Welcome Back, Fans–What We Know About Sports League’s Plans to Return to Full Capacity

JANUARY 19: Patrick Mahomes of the Kansas City Chiefs takes the field in front of a packed stadium before the AFC Championship Game against the Tennessee Titans at Arrowhead Stadium on January 19, 2020 in Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo by David Eulitt/Getty Images)

After over a year of quiet stadiums, a return to normalcy in the sports world is on the horizon.

We can finally bid cardboard cutouts ado as many stadiums have announced a return to full capacity. This news is a complete turnaround from the realities of the 2020, which was defined by a completely fanless experience for the majority of sports seasons. At last, it is looking like the beginning of the end of COVID-19, and the beginning of a big business boom for the sports world.

Both the National Football League (NFL) and the National Basketball Association (NBA) shared plans to operate at full capacity for the 2021–2022 seasons. With kickoff just five months away, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell is optimistic that all NFL league stadiums can expect to host fans once again, and that the football world can finally return to life before the pandemic. The progress on the vaccination front has been promising, but the league will need to continue to take a leading role in pushing for vaccinations for all players and personnel, as well as continuing its strict testing and masking mandates. Similarly, the NBA points to the rising vaccination rates and widespread COVID-19 testing as a promising way in which arenas can welcome fans again. The NBA’s reported optimism is in part due to a multi-year partnership with biometric screening company, Clear. Clear hosts an application that allows fans entering the arena to respond to COVID-19 health survey questions and provide proof of vaccination to help determine entrance eligibility. While the NBA’s partnership is unique right now, it is likely that partnerships such as this will become typical for sports leagues as they learn to navigate a safe return to full capacity.

Mercedes-Benz stadium is one venue that has prepared for a sellout stadium. Home to the Atlanta Falcons (NFL) and the Atlanta United (MLS), this 71,000 seat stadium in Atlanta, Georgia is thrilled to ditch the cardboard cutouts once and for all.

“We are excited to bring our fans back to Mercedes-Benz Stadium,” says Steve Cannon, CEO, AMB Sports and Entertainment (parent company of Mercedes-Benz stadium). “Given the increased opportunity for Georgians to be vaccinated, the abundant health protocols we have in place at the stadium and the interest from our season ticket members, we felt that now is the right time to re-open the stadium in full capacity allowing all our season ticket members a chance to enjoy watching their teams in person. We will continue to follow the necessary precautions to give fans a safe and clean environment.”

The stadium will operate at 100% capacity for the first time in over a year on March 15th, when the Atlanta United hosts CF Montreal in the MLS regular season.

Major League Baseball is also excited to begin a return to full capacity, starting with Atlanta Braves’ home stadium, Truist Park. Normal seating will begin May 7th on the Braves’ third homestand of the season against the Philadelphia Phillies.

Truist Park. Photo by: Hyosub Shin/ AJC

“We have had great success welcoming our fans back safely to Truist Park,” said Derek Schiller, president and CEO of the Atlanta Braves. “Our outdoor environment, the demand from our season ticket holders and fans to watch us play in person plus safety measures which are in place make it feel that now is the right time to get back to full capacity at Truist Park.”

While Mercedes-Benz Stadium and Truist Park are the first to resume full capacity seating, it is looking promising that many other sports arenas and stadiums can follow suit by the end of summer, assuming abundant health protocols are effectively put in place. Fans can finally look forward to watching their favorite teams in-person, and enjoy sports as they should be watched–with spectators in the stadiums, cheering their teams on communally.

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