On March 7, 2020 Rutgers got its first ever win in West Lafayette, beating Purdue 71-68 in overtime and handing our Boilermakers a fifth loss at home on the season. The five losses (Texas, Penn State, Illinois, Michigan, and Rutgers) were more than the previous four seasons combined and they dropped Purdue to 16-16 on the season, all but ending any hopes of reaching the NCAA Tournament.
Five days later the world essentially shut down. All sports were cancelled. Aside from a 19-1 win for baseball at Western Kentucky the day after the Rutgers loss, Purdue sports have been in cold storage for the last two and a half months. I am not going to go all “This really puts sports into perspective” on people here, but everything has been a shock to the system. Dealing with a viral outbreak such as this hasn’t really happened since the 1918 influenza pandemic, and part of the frustration lies in the uncertainty.
I am not going to go into all of the politics behind this because that will only cause gnashing of teeth and the closing of comments (and yes, I WILL close comments and issue bans if things go too far one way or the other. This is the lone warning.). The bottom line is we do not have a lot of answers to this. When do you truly lift restrictions? How does a vaccine change things and when does it come? What if there really is a “second wave” in the fall? It is a virus, so what if there is a mutation? How do you find balance in terms of testing, distancing, and other factors? Most importantly, when does this all truly end?
Over the last couple weeks many things are starting to open up all over the country. No matter what you think of this, a slow re-opening is currently happening and we will know in the next few weeks if it was wise or not. The same is true for Purdue as a university, as President Mitch Daniels announced that classes will, indeed resume in the fall:
The fall academic semester will consist of traditional classroom instruction from Aug. 24 to Nov. 24, with the rest of the semester completed remotely after Thanksgiving. What the spring 2021 semester will look like remains to be seen.
There are a lot of guidelines in place to this, which I do think is smart. Getting through the next 6-12 months while being smart about it is critical. The campus re-opening will require masks for anyone entering a campus building and (and this is important) an “outdoor crowded place”.
That last point clearly pertains to Ross-Ade Stadium and the upcoming 2020 football season. As things stand right now, that season is still scheduled to start in 101 days at Nebraska (which will have its own stipulations in place as well). Will there be fans, however?
None of the major professional sports leagues in the U.S. has announced a return plan involving fans in the stands as yet. Yesterday the NHL announced its return plan with play starting up in hub cities and the playoffs beginning in late July at best. The NBA seems headed towards something similar, with baseball being quiet.
As for college football, we just don’t know. The single indication we have of anything comes from Iowa State:
Pollard also acknowledged that though state guidelines may be changing over time, right now attendance at Jack Trice Stadium would need to be limited to around 50 percent capacity. So for now the university is planning on limiting capacity to 30,000 spectators.
There would also be a further limitation that ONLY season ticket holders would be able to go, and there would be no single game tickets available. For Purdue, that would mean even less people as per the Exponent:
Just under 14,000 season tickets were renewed and around 1,000 new tickets were purchased for the 2020 football season, according to Purdue Athletics.
Despite the possibility of a cancelled season as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, these numbers are ”nearly identical” to last season, according to Tom Moreland, associate athletics director for strategic initiatives.
By last June Purdue had sold around 21,500 season tickets, with more sold in June, July, and August to reach almost 33,000. The season before it sold 24,415 total season tickets. Being under 15,000 as we approach the end of May means significantly smaller crowds if Purdue has a similar “season tickets only” policy. The overall average attendance last season was 54,021 fans, the highest it has been in years. All seven home games were over 50,000 fans with a high of 60,037 against TCU. The lowest attended game of the last four seasons was against Wisconsin in 2016, with a paid attendance of 30,465 (and that was the paid attendance, actual attendance was far less).
That Wisconsin game is probably what you’re looking at, assuming there are ANY fans in the stands. I was in Bankers Life Fieldhouse on March 13 when the Big Ten Tournament was cancelled just minutes before Michigan and Rutgers were set to play in an empty arena. That was a haunting experience, and one only needs to look at the German Bundesliga to see what empty stadium games are like overall. It is not great, but at this point I would take it, as I am watching the German Bundesliga (shoutout to 1. FC Union Berlin and PLEASE REMEMBER HOW TO SCORE GOALS!). At this point I would even watch an NBA game.
The fact that there is a re-opening plan in place for August at least feels like a modicum of hope. Humanity can’t hide away from this forever, but there is a fine line between staying away for months and beginning a cautious reopening of society. What many states, and now Purdue, are doing seems like the right thing. We’re not throwing the gates open with reckless abandon and consequences be damned, but we’re also not shutting things down and praying a vaccine comes in 12 months and solves everything for us.
There is also the factor of the players and support staff returning. The absolute earliest players can return to begin training is June 1. This is another area where risk is involved. If there is a slow return and nothing happens, great! If there is a return and spike in cases, that is another huge setback. At some point we have to move forward, however.
I tend to think there will be a 2020 season in at least some form, mostly because there is too much money at stake. College athletic departments already lost a ton of money when the NCAA Tournament was cancelled. Losing that AND football would be a devastating blow from a financial perspective. The money involved is going to make a lot of decisions that scientists studying this thing won’t like. Whether those decisions are right or wrong remains to be seen.
I do not think we will see full stands, however. What transpires as society reopens over the next few months will determine A LOT of things both in the sports world and in American society at large. If there is a huge spike again, there is no way we have any fans and there will be further cancellations. If things stay level and we start to see this die down, there is hope. We likely won’t know a lot until July 4th at the earliest.
As always, we will continue to wait, but at least there is a small step of hope.