Vaccine Provides Hope, But Sports And Concerts Keep Live Event Plans Flexible

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Despite recent positive progress that a COVID vaccine is moving closer to becoming a reality, when it comes to the resumption of the activities, sports and shows that constitute “normal life,” event planners say they still lack the visibility and confidence to safely stage large, crowded events.

With professional basketball, baseball and hockey all temporarily idled between seasons, the NFL’s team-by-team patchwork response to the pandemic literally changes each week. Current solutions range from no fans allowed in cities like New York, Detroit and Green Bay, to capacity caps of 12 to 20 percent in Tennessee and Miami, to hard headcount cutoffs of 4,200 in Arizona and 12,000 in Cleveland.

College sports have also added to the confusion, where Ivy League schools last week canceled all winter sports events, putting pressure and casting doubt on other programs that are so far attempting to move forward with limited basketball and hockey games.

“It’s going to be a wild year and we’re all going to be adjusting on the fly,” Atlanta Hawks GM Travis Schlenk said on a conference call on Monday (Nov. 16), Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter Sarah Spencer posted on her Twitter feed.

Like the NBA, the National Hockey League is also attempting to find a way to resume pre-season play in mid-December, and is contemplating plans that could see the return of games to home arenas or hold them in select cities that have the fewest COVID cases.

“Some of the difficulties that [Major League] Baseball went through and some of the difficulties that the NFL is currently dealing with, how do we address those situations in the context of our own schedule? Those are all the things we’re working on and those are all the things that keep us all up at night as we try to figure this out,” NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said on Friday.

Undying Demand

As much as professional, collegiate and amateur sports leagues are all navigating the same pandemic minefield of differing state and local health requirements as well as individual comfort levels, the one thing that everyone agrees on is that after more than eight months of lockdowns and life changes, pandemic fatigue is real.

While the timing and route that “the way forward” will ultimately take is still highly unpredictable, the world’s largest concert and event ticketing firm said earlier this month that it still sees “enduring demand” across the board for live events.

“Our sales and survey data tell us fan demand will be there when the time is right. Our refund rate on rescheduled shows remains consistently low, with 83 percent of fans globally keeping their tickets,” Michael Rapino, president and CEO of Live Nation Entertainment, told investors on Nov. 5 as the company reported its third-quarter earnings. “Our recent global survey indicates that 95 percent of fans are planning to return to live music events when restrictions are lifted, the highest point of confidence since the start of the pandemic,” he added.

For its part, Live Nation said it is currently developing safety standards for its own venues in collaboration with health officials, ranging from venue sanitation procedures to fan-friendly policies on ticket purchases to the latest testing options to give “fans, crews and artists peace of mind before, during and after the show.”

At the same time, Live Nation’s Ticketmaster division is taking a different tack, and has released a SmartEvent platform that it said gives event organizers the ability to adapt protocols to meet evolving needs of capacity, distancing and other logistics throughout the reopening journey for concerts, sports games, comedy shows and other events.

“As we look ahead, it is clear that the path to live will not be a straight line. As such, we will maintain flexibility and focus on innovating during this time,” Rapino said.

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