Georgia Tech athletic director Todd Stansbury plans to have football games at Bobby Dodd Stadium this fall. He just doesn’t know what they might look like, notably how many fans might be allowed into the 55,000-seat stadium.
In a videoconference meeting with the athletic association board Thursday, Stansbury reported that the department was planning for four attendance scenarios to comply with possible social-distancing measures during the coronavirus pandemic. They include a plan for playing games near full capacity, two reduced-attendance configurations and one for no fans.
“I think what’s ultimately going to happen is, because all institutions are really looking to their governors’ offices, their (university) systems and their local public-health officials for guidance on what either the limitations are or the best practices are or what is going to be allowed, we’ve got to be ready for everything,” Stansbury said.
Stansbury described the two intermediate models as “moderate social distancing” and “strict social distancing.” An athletic department spokesman said Tuesday that Tech was not ready to publicly share more detail on the attendance plans. The coming fiscal year’s revenue projections were based on a model assuming 50% attendance.
Other FBS schools have indicated that reduced-attendance games are coming. In May, Ohio State AD Gene Smith said in a tweet that possible attendance maximums at games this season at the 102,780-seat Ohio Stadium ranged from 22,000 to 50,000. Later in the month, Iowa State AD Jamie Pollard wrote to Cyclones fans that the school was planning to limit attendance to 50% of its 61,500-seat stadium, while acknowledging that those guidelines may be adjusted.
On June 12, USA Today reported that Texas Gov. Greg Abbott told the athletic directors of the state’s FBS schools to expect that their stadiums’ capacities would be capped at 50% or less.
Within the state, though, UGA president Jere Morehead offered a perspective more in line with Stansbury’s most hopeful model when addressing reporters following a June 4 meeting of the Georgia athletic board.
“Personally, I’m hoping that we don’t have put any restrictions on at Sanford Stadium,” Morehead said. “But I have no idea what the public-health experts are going to be telling us at that point. If they say we have to have social distancing or you have to wear masks, then we’ll approach things as we’re advised to do.”
Were Tech to play games at half capacity, that would be a maximum of 27,500. Percentage-wise, Ohio State’s baseline projection of a cap at 22,000 fans equates to about 11,800 at Bobby Dodd Stadium.
Stansbury called the preparation of plans for games this fall “one of the most difficult things in my professional career” because there was no map to follow.
“You can’t rely on how you did it somewhere else,” he said. “I mean, literally, you are rebuilding an athletic event from scratch. It’s just been incredible to see our staff, our faculty, our students, our student-athletes all playing a role in what this looks like.”
Crowd size is only one factor that the athletic department, guided by its working group on event operations and fan engagement, has considered.
“If we’re limited in the stadium, does that still allow for a game-day experience outside of the stadium?” Stansbury asked. “What potentially could that look like?”
The handling of stadium ingress/egress, concessions, parking, tailgating and stadium cleaning are among other matters to resolve. Stansbury said that ticketing will be done on an electronic basis only to limit contact, a move that the department already was considering.
It wouldn’t be a surprise if fans were required or at least strongly encouraged to wear masks.
It’s likely that policies could change as the season progresses “to make sure that we continue to provide a safe environment for our patrons, our student-athletes and staff,” Stansbury said.
Across the ACC, Stansbury said that member schools are creating a protocol to ensure that players have been tested before games.
More broadly, Stansbury offered an optimistic position that games will be played, while recognizing that the season may take a significantly different shape than anything fans have experienced before this year.
He said that “I think you could see a situation where one team is fine and another team isn’t,” a possibility that has been made more real by the handful of teams that have reported double-digit cases of COVID-19 infections in the midst of their voluntary on-campus workouts.
In response to a question about what conditions would have to be met for the season to be stopped, Stansbury said that it would be a situation in which “you get to a point where there’s a critical mass of programs that just can’t play because of either local situations or basically their infections on their team. I think that’s when you could get in that territory of not being able to play.”
Tech began voluntary on-campus workouts June 15. The NCAA has authorized football teams to begin required summer training July 13.
That Stansbury recognized outcomes ranging from games with near-full stadiums to games not being played at all is an indicator of the uncertainty that college sports administrators continue to face with the first week of the season about 10 weeks away. Last week, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading infectious disease expert, said that unless players were in a “bubble” and tested nearly every day, “it would be very hard to see how football is able to be played this fall.”
Stansbury said that public-health officials and future events related to the pandemic will dictate matters such as scheduling, fan attendance and, indeed, if there is a season.
“But I think everybody is preparing to play football,” he said.
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