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Kevin Allen: Vaccine will allow us to fill NHL arenas, right? Thur's Buzz

November 19, 2020, 8:46 AM ET [162 Comments]
Kevin Allen
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As Covid-19 overruns hospitals for a second time this year, it is not surprising to learn that many of us are not eager to cram side-by-side into 24-inch arena seats and cheer for our favorite NHL team.

Seton’s Sharkey Institute polled 1,506 adults from Nov. 13-16 and 60 percent of those who identified themselves as sports fans said they will wait to be vaccinated before attending indoor sporting events.

About 58% of the “sports fan” respondents said they are waiting for the vaccine before attending an outdoor sporting event.

The survey confirmed what most of us already knew: Some of us, young people in particular, are willing to attend sporting events now, while the majority of us, particularly older folks, want a needle in our arm with a vaccine before we venture back through the turnstile.

The study comes at a time that we are told that three different vaccine trials (Pfizer, Moderna and Oxford) are showing highly favorable results.

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The best guess is that we will have a vaccine available soon for those who most need it (health care workers, the elderly and, those with compromised immune systems). Then, it will be widely distributed by spring or early summer.

Most of this is exceptional news for the NHL as league officials ponder when to start the delayed 2020-21 season. This is a league that is heavily dependent upon gate revenue for profitability. Depending upon which source you use, gate revenue makes up anywhere from 40 to 50% of each team’s revenue.

The only downside for the NHL is that the logistics of delivering up to 330 million doses of vaccine will take long enough that the NHL will probably play most, if not all of this season, without fans.

Obviously there are in-between options -- like allowing some fans in some arenas -- but all of those scenarios are dependent upon different lockdown rules in different states or countries.

That’s why, for example, the NHL is considering an all-Canadian Division for this season only.

If you think this seems complicated, there is another issue here that isn’t being talked about, but is being discussed in team marketing offices: fan enthusiasm and passion for sports seems to have waned during the pandemic.

Evidence for that fact is in TV ratings for sports: The World Series and NBA Finals played to record lows in television ratings, and the NHL’s Dallas Stars vs. Tampa Bay Lightning Final was the least watched Final in 13 years. The NFL, the juggernaut of the sports world, is showing a six percent decrease in their mid-season ratings. The Masters Final round ratings were down 51% from last season, and it was the lowest Masters TV rating since 1957.

It’s fair to argue that we shouldn’t read too much into these rankings because there are many complicating factors, including, but not limited to, political issues, Covid depression, keen interest in the Presidential election and the fact that sporting events were happening at a different time than they normally do.

Maybe those ratings mean nothing, with regard to whether we will fill arenas when this is over.

But here’s what worries those who sell the tickets: we’ve already gone eight months without fans attending games and it is possible we will go an entire calendar year or longer without having fans at NHL games.

This is a league that documented a falloff of walk-up sales when they shut down for a couple of weeks to allow players to participate in the Olympics in the past.

How many people have discovered during this pandemic that they saved a surprising amount of money by not eating out or engaging in their usual extracurricular activities?

How many people have we heard say that they have appreciated the increase in family time they have had during the pandemic?

Home Depot’s stock price has risen dramatically because people are working around their houses more, getting to the projects they didn’t have time for in the past.

People have found other ways to occupy their time during the pandemic, and sports has taken a back seat. That worries sports executives.

Will people be as willing to plunk down $80 or $100 for a seat, or spend $11 on a beer, once the pandemic is over? Or, will they be content to root for their teams from the comfort of their home.

The NHL has some reason to believe fans will come back strong. The entire 2004-05 season was lost. Fans went 18 months without setting foot in an NHL arena. But their passion for the sport ruled their emotion and they came back in record numbers.

I've heard that retro jerseys are selling well. That also would suggest that fan passion is still present.

NHL team executives hope that 2005-06 repeats itself. But that can’t be sure, especially given how psychologically draining, and life altering, the pandemic has been for some. One thing we’ve learned about the Covid pandemic is that we don’t know what will happen next.
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