- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 7, 2020

Taiwan is letting baseball fans return to its stadiums this week, becoming the first major government to let spectators back into sporting events since the COVID-19 pandemic made such an idea almost taboo.

But most sports leagues around the world, even the ones preparing to restart their seasons, are not that far along and will play games without live fans for some length of time. Their decisions could shape how sporting events look and sound for months to come.

Could that lead to parades of fans in cars honking their horns from outside the venue? Cardboard cutouts? Literal robots? The ideas are getting creative.

The five-team Chinese Professional Baseball League in Taiwan will allow up to 1,000 fans at baseball games beginning Friday. Crowd the stands any more than that, and the coronavirus has a better chance of spreading. Taiwan, though, has not had many cases of COVID-19.

“One month has elapsed since the start of play on April 11. With the unity and cooperation of the government and the people, the epidemic in Taiwan has eased,” the CPBL said on its official website. “Welcome back fans!”

Before that, the league devised fan substitutes. Mannequins and cardboard cutouts of human figures filled the seats. Human cheerleaders were allowed to work, and robots banged drums to add some crowd noise, Agence France-Presse reported.

Elsewhere in Asia, South Korea opened the season for its popular Korean Baseball Organization this week but didn’t allow fans in the stands. The eventual return of sports fans, like the reopenings of countries and economies, seems primed to happen in dribs and drabs around the world.

Bundesliga, the top division of German soccer, will restart May 16 in empty stadiums. A match between Borussia Dortmund and Schalke will test local authorities’ ability to keep fans from gathering around the stadium or in bars to watch on television, The Associated Press reported.

English news outlets said Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s plan to reopen the country will include the “possible return of football fans to matches” by October. That was welcome news for Premier League fans for the 2020-21 season.

On the other end of the spectrum, the Netherlands health minister said Thursday that no soccer fans will be allowed to attend games in the country until a coronavirus vaccine is available, which isn’t expected until early next year.

What will fans do in the meantime? Perhaps honk car horns from arena parking lots.

In Denmark, a soccer club called FC Midtjylland has a plan in place for the eventual return of the Danish Superliga. Fans will be invited to park outside the stadium and watch games on video screens to be constructed on the outside wall of the venue or listen on the radio. They can get rowdy and fly their flags from there, team marketing director Preben Rokkjaer said.

“The players will feel the atmosphere,” Mr. Rokkjaer told WTOP. “As they are playing, they can see all the cars outside the stadium and hear the noise. We can honk our horns. We want the club colors on top of cars for the drone footage. We are going to make a kind of carnival and at the same time [stay] safe.”

Short of that, leagues and broadcast partners worldwide are reportedly considering piping in crowd noise to make the atmosphere feel more normal. The Australian Football League has said the idea is under consideration, and The Times of London reported that English broadcasters are thinking about it to muffle the players’ swearing.

Americans can look forward to the return of NASCAR and golf over the next six weeks, but only on television. It’s not clear whether crowds would show up even if the gates are open.

A Seton Hall University poll in late April found that 72% of respondents wouldn’t feel safe attending a live sporting event without a COVID-19 vaccine. The number dropped to 61% among those who self-identified as sports fans, but it still represented much more than half of all people who might attend football or basketball games under normal circumstances.

When North American leagues are eventually cleared to let fans back inside venues, they might face steep declines in attendance. The average NFL game in 2019 had 66,648 fans. If 61% disappeared, the average would drop to 25,993 and the league would be out millions of dollars in ticket sales.

In the meantime, leagues are bracing for losses. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell told teams in a memo this week that they must have ticket refund policies in place this year to give fans the option of “either receiving a full refund or applying the amount paid toward a future ticket purchase directly from the club,” in the event games are canceled or held without fans. TicketIQ says the Washington Nationals have already lost roughly $68,000,000 on secondary-market ticket sales this year.

It’s not quite as far as positioning cardboard cutouts of fans inside Nationals Park or FedEx Field, but it isn’t promising.

Former Louisiana Health Secretary Rebekah Gee warned that sports in the U.S. shouldn’t be reopened at all until testing and contact tracing are more widespread.

“I’m a huge [New Orleans] Saints fan, and I want to go to the Superdome too,” Dr. Gee told The Associated Press this week. “But am I willing to risk my life for this? No, I’m not. We’ve got to be smart and shouldn’t be giving people false reassurances.”

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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