The stands at the Gaylord Family Oklahoma Memorial Stadium accommodate 80,126 for Sooners football, and they’ve squeezed in that many or more for every game played in Norman since 1999. It is a spectacular scene, one that everyone at OU would love to see repeated another half-dozen times this autumn.
This wish almost certainly is going to remain unrequited, of course. The COVID-19 pandemic may be less off a threat by then, if we’re fortunate, but there is no voice of authority asserting that it will disappear. College football will be affected, and those in charge are planning for a variety of contingencies, including the possibility of limiting the attendance at games to make it possible for smaller audiences to attend but social distancing to be maintained.
That would mean the majority of those 80,000 fans at Oklahoma and other top venues being left out, and managing this reality is part of the immense challenge NCAA athletic directors are facing. It’s not as simple as picking a percentage of capacity and then spacing spectators properly around the stadium. Nor is it just a matter of choosing who gets inside the gates. Because many of those left out might disagree with the decision.
“There are going to be some difficulties in the social-distance model,” Oklahoma AD Joe Castiglione told Sporting News. “We’re working on all of that. I don’t know where we will end up.
“Things change almost hourly. It’s just hard to focus on a target and then go hit it. There’s a lot of unknowns. The best we can do is focus on what we can control.”
The nature of the 2020 college football season, presuming it takes place, is yet to be established. Will all games be played? Just conference games? Will schools choose to contest games in empty stadiums or with the stands partially filled?
And if some fans are allowed, how will those who are excluded respond?
Castiglione said Oklahoma is accustomed, in the best way possible, to using its legacy points system to distribute tickets for such events as the College Football Playoff, the NCAA Final Four or major bowl games. The Sooners reached the Final Four in 2016 and the CFP in four of the past five years.
“Our fans have been used to it,” Castiglione said. “However, not everyone travels to bowl games or the Final Four.”
Using that same methodology to determine who gets to socially distance inside the stadium and who must watch from the living room, if it comes to that, would be a delicate operation for Castiglione and a vast number of his colleagues among FBS athletic directors. As all of the extremely popular major-college football programs prepare for what remains an unknown, they are working through a wide variety of scenarios.
Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith told reporters on a conference call last week that OSU has discussed the possibility of social distancing crowds in the 102,780-seat Ohio Stadium that would lead to between 20,000 and 22,000 in attendance for the Buckeyes’ seven home games this fall. Between students and the general public, they usually sell close to 75,000 season tickets.
“We would obviously have to look at our points system, for example, that we have in place,” Smith said. “We do have a diversity of constituency throughout our stadium. So we have to make sure that we look at each individual group: faculty, staff, students, donors, Varsity O, parents of athletes — all those different constituencies. Media. So we have to look at those and come up some strategies within those groups.
“Our point system has held the test of time. So that would probably be one. And then, of course, the parents and guests of our student-athletes and coaches would be a high priority. So we’ll come up with a strategy, but we haven’t nailed that down.”
If it seems simple to design a stadium seating plan that keeps everyone six feet apart, consider that not all groups are likely to be the same size. There may be a married couple holding two tickets and another group of family members that regularly buys eight seats. Castiglione’s staff is working to ascertain how their donors and season-ticket holders are planning themselves for the season to use that information to be able, eventually, to properly space spectators if that’s what’s required.
Those who are excluded in such a scenario might not be the only ones bothered. Those accustomed to prime seats, or particular seats, might find themselves in a less-desirable location.
“There’s a lot of input,” he said. “At some point, we’ll have an output.”
Castiglione said the process of planning for fall sports has included myriad conversations with experts as well as observation of plans and protocols being followed by other sports in their attempts to plan a return to activity.
The University of Oklahoma announced a month ago its plan to open campus and conduct in-person classes in the fall term. The school’s football facilities will reopen for voluntary workouts July 1, with the OU medical team clearing each player before he participates.
“We know there isn’t any way we can completely eliminate the risk,” Castiglione said. “Every single decision is being based on the health, welfare and safety of the people we serve. We have never deviated from that.
“We are making our plans with optimism, but we’re not 100 percent sure how many we’ll be able to activate.”
The challenge is slightly different at a school such as Toledo, which has a smaller facility and, on average the past couple of years, had a few thousand seats remain empty for home games. The Glass Bowl capacity is listed at 26,038, and last year’s average attendance in a 6-6 season was 20,399.
When the coronavirus outbreak was declared on March 11 to be a global pandemic, Toledo athletic director Mike O’Brien was in New York City as a member of the NCAA men’s basketball committee. Upon his return, he met with his staff and made a simple declaration that, as college athletics administrators continue to wrestle with so many unknowns and unprecedented circumstances, holds true.
“I told them: I don’t have a manual for this. There’s nothing in my top desk drawer,” O’Brien told SN. “We’re doing the best we can.”
O’Brien noted that the Mid-American Conference includes members from five states, and they could be on varying schedules relative to opening. The Rockets are supposed to travel to Tulsa for their opening game, and officials there have indicated they are planning on opening the season. San Diego State is scheduled for a visit to Toledo, and even though the Cal State University system has indicated most coursework would be taught online in the fall term, “On their end, it’s very positive football is going to be part of their fall,” O’Brien said.
What an SD State-Toledo game in early September would look like at the Glass Bowl is difficult to establish at this point.
“We have our various models, and some of this could be taken out of our hands,” O’Brien told SN. “We have to priorities. Go with donors, season-ticket holders and pare the list down from there. We have those kinds of quasi-plans in place. We have 45 suites; we always have a wonderful buffet. That’s going to change.”
O’Brien said he does worry about the possibility of upsetting those in Toledo’s fan base who are unable to gain admittance to what is likely, if any fans at all are permitted, to be a mostly empty stadium.
“We do whatever we can to get folks into our stadium,” O’Brien said. “But at the same time, to counter that, there are going to be some folks that still are fearful of going out. I’m optimistic that if we have football, we’re going to be able to allow those that want in to get in.”