick.

The answer to this problem can be broken into two parts: before a vaccine or highly-effective treatment is available, and afterward. In the first scenario, large-scale indoor events are unlikely, but outdoor events may be possible with limited attendance to enable social distancing, the use of masks to reduce the risk of infection, and perhaps even restrictions on common fan behaviors like cheering and chanting. Even with these limitations, sports involving close contact among players may be possible only with strict testing, contact tracing, and isolation protocols in place. 

In the second scenario, an effective vaccine and treatment may allow a “new normal.” But much will depend on the nature of the vaccine. If it is like the polio vaccine, where one dose provides lifetime protection, then the new normal may look much like the recent past. If it is like the flu vaccine, where protection is only partial and temporary, then the problem of confidence and reassurance may still remain to some degree. Venues may need to reconfigure choke points to eliminate crowding and redesign ventilation systems to reduce the risk of spread.

Under either scenario, careful planning will be required. It will be important for these plans to be prepared in close cooperation with local health authorities. Their expertise and seal of approval will give fans and players confidence that their health will be protected. Moreover, health authorities need business input too so that their guidance and directives are practical and realistic. Return plans should address not only fan safety, but also labor and employment issues for league, team, venue, and vendor employees; privacy and data security issues arising from matters such as testing and contact tracing programs; and ticketing arrangements to ensure that fans understand and agree to the risks associated with attendance.

It is quite likely that, even with careful planning, infections will rise as we reopen. Plans and public health guidance will change as circumstances do. Reopening may therefore more closely resemble a “dimmer” that can be dialed up or down, rather than a “switch” that is either on or off.

The challenge we face is the virus and the risks and uncertainty that it brings. We can’t ignore it or wish it away. But with careful planning and close collaboration we can confront the challenge, tune our response appropriately, and find a way forward.

Scott Pearson is a partner with Manatt Financial Services. Dr. Emily Carrier and Robert Rebitzer are with Manatt Health, as senior manager and managing director, respectively.