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Will fans lose connection to the game while watching from afar?

There's something special about the ritual of attending sports events. And if you're used to watching games in arenas and stadiums, a little luster may be lost this year.
Tampa Bay Rays centerfielder Kevin Kiermaier signs autographs for fans before a game vs. the Detroit Tigers at Tropicana Field last August.
Tampa Bay Rays centerfielder Kevin Kiermaier signs autographs for fans before a game vs. the Detroit Tigers at Tropicana Field last August. [ Times (2019) ]
Published Jul. 2, 2020
Updated Jul. 3, 2020

Duke professor Charles T. Clotfelter compares sports fandom to a learned behavior, like writing. It’s ingrained in Americans — something they can’t forget, and if they could, they wouldn’t.

But fans may be forced to put down the proverbial pen and pencil for the remainder of this year if they’re barred from viewing sports in person.

COVID-19 cases are rapidly rising in Florida and in the Tampa Bay area. Rays fans, now that a season is finally in place, are waiting to hear whether they will have to watch games from outside of the confines of Tropicana Field while Buccaneers fans hold out a slim hope for weekend trips to Raymond James Stadium.

“The experience of being at a game gives individuals something that they don’t get anywhere else,” said Clotfelter, a public policy expert and author of Big-Time Sports in American Universities. “There’s nothing like a football game or basketball game where there are these ritualized responses, and with a massive number of people doing something at the same time.”

The closeness fans feel to their teams may be hampered by more than social distancing this summer and fall if baseball is played in empty, echoing stadiums and if football faces the same fate.

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“You have hundreds of thousands of devoted fans that are going to tune in to the games, and you have thousands of fans who have the money and the wherewithal to go to the game,” Clotfelter said. “Well, that last part seems unlikely to be happening.”

Some NFL teams and universities, like the Steelers and Iowa football, have prepared for potential limited capacity. But most have punted when it comes to making mid-summer decisions on having fans in seats. It’s a huge portion of revenue and frankly makes up a large part of the at-home fan experience, too, seeing and hearing the roar of a crowd decked out in your team’s colors.

Michael Matthews is going to miss the bonding time that he and his son, Simon, have at Rays games if they are closed to the public. Michael, 52, and Simon, 13, make the drive from south Tampa for about a dozen games a year.

Simon, a fan of Rays centerfielder Kevin Kiermaier, is a catcher on a travel team in Tampa, so he also favors Mike Zunino, Michael said.

Simon Matthews, left, and his father, Michael, right.
Simon Matthews, left, and his father, Michael, right. [ Courtesy of Michael Matthews ]

“We can sit there and just cheer on our favorite players and guess on what the next pitch is going to be and what the batter is going to do and just live baseball for a couple hours,” the elder Matthews said.

Bill Werther, a Rays fan since 2009 who lives in Gainesville, comes to St. Petersburg for at least eight games every season. Since that may not be an option, and in a normal year he would have been to a few games already, he can’t wait for the Rays to be on TV starting in late July.

Related: What happens to the home-field advantage without fans?

Werther, 54, doesn’t anticipate making the drive for any Bucs games this season either. He is recovering from Stage IV metastatic bladder cancer and worries about his health.

He is also a Florida football fan, but does have tentative plans to see the Gators play in Oxford, Miss., against Ole Miss in October.

“I’m just gonna have to play it by ear and figure out if I want to go in there and do all that because I love doing it, or if I were to just try to be more safe and not get corona(virus),” he said.

Werther, a self-described extrovert, said what he’ll miss the most this season is running into friends and acquaintances while tailgating.

“This is one of the things that makes life worth living,” Clotfelter said of attending and watching games. “And no, it’s not the same level as actual deaths. It doesn’t rise to losing a job, and what that means to somebody, but it’s not nothing.”