Eric Fisher | Human needs drive the desire to attend games again

In a deeply insightful essay in The Atlantic, veteran rock star and Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl discusses the uncertain future of live music in the face of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, and his hunger for what he colorfully called “a big old plate of sweaty, ear-shredding, live rock and roll, ASAP.”

Ever an energetic and irrepressible performer, Grohl remains insistent of a return to the stage following the current hiatus and says the shared experiences of live music are among the most powerful in all human existence and simply cannot be ignored.

“I do know that we will do it again, because we have to,” Grohl writes. “It’s not a choice. We’re human. We need moments that reassure us that we are not alone. That we are understood. That we are imperfect. And, most important, that we need each other.”

Many of the same concepts and core human desires Grohl outlines with regard to music can be applied in precisely the same way to live sports.

But there are questions that come with that innate urge to return to stadiums and arenas and cheer our stars. So many questions. When will it be safe for us to attend games again?

In what form will it take? Can the powerful and communal fan experience deeply inherent to sports, just as it is in music, ever be truly produced again? What happens if any sort of progress happening amid the public health crisis backslides and Covid-19 cases spike upward again?

These are brutal queries, ones basically consuming every senior sports industry executive right now as they try to figure out if, when, and how to return to action. And the stakes aren’t just economic survival in conditions far beyond what any traditional labor or media-rights deal contemplates. They are literally life and death for involved players, coaches, staff, and for the fans that right now are still mandated to stay away from the venues – and will be for the foreseeable future.

“It’s difficult to imagine a stadium that’s filled until we have immunity, until we have a vaccine,” said California Governor Gavin Newsom. The sports leagues “must have a safety-first, health-first mindset, and there are conditions that persist in this state and this nation that make re-opening very, very challenging.”

In the interim, nearly every major sports property either already has or will soon seek a temporary workaround to resume games by competing without fans in attendance. And those plans arrive with all the health safeguards and protocols, such as regular testing and medical monitoring of involved personnel, creating safe work practices for broadcast productions and facility management, and even pumping in fake crowd noise to simulate a normal venue atmosphere.

But for all that well-meaning effort, it is still not the same. Just as Grohl characterized the current online-only and isolated state of live music as looking like “doorbell security footage and sound[ing] like Neil Armstrong’s distorted transmissions from the moon,” the idea of games without fans in person just seems like poor reproductions of something else, something better that we not only saw and heard, but collectively felt.

And make no mistake, even in today’s analytics-driven sports industry, it is that fan emotion and passion that truly drive the business, and ultimately make all those multi-billion-dollar deals powering our industry possible. It is also why despite all the various ticket refund offers now available and growing economic pressure on households everywhere, a vast majority of fans are still holding on to their previously purchased seats, waiting for the irreplaceable feeling to return.

“We are still motivated by the long-term potential of global live events,” said Michael Rapino, president and chief executive of Ticketmaster parent, Live Nation. “It’s in the DNA of us to want to gather, socialise, and celebrate. And as we provide assurances on health and safety at the venue, we expect our business to build back.”

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