Speaking a month-and-a-half ago, Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith expressed pessimism about the possibility of college football games going ahead without any fans in the stands.
Any football, he said at the time, would be better than no football in 2020. But how, he wondered aloud on a teleconference last month, would it be safe enough for the players on the field this fall if it’s not safe enough for spectators to attend games?
“It seems inconsistent to me that we could say it’s unsafe for the fans to be in the stands but it’s safe for the players, to be in that gathering environment,” Smith said in April.
On Wednesday, Smith changed his tune, saying he's opening up to the possibility of Ohio State playing college football games without fans.
In doing so, he aligned with president Michael Drake, who said in April he could see the possibility of games being played without any fans or with a limited amount of people in attendance.
“Obviously that's still a conversation that all of us are having in the Big Ten and across the country, and I struggled with it at the beginning,” Smith said this week. “As I continue to have conversations, I'm becoming more comfortable that if that is where we end up – and I'm optimistic that we won't – but if we do end up there, then I think we can accommodate it. It's still, for me, an interesting challenge to think that we could create an environment where our players who are in contact physically can be safe but we couldn't come up with a strategy to create a safer environment for X number of fans.
“So I still struggle with that concept. However, I could get there if that is ultimately what we do.”
The preference for everybody involved, of course, would be to play games with the 104,944-seat stadium filled for the seven home games slated to take place this fall. However, because of the continued concern about the spread of coronavirus, Smith’s eyes have been opened to the possibility of the Buckeyes playing games without any fans or even with a limited capacity.
The UFC and NASCAR have recently begun to hold events without any fans. The MLB, NBA and NHL are exploring that route, too.
Ohio State, though, still hopes it can host games with fans in attendance. Last month, Smith said games without any fans would cost the athletic department $5 million to $7 million in revenue.
Smith, on Wednesday, said they’ve “played a little bit with the social distancing concept” to see whether they can cap Ohio Stadium with a limited number of spectators.
“We've played with that a little bit as a framework to start as we move forward and think about what we ultimately will be allowed to do,” Smith said. “We've played with it a little bit, and of course we played with other scenarios as well.”
He said, if Ohio State has to go that route, the capacity would likely be around 20,000 to 22,000 fans, which is about a fifth of the amount that typically attends home games. However, he followed up on Twitter a couple of hours after the teleconference to say there could be 40,000-50,000 fans in Ohio Stadium "if guidelines are relaxed."
“Obviously, we're fortunate 100,000 seats in the stadium,” Smith said. “So, could we implement the current CDC guidelines, the state guidelines around physical distancing, mask requirements and all those types of things in an outdoor environment and have obviously significantly less fans than what we are used to? I think it's possible. I just feel like we have the talent, skill and space capacity to provide an opportunity for a certain number of fans to have access to our particular stadium.
“Of course, that wouldn't be true across the country because of capacity. But I think we can get there.”
Smith said Ohio State hasn’t yet discussed the protocols that would make a limited capacity possible. However, he noted they’d have to dive into that “at some point.”
If Ohio State went forward with plans to limit the number of fans, Smith said, the university’s Priority Points system would help determine who can get tickets, which would suddenly become a much more limited commodity than usual.
“We would obviously have to look at our point system, for example, that we have in place,” Smith said. “We do have a diversity in constituency throughout our stadium, so we have to make sure that we look at each individual group, faculty, staffs, students, donors, Varsity O, parents of athletes, all those different constituencies, media. So we have to look at those and come up with some strategies within those groups. Our point system has held the test of time, so that would probably be one. Then of course, the parents and the guests of our student-athletes and coaches would be a high priority.
“We'd come up with a strategy. We haven't nailed that down.”
This story was updated shortly after Gene Smith's tweet about attendance.