“Just as every restaurant, company, and organization across the country has had to change the way they operate to keep their customers safe, we’re having to do the same thing. . . . You can be assured, we’ll manage it appropriately.”
— University of Memphis Athletic Director Laird Veatch (June 11th)
Picture the Liberty Bowl packed with 59,000 fans for the home team's epic win over SMU last November, ESPN’s cameras broadcasting that sold-out football frenzy for the entire country to enjoy. Picture it now, because you won’t see it again — a football stadium packed to capacity — anytime soon. The University of Memphis has already disclosed the likelihood of limited seating — perhaps only season-ticket holders — if football games are played this fall. The aim, of course, is to practice a form of social distancing in an environment built for the precise opposite.
Sean Locke Photography/Dreamstime.com
No human being on the planet had knowledgeable experience with a pandemic before the current crisis hit. The global shutdown has stretched the thinking capacity of the world’s smartest scientists, to say nothing of what it’s done mentally to the rest of us. So what can be expected of leaders like Veatch in the realm of sports, where just about every instinct — starting with the gathering of people to, you know, watch
— feels counterintuitive?
For longtime followers of the Tiger football program, the jokes write themselves:
“Social distance? Did you attend a game during the Larry Porter years?”
“Masks at a football game? Have you eaten French fries at the Liberty Bowl?”
The Tigers have played more than 50 years in a stadium about 20,000 seats too large. Until they started winning conference championships, that is. That oversized bowl may turn into a blessing if pandemic conditions persist. Arkansas State and UT-Martin — to name two opponents Memphis is scheduled to host this year — are unlikely to draw a crowd much larger than 30,000. Smallish groups (10 people? 20?) may be asked to sit together, and visits to the restroom, as uncomfortable as it sounds, will likely be regimented and monitored. (Even a crowd as small as 10,000 would make, say, “two visitors at a time” all but impossible in a public restroom.)
Here’s the thing: We have to try. Carefully and intelligently, but we have to try to play games again. Major League Baseball is scheduled to return later this month, a 60-game season of regional play that will, hopefully, be followed by a postseason and World Series in October. (It will be a cruel tease for fans of the Memphis Redbirds, as minor-league teams will not be stocked with players this year.) The World Golf Championships-FedEx St. Jude Invitational has been rescheduled for July 30-August 2 at TPC Southwind. Golf is among the few sports made for a pandemic, where the view on television can be a better experience than hiking a course with a gallery of fellow fans. If the players and tournament officials can be properly monitored and cared for, the WGC could be an unforgettable — and singular — highlight of the Memphis sports summer.
There’s a reason beyond cheering and championships to find our way back to spectator sports. Games we play move dollars we spend. “If things play out as we’re currently projecting, it will be a seven-figure impact — to the negative — for the [athletic] department,” says Veatch in describing the financial hit the U of M will take in a reduced-seating world for football and men’s basketball. “We’re trying to get our heads around how to manage that appropriately.”
The absence of sports — locally and worldwide — has been traumatic, but hardly tragic. Not when the COVID-19 death toll worldwide has climbed above half a million. Not when the United States has become the global test case for how not
to manage a killer contagion. No, the absence of sports has been merely a painful casualty of a global crisis.
More patience required. More determination. We’ll remember 2020 as the year we learned it’s not so much our right to cheer our favorite teams, but a privilege.