For Matt Bevan, Temple University football games are much more than a run-of-the-mill sports spectator experience.
“It’s hard to put in words, but the stadium environment on game day is pretty electrifying,” said Bevan, a 2018 journalism alumnus. “Seeing all the student participation, not only from fans but athletes, cheerleaders and the marching band, makes you more invested in Temple, and for me at least made me want to become more involved in all things Temple-related.”
During the past year, the COVID-19 pandemic has made in-person attendance at Temple athletic events nearly nonexistent for students and alumni, from Temple’s die-hard Owl fans to incoming freshmen who have yet to attend a game.
The process of getting fans back in the stands at Temple athletic events has been gradual and contingent on current social gathering guidelines set by the state. On March 10, Temple Athletics announced they would allow minimal attendance at outdoor athletic events, allotting a limited number of tickets to Temple athletes and coaches, The Temple News reported.
Shortly after on March 15, restrictions were further loosened when Gov. Tom Wolf revised social distancing guidelines beginning April 4, which increased indoor event capacities from 15 to 25 percent and increased outdoor event capacities from 20 to 50 percent maximum occupancy, The Temple News reported.
While the recent news of loosening restrictions bodes well for the gradual return of in-person attendance at future Temple athletic events, the last year of empty stadiums and dwindling fan engagement has affected the university on several levels, ranging from changes to the student experience to new facility management practices.
Lee Roberts, senior associate athletic director for facilities and event management, said despite revised social distancing guidelines and an increasing number of people getting vaccinated, the return of a pre-pandemic stadium experience, without masks and social distancing, is still a long way off.
“Even with loosening restrictions, we’re still far from business as usual when it comes to in-person fan attendance, and we’re expecting that to continue into the fall of 2021, depending on the announcement of new guidelines of course,” Roberts said.
Prior to the pandemic, Howarth Field, Temple’s outdoor stadium venue, reached capacity at 500 people. But adhering to new state guidelines, which require six feet of distance between fans, the stadium can currently only accommodate 98 attendees.
Among Temple students and alumni, in-person athletic events serve as both an important social outlet and a way to cultivate a sense of community and pride in the university. Yet despite the large presence of college sports on most college campuses across the country, in 2019, nationwide attendance at college football games hit a 24-year low, CBS News reported.
Acknowledging the nationwide decline in attendance at college athletic events, Temple University Athletics has implemented marketing strategies intended to increase student participation in Temple sports in recent years, from pushing hashtags like #FilltheLinc to starting Cherry on Friday, where students are encouraged to wear university colors, The Temple News reported.
As the United States reaches a new stage in the COVID-19 pandemic and stadiums and event venues reopen, the fate of in-person attendance at Temple athletic events remains uncertain.
Some students, however, like Olivia-Anne Eisner, remain hesitant to attend Temple football games this coming fall.
“It’s definitely going to take some time for me to warm up to the idea of being in a large crowd, even after vaccinations are done and things are like, safe,” said Eisner, a sophomore media studies and production major. “Right now, just the idea of being in a packed stadium gives me anxiety, and I think it’s going to take a while for that to fade.”
AN INDUSTRY-WIDE SHIFT
Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Christine Cleaver, a tourism and hospitality management professor, has closely monitored changes to the in-person event industry and how its adapted throughout the pandemic.
“The in-person event industry as we knew it has been flipped upside down, which has been extremely damaging but has also forced us to change and adapt in some really unique ways,” Cleaver said. “The shift to virtual event hosting platforms has been the largest of those adaptations.”
A July 2020 report from financial analyst Trends Exchange forecasted that the virtual events industry would grow from $78 billion to $774 billion by 2030.
But for student organizations like the Cherry Crusade, whose mission is to bolster school spirit through student attendance at Temple athletic events, hosting events virtually has limited efficacy, said Matthew Box, a sophomore business management major and treasurer of the Cherry Crusade.
“From the beginning, the strategy of our organization has been to be there in the stands bringing the most energy and enthusiasm as we can in supporting our athletic teams when they compete,” Box said. “While I think it’s great that virtual events are becoming more popular, I don’t think it’s an effective substitute for what we are trying to do.”
A successful return to in-person attendance at Temple athletic events will rely on students’ trust in the overall safety of the experience, Cleaver said.
Current social gathering guidelines from the City of Philadelphia recommend the continued use of masks at all times and limit indoor event venues to 15 percent maximum occupancy and outdoor venues to 20 percent maximum occupancy.
“While virtual events are rarely anyone’s first choice, what they have been able to do is guarantee the absolute safety of those who participate,” Cleaver said. “No matter how desperate people are to experience in-person events after a year in lockdown, if the risks continue to outweigh the benefits, it won’t become a reality.”
New strategies to increase safety at in-person events are becoming more common, like the use of color-coded wristbands to communicate an attendee’s comfort with being approached or conversing with others during in-person functions, Cleaver said.
Yet, students like Pat Gallagher expressed little interest in the possibility of attending a Temple athletic event held virtually.
“After a year of online classes, the last thing I want to do is sit in front of a computer screen,” said Gallagher, a sophomore business management major. “I’m used to watching professional basketball and football on TV, but when it comes to Temple games, there’s a pretty low chance I would engage if it wasn’t happening in person.”
Roberts oversees the maintenance and upkeep of Temple’s athletic venues and facilities, manages the game operations of all athletic events, and has helped organize multiple conferences and national championships.
In Roberts’ 36 years at Temple, the last year of the COVID-19 pandemic has been the most logistically complicated because of changing guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and new facility procedures aimed at maintaining cleanliness, he said.
“Beyond all the changes to our facility management practices, the really complicated aspect of the past year has been trying to maintain that bubble, as it’s described, around our student-athletes to prevent their possible exposure to the virus,” Roberts said.
Temple’s athletic teams faced a tumultuous past year due to complications related to COVID-19, with positive tests from student-athletes leading to multiple game postponements and cancelations, The Temple News reported.
In the absence of fan attendance at Temple athletic events, facilities management staff took measures to bring some sense of normalcy to their competition venues, Roberts said.
“I know firsthand that for athletes, the presence of fans and also friends and family in the stands makes a big difference,” Roberts said. “We put cut-outs in stadium seats and kept the usual in-game music and announcing over the stadium speakers.”
In managing Temple’s athletic facilities throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, constantly cleaning surfaces with different chemical disinfectants is an everyday priority, Roberts said.
“Let’s just say, over the past year, I’ve learned more about chemicals than I would have ever liked to,” Roberts said. “We have a disinfectant chemical for our basketballs, our footballs, even our gymnastics equipment.”
An April 5 report from the CDC reported that the risk of contracting COVID-19 through contact with surfaces is considered low.
Sufficient ventilation remains one of the most important safety measures in bringing fans back into Temple’s athletic venues, Roberts said.
“As we’ve learned, airflow is a really important factor in mitigating the spread of the virus,” he added. “This is going to make fan attendance at our outdoor venues much more feasible than for our indoor sports.”
As of March 26, Roberts said Temple’s Fall 2021 football games are still expected to take place at Lincoln Financial Field, the stadium venue of the Philadelphia Eagles, where Temple’s football team has hosted home games since 2003.
STUDENTS LOOK TO FALL
Before the pandemic, Temple sporting events were an important social outlet and a source of school pride and identity, said Courtney Green, a sophomore undeclared major.
“My dad is an alum and a huge Owls fan, so before coming to Temple, one of the things I was most excited about was going to games,” Green said. “The social aspect was a big appeal to me, for sure, but so was the opportunity to show my school pride and be a part of something bigger.”
Eisner’s first Temple football games were a formative part of her freshman year experience, and she sympathizes with first-year students who were deprived of football and other sporting events due to the pandemic.
“I’m not even that into sports, but piling up into those buses, tailgating and watching the games allowed me to meet so many people I wouldn’t have otherwise,” Eisner said.
In the past, Box said that the Cherry Crusade’s energetic presence in the stands of Temple athletic events has been one of their most effective methods in recruiting other students to the organization.
Members of the Cherry Crusade are eager to get back in the stands next fall, regardless of required social distancing measures and other safety protocols, Box said.
“Obviously, the safety of our members is the most important thing,” he added. “But we really can’t wait to support the Temple football team, whether we’re six feet apart or not. The pandemic has been really tough on us, no denying that, but we have a mentality that win or lose, rain or shine, pandemic or not, we’re gonna do our best to show up for Temple sports.”