College football’s most fervent fans haven’t been deterred by the continued spread of COVID-19 throughout the country. Even as the virus cripples campuses and spreads throughout football programs—25 games have already been either postponed or canceled as Week 5 of the 2020 season approaches—fans are still filling the stands at games where in-person attendance is allowed.
As the pandemic rages on, additional disruptions are to be expected. Conferences including the Big Ten, Pac-12 and Mountain West haven’t yet started play and won’t be allowing fans at fall football contests. Others have limited attendance in order to contain spread and comply with local and state regulations. Limited fan attendance means reduced on-site and ticketing revenues, but the loss of games altogether could be much more costly, putting substantial television dollars at risk.
Of those opening their gates, a large number of stadiums are operating at a maximum of 25% capacity—but they’re still selling almost all of those available seats. According to Sportico‘s analysis of attendance at the most recent home games of 49 schools that are allowing some form of fan presence, more than half exceeded 90% of their COVID-friendly capacity.
Before live sports returned, many expressed skepticism about safely attending sporting events so soon. In a June New York Times survey of 511 epidemiologists and infectious disease experts, 64% said they wouldn’t be comfortable going back to a game for more than a year. Less than four months later, thousands of fans—if not epidemiologists—have filled college football stands and some, like the 20,000 who gathered for Georgia’s romp of Auburn (quite closely in the student section), have drawn public criticism despite complying with the Bulldogs’ restricted attendance policies.
Some have even tip-toed over the line of their self-set limitations, as Texas Tech did when it hosted the University of Texas for an unexpected overtime thriller. School policy restricted attendance to 25%, but post-game data reported 16,615 fans in Lubbock, filling 27% of Jones AT&T Stadium’s 60,000+ person venue.
Big 12 fans more broadly appear to be most comfortable attending games, as the conference filled more of its available seats (95%) than its peers did at its most recent home games. The SEC, which is allowing the most fans on a total numbers basis, sold 88% of its limited-capacity tickets, while Conference USA notched 90%.
Fans attending college football games seem to be unfazed by the severity of the virus, but policies regarding maximum capacities at stadiums also seem to be made independent of the local COVID-19 prevalence.
For example, the aforementioned Texas Tech home game took place in a county that has the second-highest daily case count over the past week of all the college towns that Sportico analyzed. Conversely, some schools in areas with far fewer daily new cases, such as Liberty University and the University of Virginia, are allowing crowds of just 1,000 fans.
Policies could change as the virus’s course continues, as could the status of additional games as the season advances. How that impacts future fan attendance is yet to be seen, but with SEC football back and both Big Ten and Pac-12 play on the horizon, those left at home will still have plenty to watch as college football presses on.