Some NFL teams have already acknowledged their limited capacity for the season, and the city of Philadelphia has said there won’t be fans at all for Eagles games this year.
But all sports enterprises will be watching NASCAR tonight, as the first large-scale crowd attends an event during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Between 20,000 and 30,000 fans are expected for tonight’s All-Star Race tonight at Bristol Motor Speedway, a facility that can seat around 160,000.
“We know that hosting this event comes with tremendous responsibility,” Bristol Motor Speedway General Manager Jerry Caldwell told Mike Hembree of USA Today. “We are the first major sporting event to have a significant crowd. We don’t take that responsibility lightly.
“This is an opportunity for us to demonstrate to the country how we can go back to doing some of the things we love to do in a safe and responsible way. This is where we live. It’s a great responsibility.”
The speedway has taken steps to try to keep that crowd safe, including spacing seated customers in small social distancing groups, requiring fans to wear masks except when in their seats, employees are required to wear marks, and all food and souvenir purchases will be cashless. The speedway also said that by buying tickets, fans are “assuming all risks of exposure to COVID-19” and release the track from any claims.
“We know that some of the things we’re putting in place are going to be a temporary inconvenience,” Caldwell said. “We view that really as a small price to pay.”
Other race tracks are also planning to throw the doors open. The Indy 500 has placed a 50 percent capacity limit on the Aug. 23 race, but that could easily go beyond 100,000 fans. Texas Motor Speedway has also declared a 50 percent maximum for the July 19, though track officials doubt they’ll reach that 60,000 number.
Realistically, concerns about the virus will dampen attendance even where it’s allowed, but tonight’s race will be an interesting experiment that football businesses (college and pro) will be watching.