Will Atlanta sports return to normal, or thereabouts, in 2021?

Fans are seated socially distanced as the Falcons take on the Denver Broncos at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Sunday, Nov. 8, 2020, in Atlanta (Alyssa Pointer/Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
Fans are seated socially distanced as the Falcons take on the Denver Broncos at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Sunday, Nov. 8, 2020, in Atlanta (Alyssa Pointer/Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer/Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer/Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Those were among the countless Atlanta sports events canceled, postponed, relocated or otherwise altered in 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Now, as the city’s sports franchises continue to grapple with the fallout from a year that battered their businesses and mostly emptied their stadiums, their attention turns to 2021.

Will the teams be able to fully reopen their venues to fans during the year ahead? How many fans will return even when given the option? In sum, will sports get back to normal, or thereabouts, at some point in 2021?

The chief executives of four Atlanta pro sports teams, in interviews with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, expressed cautious optimism while acknowledging many unknowns remain. They will continue to be guided by government officials, public health experts and their respective leagues. In time, the CEOs expect the COVID-19 vaccine to be a game-changer as it becomes widely available.

“We look at 2021 as kind of a tale of two halves, the first half of the year and the second half,” said Steve Cannon, CEO of Falcons and Atlanta United parent company AMB Sports & Entertainment. “We think the first half is going to have its challenges based on vaccine availability. … We think the second half will look closer to what a normal year would look like.”

“We’re being very mindful of and watching very closely the vaccine rollout,” Braves President and CEO Derek Schiller said. “It’s certainly going to have a direct correlation to our community’s willingness to come out and have mass gatherings.”

“We’re going to take a very measured approach to having fans back in our building,” Hawks CEO Steve Koonin said.

State Farm Arena is mostly empty as the Atlanta Hawks prepare to play the Detroit Pistons in their home opener Monday, Dec. 28, 2020, in Atlanta. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)
State Farm Arena is mostly empty as the Atlanta Hawks prepare to play the Detroit Pistons in their home opener Monday, Dec. 28, 2020, in Atlanta. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Asked if he expects a full arena at any point in the Hawks’ 2020-21 season, Koonin said: “I don’t think we know enough to make that claim.” He recalled that in March he was “jealous” of the NFL, incorrectly assuming the virus would be under control by the time football season started in the fall. “I don’t make any pronouncements with any dates anymore because I think it would be foolish,” Koonin said.

The Hawks, who took less of a financial hit from the pandemic than other Atlanta teams because they had only seven home games remaining when their 2019-20 season abruptly ended in March, opened their delayed 2020-21 home schedule Monday. But amid a recent surge in COVID-19 cases, they decided not to have fans in State Farm Arena except “friends and family” until Jan. 18, Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Even then, attendance will be limited to about 10% of normal capacity, or 1,700 socially distanced fans.

After that, “you don’t know what is going to happen, whether you ramp it up or you ramp it down,” Koonin said. “We call our plan the crawl-walk-run. In the crawl, our building will look much more like a TV studio. … We will carefully and cautiously add fans as conditions allow.”

The Hawks have done a lot of work to connect with the community over the past nine months and won’t risk damaging that connection by moving too rapidly to get fans back in the arena, Koonin said. “We have a very strong business and a very strong brand,” he said, “and we’re going to do nothing to hurt either one of them.”

After the Hawks, the next Atlanta team to play 2021 games could be Atlanta United. MLS officials have targeted a possible March opening of the season, but haven’t committed to a firm date.

“They know, just like you and I know, that the earlier they go, the more risk there is,” Cannon said. “Later is better, just from an execution standpoint. Later in the calendar year, our assumption is more vaccine, more consumer confidence, more willingness for people to come into stadiums.

“If it starts in March, a March match won’t look like a normal Atlanta United match with 45,000 people in the stands.”

After the restart of the 2020 MLS season in July, Atlanta United played seven home games without fans and two with limited attendance of slightly more than 6,000.

The Braves played a shortened 2020 regular season with no fans at Truist Park and played all seven games of the NLCS against the Los Angeles Dodgers in the “bubble” of a neutral site in Arlington, Texas, rather than playing three NLCS games at Truist and four in L.A. As of now, the Braves are scheduled to begin spring training in February and to have their 2021 home opener April 9, but Major League Baseball might seek to push back the start of the season in hopes of having more fans in the stands in more markets.

The gates of Truist Park were closed to fans during the shortened 2020 season.
The gates of Truist Park were closed to fans during the shortened 2020 season.

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

“We’re optimistic that we’re going to be able to return to normal as quickly as possible,” Schiller said. “No one has a date on exactly when that is going to be, but we’re going to be ready. We’re planning like we’re going to have a full house and a full schedule come the start of our season, and obviously we’re also making sure we’re ready for adjustments.

“That is what this past year has taught us – to be flexible and adjust to whatever might be coming. But … we are very hopeful and optimistic about 2021 being a year we can all return to our normal lives again.”

The Falcons, who announced an average attendance of about 8,000 at their home games open to fans this season, are hopeful widespread vaccinations over the coming months will allow Mercedes-Benz Stadium’s 72,000 seats to be mostly filled when next season opens in September.

“Our planning assumption is we’re playing in front of a full complement of Falcons fans,” Cannon said. He acknowledged there are “a lot of ifs,” including “the ability to ramp up to hundreds of millions of doses” of vaccine.

According to a recent survey by Tappit, a company that provides cashless payment and data systems for stadiums, only 26% of U.S. sports fans expect to attend a sports event in the next six months, compared with 58% over the next 12 months. Asked what concerns will affect their decision on whether to return to games, 78% of respondents cited “sitting too close to other spectators.”

Whenever fans return, Atlanta teams vow to maintain many of the protocols they have adopted in recent months, such as the use of disinfecting drones to clean Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

“We know consumers are still going to be skeptical,” Cannon said, “and we want to give them every bit of confidence we can by demonstrating we are not going to let our guard down.”

After a year of limited or no attendance, teams also face the issue of whether a significant number of fans have had their habits permanently changed and will be difficult to lure back to games even when the pandemic ends.

“Our mentality is that our competition is the 80-inch flat screen (TV) in somebody’s home, and 2020 has allowed more people to stay home and be comfortable,” Cannon said. “That raises the stakes, which means we better wow these folks.”

“People have an alternative with television,” Koonin said, “so they have to feel safe and have to have a good experience.”

While some fans may be increasingly content to follow their teams from afar, others may have a pent-up desire to return to stadiums when they deem it safe.

“I think, on the other side of this, there is such a built-up desire to get back to normalcy that people will cherish the opportunity to be able to attend games again,” said Gary Stokan, president and CEO of Peach Bowl Inc.

Schiller said that as of mid-December the Braves had sold more tickets for 2021, including season packages and single-game sales, than they had sold for 2020 at the same point a year earlier. The Braves have guaranteed refunds or credits for any games that are canceled or played with restricted attendance because of the pandemic.

The economic stakes are high for sports franchises. The Braves, the only local team with publicly traded stock and thus the only one to disclose financial results, said their revenue dropped 68% through the first nine months of 2020, falling to $143 million from $442 million in the first nine months of the previous year. The Braves reported an operating loss before amortization and depreciation of $49 million through Sept. 30, compared with a profit of $73 million at the same point in 2019.

The team’s full-year financial figures for 2020 will be even worse when they’re disclosed in February. Schiller described 2020 as “an absolutely horrible financial year we and every other baseball team had.”

The pandemic caused the cancellation of the highest-profile sports event on Atlanta’s original 2020 calendar, college basketball’s Final Four, which was to have been held at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in early April. Atlanta won’t have another opportunity to host the Final Four until 2027 or later. But a different marquee sports event is scheduled here in 2021: the MLB All-Star game at Truist Park, with several days of related events preceding the July 13 game.

Last season’s MLB All-Star game, which was to have been played at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, was canceled. As of now, plans are being made to hold the 2021 event as normal, and the Braves have promised all full-season-ticket holders the right to buy tickets to it.

“If everything falls into place, the All-Star game has the opportunity to be one of the big international events that celebrates not only the game of baseball but the return to normalcy,” Schiller said. “There’s a certain hopefulness and optimism we all have … that the All-Star game is a great opportunity for Atlanta to say, ‘You know what? We’re back. We made it through this.’ ”

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