With strict state-issued guidelines in place, New York sports venues reopened their doors to a limited number of fans in late February. Those attending games since have been required to bring proof of a negative PCR COVID-19 test, taken within 72 hours of the event, to enter. The additional barrier to entry resulted in Madison Square Garden (MSG) experiencing higher than average no-show rates at Knicks and Rangers games played between February 23 and March 23. Meanwhile, Barclays Center, which operates under the same guidelines, did not encounter similar issues at Nets home games during the period. Their decision to perform testing on site—at no additional cost to fans—explains why that was the case.
Our Take: To be clear, when talking about no-shows we’re referring to fans who purchased tickets but did not actually “scan in” to the game, so it would include, say, individuals who were turned away at the door because they did not bring proof of a recent negative PCR COVID-19 test.
“It’s more important than ever to make it simple and easy for fans to return to venues,” Patrick Ryan (co-founder, Eventellect) said. So, a state-issued mandate that forces fans to jump over an additional hurdle to attend was a tough draw for both buildings—particularly when one considers New York is the only state requiring testing as a condition for fan entry. It should be noted that as of March 24 there are still 10 NBA teams and 13 NHL clubs located in states that are not allowing for any fans to attend. Venues in those locales should take notice of the differences in approach as they prepare for their own reopenings.
Both NYC arenas tried to make compliance with the PCR mandate as fan-friendly and safe an experience as possible. MSG elected to give fans a choice of testing options, aligning with three different healthcare providers. Prospective Garden patrons could schedule an appointment at a local Northwell Health-GoHealth Urgent Care location (suggested three days prior to the game), take a Vault Health at-home test (which send back for processing within 72 hours of the event) or walk across the street to the Stewart Hotel and take a rapid test with Rapid Test NYC. Of course, the $225 price tag and inability to run the expense through insurance (as they could with Northwell or Vault) offset the convenience of the third option. Fans who failed to take a test, tested positive or were turned away at the door were either refunded (if they canceled two days before the game) or credited for their ticket purchase (as long as the request was submitted within one day of the game’s completion).
Barclays Center took a different approach, managing—and funding—its own testing program. Fans come to the arena to get their rapid PCR test done; their results show up in the CLEAR app, which they present—with their green check mark (proving they were COVID-19 negative)—to security at the door. The entire process takes about 45 minutes and the testing fee is baked into the ticket price (which may or may not have been dynamically priced to begin with). Ryan says Barclays Center deserves credit for “including a test with the ticket price, because [it made] the fan feel like they were owed a test. So they went [to the game] and got the test. It was procedurally simple but also mentally motivating.”
Managing an on-site PCR testing program for 1,800 fans may be manageable, but it’s fair to wonder if a sports venue could keep up as capacity restrictions loosen; it’s currently limited to 10% in New York. Newly released guidelines giving patrons the option to provide a negative antigen COVID-19 test (which can be done faster) or proof of full vaccination (which is only going to become more common and would eliminate the need for testing on many individuals) in place of a negative PCR test should put any concerns to rest. Barclays intends to move from PCR to antigen testing shortly as the venue adapts to the state’s new allowances.
The easing of guidelines, which went into effect at MSG on March 24, should be a game changer for the venue (at least in terms of returning to a more normal scan-in rate). In addition to the two new entry options (proof of antigen test, proof of full vaccination), the World’s Most Famous Arena is introducing an on-site antigen testing partner (Ambulnz) that will almost certainly encourage more ticket holders to attend. The tests can be done within 30 minutes and will cost fans just $30 (i.e. it is not included with the ticket price).
It’s important to note selling tickets has not been the Knicks’ issue. Five of the team’s first six home games were sellouts.