Another wave of fans returning to sports despite COVID-19

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Wendell Cruz

Fans cheer the New York Knicks coming out to warm up for an NBA basketball game against the Golden State Warriors on Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2021, in New York. A limited number of fans were allowed to attend. (Wendell Cruz/Pool Photo via AP)

Whitney Munro had some concerns about returning to sporting events. So, like any good mom, she did her homework, learning more about the policies in place because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Munro, 38, who lives in Coppell, Texas, with her husband, Rupert, and 13-year-old son, Riley, went to the Dallas Stars' watch parties during their run to the Stanley Cup Final last year. She watched her Oklahoma Sooners' Cotton Bowl win on Dec. 30, and she has season tickets for the Stars this year.

“I’ve actually felt really safe,” said Munro, who works in nonprofit management. “And I felt like the organizations who hosted the events that we’ve gone to have done a great job of putting in kind of just those type of parameters so that everyone feels comfortable and gets to actually go do this stuff.”

Another wave of fans is set to follow Munro into arenas and ballparks across the United States as more sports begin to host small crowds amid the pandemic. New York's Madison Square Garden had roughly 2,000 fans on hand for the Knicks game Tuesday night. Several spring training facilities will open their doors to fans when major league exhibition games start on Sunday. The NCAA men's basketball tournament in Indiana has cleared the way for small crowds after it was canceled last year.

Socially distant seating, mask mandates and temperature checks will be in place at many venues, but some experts remain concerned about community spread and the threat of more contagious variants of COVID-19. While average daily deaths and cases have plummeted in recent weeks, the COVID-19 death toll in the U.S. topped 500,000 Monday.

Many places will have no problem filling their limited capacities, but some sports are looking at a longer road when it comes to fans returning.

Examining anonymized online browsing behavior and third-party data covering 921 million phones, tablets and other devices in the U.S., sports marketing firm 4FRONT identified 434 million devices belonging to what it calls “quarantine re-emergers," part of households “that have recently visited dining, entertainment and retail locations,” with modeled predictive data also factored into the equation.

Of the 109 million devices belonging to NASCAR fans — based on online browsing behavior like interacting with a NASCAR website or purchasing NASCAR apparel — 68 million, or 62%, were considered re-emerged, the best percentage of any of the sports examined by 4FRONT. UFC was next at 59% of 40 million devices, followed by the NFL at 53% of 497 million devices. Major League Baseball (42% of 245 million) and the PGA Tour (20% of 94 million) were at the bottom of the list.