Sports Are Returning — But For The Most Part, Fans Aren't
Since 1979, Roy Turner has been fixture on the Wichita sports scene, first with the Wichita Wings indoor soccer team and now with the Wichita Open golf tournament.
And for every one of those years, his job included attracting fans.
"I've been 40 years in this town, basically selling tickets," Turner said, his voice still sprinkled with an accent from his native Liverpool. "And now I've got a plan to keep tickets in my pocket and keep people away. It's just a brand new thing for me."
Thanks to the pandemic, it’s a whole new ball game for sporting events.
While sports, for the most part, have returned, fans haven’t.
Some teams — like Kansas State football and the Chiefs — are allowing a limited number of socially distanced fans.
Others, like Wichita Thunder hockey and Wichita State University basketball, wonder what the pandemic will mean for their upcoming seasons. And then there’s this week’s Wichita Open golf tournament at Crestview Country Club, which has barred fans entirely. It’s a particularly cruel fate for the event, which was named the top tournament on the Korn Ferry Tour last year, in part because of increased attendance.
"It's a kick in the rear, to be honest with you," Turner said.
But such is sports these days.
Both the NBA and NHL are holding their playoffs with no fans. Baseball has played its shortened season— and will play its postseason — with no spectators.
The NFL has fans in some stadiums, but not others. Same for college football.
Turner said the atmosphere fans create is important to athletes. Before becoming a sports executive, he played soccer professionally in the 1960s and ’70s in the North American Soccer League.
That included a match in front of 50,000 fans at Giants Stadium.
"It's electric. It's wonderful," he said. "It does everything for you.
"I mean, I'm looking at these athletes now. They're going out there and playing with no crowds. No matter what they say, it's totally different. I mean, your adrenaline is just like a practice game, a scrimmage game … it's just like nothing ever before."
And Turner said the same holds true for golf, a notoriously sedate sport where fans, for the most part, are instructed to remain quiet.
"Obviously they’re great competitors, they’re great athletes," Turner said of the players on the Korn Ferry Tour, which acts as a stepping-stone to the PGA Tour.
"But I don't care what they say: You've got to miss a crowd, whatever you do. Everybody wants the adulation."
Major professional and college sports can afford to play their seasons without fans because of revenue they earn from lucrative television contracts.
Minor league teams, like the Wichita Thunder, aren’t as fortunate.
General manager Joel Lomurno says 80% to 90% of the team’s revenue is related to fans — from ticket sales to concessions to merchandise.
"Fans are of the utmost importance," he said.
The Thunder’s season ended abruptly last March because of the pandemic. That cost the team seven home games, including a throwback night honoring the Wichita Wind, the Thunder’s predecessor. The start of this season has been delayed until at least December, although Lomurno says it could push back even later as the NHL finishes up play.
"I think when everything shut down in March, I think everybody thought this would be over in a couple of months. I think I did," Lomurno said. "Summer rolls around, it will start to go away. It hasn’t."
The team has submitted a plan to Sedgwick County to allow 4,700 fans to attend games when the season starts. That’s about a third of the seats in Intrust Bank Arena.
WSU athletic officials also say they are communicating with the city and county about guidelines for fans in Koch Arena when Shocker basketball resumes in late November.
Lomurno says the typical Thunder fan has evolved over the years, from "guys that liked to drink beer and see some fights," to families with kids. He said they’re the reason the Thunder will — eventually —begin its 29th season.
"Fans, not just Wichita for minor league sports, are the lifeblood,” he said. "Without fans, there is no game."