Even as these trying days pass and the number of people affected in some way by COVID-19 becomes more overwhelming in its scope, it seems more clear by the day we may have sports at some point this summer.
Major League Baseball is looking into playing entire schedules of games at spring training sites in Arizona and/or Florida. The NHL is looking at ways to keep its season alive in remote locales. All of them are looking at ways to minimize health risks and make their returns as safely as possible, they’ll tell you. But, time is money, and the great quarantined masses have two things sports need to make some of that. Televisions, and time on their hands.
That said, there doesn’t seem to be any realistic plan for a major sport to return in the United States this summer that includes playing in front of a large throng of fans. That’s equal parts a bummer and a necessity in this world we’re navigating.
It seems that’s a fair compromise to get the games back. We ultimately are going to need the games if we’re going to return to some sort of normalcy in the face of a 15-round national fight with the coronavirus. Tragedy brings us together, and sports helps bring us back. It’s a time-tested formula.
That formula has never accounted for keeping fans out of the seats, though.
It’s going to be more important than ever for teams to keep fans engaged as thoroughly as they can, even while they’re in the comforts of their own living rooms, and that’s why Penn State’s idea to celebrate a long-canceled event this weekend will be one to monitor.
On Tuesday, the athletic department announced plans for what it is calling the 2020 Blue-White Virtual Tailgate, which will start Saturday at 11 a.m., the day the Nittany Lions’ annual intrasquad scrimmage was scheduled to be held before it was canceled last month.
Penn State called the initiative “an effort for fans to come together and show their Penn State pride. Fans are asked to wear white and show their Penn State spirit by hosting their own video conferences with their friends and families.”
“We don’t want groups to gather in person. We want them to do these tailgate calls virtually. We want all the participants to follow the CDC, national, state and local guidelines for the tailgate,” an athletic department spokesman said in an email, asked how the university envisioned the day going. “We are trying to give Penn State fans a way to ‘get together’ virtually on what would have been Blue-White Weekend.”
Interested fans were provided with a means of registering for a tailgate through the now-indispensible Zoom video conferencing site, with the chance to get a pop-in visit from members of the coaching staff, former players or the Nittany Lion. They’re also being asked to submit their favorite tailgate recipes to potentially be included in a virtual tailgate recipe book on the Nittany Lion Club web page. There will be a trivia contest, 360-degree videos of the Blue Band performing and the team running out of the tunnel, a Facebook Live broadcast of the 2016 classic against Ohio State, and a Penn State Coaches Radio Show at 1:30 p.m., when the game was supposed to start.
It’s not ideal. Ideally, there would be a real tailgate, the smell of burgers and barbecue chicken wafting through the parking lots, fans getting together for the first time to the fall as they look toward the fall. That’s what sports do for us. It’s not just a competition. It’s not just nonstop action on a field. It’s a chance to band together, to root for a common goal.
It’s not looking like we’ll get most of that in the spring and summer of 2020, if we get any of it at all. But if we do get games, franchises will need to find a way to do what Penn State is doing. You can have some games without the fan experience, for a while. You can’t have sports, in the long term, without it.
Donnie Collins has been a member of The Times-Tribune sports staff for nearly 20 years and has been the Penn State football beat writer for Times-Shamrock Newspapers since 2004. The Penn State Football Blog covers Nittany Lions, Big Ten and big-time college football news from Beaver Stadium to the practice field, the bowl game to National Letter of Intent Signing Day. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; 570-348-9100 x5368; @DonnieCollinsTT