Fan experience to change profoundly amid COVID-19 pandemic

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Dayton Moore remembers so clearly the vast sections of empty seats inside Kauffman Stadium when he took over as general manager of the Kansas City Royals, and he remembers just as vividly — nearly a decade later — how those seats filled and fans roared as the long-suffering club won the World Series.

Those dueling memories make the thought of playing games in empty stadiums hard for Moore to fathom.

“I know how much strength all players draw from the fans and environment,” he said, when asked about plans to play a shortened season without crowds, “and you need that support to get through an entire Major League Baseball schedule.”

As lockdowns are lifted and restrictions eased, sports are finally starting to emerge in the coronavirus pandemic. But in virtually every situation, fans are not yet being allowed to attend and the only consensus for now is that there could be a long period of empty or nearly empty seating. Some U.S. universities are modeling for 25% capacity for the upcoming football season or maybe half-full arenas for the ensuing basketball season.

“I think for most sports, a reduced crowd wouldn’t negatively impact the overall experience, especially in a situation like baseball or even the NFL,” said Katy Lucy, a digital marketing agent from Atlanta whose fandom is split between all things Georgia Bulldogs and the Washington Capitals. “But it would be different for sure for those who attend in person.”

Count her family among those who would pause before heading to the ballpark.

“For me personally, I’m not sure I would feel comfortable attending a live sporting event until there is a known treatment or widely available vaccine,” Lucy said. “I trust the institutions to put the proper measures in place; however, making sure that they are enforced is another matter.”

Many college and pro sports teams already were dealing with declining ticket sales. Watching at home or streaming games are factors, as is the changing social makeup of fan bases. Dynamic pricing, increases in parking and concession prices, and a push toward luxury seating have exacerbated the problem.

Major League Baseball attendance has declined six of the past seven seasons. In college football, 13 of the 130 schools that played in the Football Bowl Subdivision reported average crowd sizes of 50% or less last season. Even the NFL has seen an increase in empty seats despite its generally rock-solid popularity.

So as coronavirus concerns linger, how are teams going to lure fans back when stadiums do reopen?

Loyalty and engagement apps, widespread around the major leagues and colleges even before the pandemic, will become even more common and interactive as teams try to recapture lost revenue. There also will be more behind-the-scenes content and enhancements available via smartphones that will only be available to those in the stadium or arena, offering fans something unique over fans watching at home.

“Fans want that experience to be top-notch, period. That’s why teams are thinking about this,” said Britton Stackhouse Miller, senior vice president at Fortress U.S., a developer of engagement and integration systems with clients in European soccer, baseball, the NBA, NFL and NHL.

Temperature checks, hand sanitizer distribution stations and touchless vending will become the norm for a while. Even concessions will change, though one big difference — gulp — could lead to a lot of grumbling.

“If you don’t sell beer the number of visits to the bathroom drops dramatically,” said Marc Ganis, the director of sports consulting firm Sportscorp. “So for a time we may have to think about not selling beer.”

It won’t just be the vast oceans of bench seats left open, either. Many experts believe those hardy fans will be the first to return. It’s the corporate suites from which many colleges and pro franchises derive so much of their gameday revenue that may end up being empty until long after games have resumed. Economic woes may last for some time.

For fans who stay home, leagues are looking for ways to keep them engaged, too.

When Germany’s top soccer league returned without fans, broadcaster Sky knew it had a problem with silence coming through the TV. Engineers created “carpet audio” from previous games between the same teams, then teased out roars for specific events such as goals and red cards, giving those watching at home the option of a more realistic experience.

“This was the only idea that we thought could be most respectful to the fans,” said Alessandro Reitano, vice president of sports production for Sky Deutschland. “To be honest, it’s a major success.”

Old crowd noise is a bit like an old game, though. It lacks a certain authenticity. So along came ChampTrack, which created an app that utilizes the microphones of fans. It captures their every roar and groan and sends the audio to its server, which then aggregates the noise into a single stream. That stream is then returned to the viewer using proprietary algorithms to provide the broadcast with real-time sound, which is then immediately erased to ensure personal privacy.

“Once they press play on our web app, they can hear what everyone else is cheering about and their own cheer,” said ChampTrack chief executive Elias Anderson, adding the system could soon handle as many as 150,000 fans for each game.

Sound is one element of the fan experience. Optics is another.

“When it was clear there would be no audience this season, the fans had the idea of bringing their images to the stadium,” said Lubbo Popken, deputy press secretary for German soccer club Borussia Monchengladbach, which affixed fan likenesses to their seats. “We were surprised how many people wanted to be part of this idea and have their images in the stadium. It really changed the atmosphere in the empty stadium.”

Of course, none of that is the same as having real fans creating real noise.

Scroll Down For:

    Islanders sign Bo Horvat to 8-year deal after trading for him

    Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports
    0 Comments

    The New York Islanders signed center Bo Horvat to an eight-year contract less than a week after acquiring him in a trade with the Vancouver Canucks.

    The team announced the contract Sunday, after their first practice following the All-Star break. Horvat’s deal is worth $68 million and carries a $8.5 million salary cap hit through the 2030-31 season.

    General manager Lou Lamoriello joked to reporters at practice on Long Island that Horvat’s contract was “too long and it’s too much money.”

    The Islanders sent forward Anthony Beauvillier, prospect Aatu Raty and a protected first-round pick to the Canucks for Horvat on Monday. He was set to be an unrestricted free agent after the season, and the trade was a result of Vancouver and Horvat’s camp being unable to reach a deal last summer.

    Lamoriello and Horvat expressed confidence about getting a deal done after the trade. The 27-year-old has scored more than 30 goals for a second consecutive season.

    Horvat was chosen as an All-Star and played for the Pacific Division on Saturday despite the trade. He played with longtime Canucks teammate Elias Pettersson and combined on one last goal together before parting ways.

    “I want to get going,” Horvat said Saturday after the All-Star 3-on-3 tournament. “That’s enough. Let’s start playing some games and getting to know the guys. I just want to start playing hockey again.”

    Horvat was on vacation with his family in Orlando when he was traded. He said coach Lane Lambert wanted him to enjoy All-Star festivities before getting rolling with the Islanders, who play at the Philadelphia Flyers on Monday.

    “Obviously getting my legs under me is going to be No. 1 and getting systems down and obviously chemistry with the new linemates and stuff like that,” Horvat said.

    After facing the Flyers and Seattle, Horvat will play against his former team when Vancouver visits UBS Arena on Thursday.

    Bruins rolling, rest of NHL making final push for playoffs

    John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports
    0 Comments

    SUNRISE, Fla. — Bruce Cassidy’s Vegas Golden Knights lost eight of 10 games going into the All-Star break after leading the Pacific Division at the midway point of the NHL season.

    They’re still safely in a playoff spot in the Western Conference, but they can’t keep it up.

    “We’re still in a good position – that’s the way we look at it,” Cassidy said. “There’s not too many teams that can cruise home the last 30 games in this league, and we’re certainly not one of them.”

    Cassidy’s old team, the Boston Bruins, probably could. They’re atop the NHL and running away with the Atlantic Division.

    With 39 wins and 83 points through 51 games, Boston is on pace to break the record for the best regular season in NHL history. The Carolina Hurricanes, who beat Boston in seven games in the first round last year, are next in the standings at 76 points.

    “Top to bottom, there’s no weaknesses,” Carolina coach Rod Brind’Amour said.

    The Bruins are in a class of their own, but the playoff races behind them in the East and West should be hot down the stretch with roughly 30 games to go before the chase for the Stanley Cup begins.

    METROPOLITAN DIVISION

    The Hurricanes rode a seven-game winning streak into the break, putting some fear into the Bruins in the race for the Presidents’ Trophy and home-ice advantage through the postseason. Winger Max Pacioretty re-tearing his right Achilles tendon five games into his return didn’t slow them down, and if their goaltending holds up, Carolina stands a good chance of reaching the East final.

    “This team, it’s a special group of guys,” said Brind’Amour, who captained Carolina to the Cup in 2006 and is in his fifth year as coach. “We kind of show that nightly. It’s just very consistent, and they take their job real serious. They do it right.”

    The second-place New Jersey Devils are contending for the first time since 2018. Bottoming out the next season helped them win the lottery for No. 1 pick Jack Hughes, a two-time All-Star who has them winning ahead of schedule.

    “Much better than being out of the mix,” Hughes said. “We’re really excited because it’s going to be a lot of important hockey, and it’s going to be really competitive and we’re really pumped to be where we are.”

    They’re followed by the New York Rangers, Washington Capitals, Pittsburgh Penguins and New York Islanders. All three New York-area teams could make it, which was the expectation for the Rangers after reaching the East final last year.

    “I think the run last year really taught us a few things and stuff that we obviously could build on for the rest of this year,” 2021 Norris-Trophy winning defenseman Adam Fox said.

    ATLANTIC

    The Rangers lost to the Lightning in six games last spring, when two-time champion Tampa Bay reached the Stanley Cup Final for the third consecutive season before getting beat by the Colorado Avalanche.

    The Lightning are almost certain to face the Toronto Maple Leafs – who haven’t won a playoff series since the NHL salary cap era began in 2005 – in the first round and remain a threat to the Bruins.

    But Boston has separated itself despite starting the season without top left winger Brad Marchand and No. 1 defenseman Charlie McAvoy. The Bruins have lost only 12 games under new coach Jim Montgomery.

    “You just keep winning,” said All-Star right winger David Pastrnak, who’s tied for third in the league in scoring. “Every single line and every single guy is going and it obviously builds our confidence. It’s funny sometimes what confidence can do in hockey.”

    The Islanders should have some more confidence after acquiring 30-goal scorer Bo Horvat from Vancouver, but still need to make up ground to get in.

    CENTRAL

    Defending champion Colorado climbed in the standings – winning seven of eight going into the break despite an injury-riddled first half of the season. Captain Gabriel Landeskog still has not made his season debut since undergoing knee surgery. It would be foolish to bet against the Avs coming out of the West again.

    “It’s up to us: We control our own fate,” All-Star center Nathan MacKinnon said. “We need to definitely keep playing the way we were before the break. No matter who’s in the lineup we were playing well, playing hard, so it would definitely help with healthy bodies.”

    They still trail the Dallas Stars, Winnipeg Jets and Minnesota Wild in the Central, and the Nashville Predators are on their heels. Only the Stars and Jets are essentially guaranteed a spot.

    “Every point, you grind for it,” Stars leading scorer Jason Robertson said. “Every point’s going to be a dog fight, so it’s going to be a fun 30 games down the stretch.”

    PACIFIC

    Undisputed MVP favorite Connor McDavid and the Edmonton Oilers, who were swept by Colorado in the West final, have a little bit of catching up to do in the Pacific Division.

    The top spot is held by the Seattle Kraken, who surprisingly are on pace to make the playoffs in their second season but still need to fend off the Los Angeles Kings and the Vegas Golden Knights.

    Edmonton – and the Battle of Alberta rival Calgary Flames – have the talent to not only get in but make a run. McDavid leads the league with 41 goals and 92 points, 16 more than No. 2 scorer and teammate Leon Draisaitl, and is producing unlike anyone since Hall of Famer Mario Lemieux in the mid-1990s.

    Now he’ll try to carry the Oilers into the playoffs and beyond.

    “It hasn’t been easy at all for our group. We’ve kind of had to battle for everything that we’ve got,” McDavid said. “We’ve always been a second-half team for whatever reason. Even since my first year, we’ve always been better in the second half, so we’ll definitely look to continue that. That being said, we’re not going to hang our hat on that and expect that to carry us to the playoffs. There’s a lot of work to be done.”

    Capitals sign Sonny Milano to 3-year, $5.7 million extension

    Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports
    0 Comments

    ARLINGTON, Va. — The Washington Capitals signed winger Sonny Milano to a three-year extension worth $5.7 million.

    General manager Brian MacLellan announced the contract, adding to an already busy All-Star break for taking care of future business. The Capitals extended forward Dylan Strome for five years, $25 million.

    Like Strome, Milano has fit in as a new addition for Washington. He’s now set to count $1.9 million against the salary cap through the 2025-26 season.

    The 26-year-old Milano has been a near-perfect bargain signing for the Capitals after joining them on an NHL veteran one-year deal after this season got underway. He has eight goals and 14 assists for 22 points in 40 games since getting called up from Hershey of the American Hockey League.

    Originally drafted by the Columbus Blue Jackets 16th in 2014, Milano split his first eight seasons in the league with them and the Anaheim Ducks. He went unsigned as an unrestricted free agent last summer despite putting up 34 points in 66 games with Anaheim.

    Rivals Crosby and Ovechkin relish being All-Star teammates

    Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports
    1 Comment

    SUNRISE, Fla. — Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin have played dozens of regular-season and playoff games against each other since breaking into the NHL together in 2005.

    The longtime rivals and respective captains of the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals have also shared the ice at All-Star Games before. But with each superstar in his mid-30s, they know this trip could be their last together.

    They took advantage of it, with Ovechkin setting up Crosby for two goals Saturday in the lone game of the All-Star 3-on-3 tournament their Metropolitan Division team got to play.

    “I think we have fun to play together, not against each other,” Ovechkin said, flashing his gap-toothed smile. “Right now, we was on the same team, and it was pretty special, pretty good moment.”

    Crosby, who also had the secondary assist on Ovechkin’s goal, did not expect to get the puck back. That’s not unreasonable given Ovechkin has built a career on scoring and is only 82 goals back of Wayne Gretzky’s NHL career record.

    “I was thinking I just did my job: gave it to him,” said Crosby, whose career numbers are so close to Ovechkin’s that he has just five more points overall. “I thought he was just going finish it, but he was kind enough to send me a couple back. We had some nice goals there.”

    Not enough to win the 3-on-3 semifinal against the Atlantic, which beat the Central in the final. Ovechkin lamented not scoring more and took some jabs at his goalie teammates for a day: fellow Russians Igor Shesterkin of the New York Rangers and Ilya Sorokin of the Islanders.

    “Obviously goalie could play better,” Ovechkin said.

    Crosby and Ovechkin being together at All-Star weekend for the first time since 2018 was one of the themes of the weekend, given how they shared the stage as faces of the NHL for much of their careers. But they don’t want this to be a Sid and Ovi swan song and could do this again as soon as next year when the festivities are in Toronto.

    “You try to go out there have fun and stay in the moment,” Crosby said. “Hopefully, it’s not our last one. That’s the best way to approach it.”

    HOMETOWN HEROICS

    The introductions for Aleksander Barkov and Matthew Tkachuk were saved for last.

    And of course, the two Florida Panthers stars, representing the Atlantic Division, delivered in their home arena.

    “We play regular-season and playoff games here, but with this event, it’s even more special to be here representing the Florida Panthers,” Barkov said.

    Tkachuk was clearly comfortable playing in the same arena where has amassed 66 points (sixth in the NHL) this season with the Panthers. He had seven points (four goals, three assists) Saturday, including a goal and an assist in the Atlantic Division’s 7-5 win over the Central Division to take the All-Star game title.

    Tkachuk had a hat trick and a pair of assists in the Atlantic squad’s semifinal game against the Metropolitan division – tying a single-game points record for the 3-on-3 All-Star format. Two of those goals were assisted by his Panthers teammate to give their squad a win 10-6 and advance to face the Central division the final.

    By the time Barkov and Tkachuk came out for the All-Star game final, “Let’s go Panthers!” cheers were being belted throughout FLA Live Arena.

    Barkov, the beloved Panther in his 10th season, has 14 goals this year and 33 assists. He has 234 career goals and 600 points.

    BROTHERLY LOVE

    Brothers Matthew Tkachuk and Brady Tkachuk have played against each other plenty over the years. But with both players starting for the Atlantic division, they got to experience playing together as the 11th set of brothers to be All-Star teammates.

    The brothers each had a goal in Saturday’s semifinal game between the Atlantic and Metropolitan divisions. And Brady assisted on his brother’s goal in the final against the Central division.

    Matthew, drafted in 2016 by the Calgary Flames, is a two-time All-Star with 177 career goals and 448 points.

    Brady, the younger Tkachuk sibling, was drafted in 2018 by the Ottawa Senators and has 110 career goals and 243 points.

    Both were All-Stars back in 2020 in their hometown St. Louis. Brady represented the Atlantic division, while Matthew represented the Pacific squad.

    WEATHER WOES

    It was 72 degrees Fahrenheit (22 Celsius) outside FLA Live Arena when the All-Star 3 on-3 tournament started – more than 50 degrees warmer than 2024 host Toronto. That doesn’t mean this year’s event didn’t have a weather issue.

    The NHL All-Star Beach Festival – which had areas where fans could test their hockey skills, get a photo with the Stanley Cup and check out a Hockey Hall of Fame exhibit, among other things – couldn’t open on Saturday.

    Rain in the morning delayed the opening on Fort Lauderdale Beach, and then 40 mph (64 kilometers per hour) wind gusts later in the day forced the NHL into keeping it closed and calling off a watch party for the All-Star Game.

    It was open Thursday and Friday.