NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Southeastern Conference commissioner Greg Sankey is optimistic about the odds of having sports stadiums to full capacity this coming fall following a year of reduced crowd sizes due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Exactly one year ago on Friday, the SEC put a full stop on all athletic activities — including its SEC Men’s Basketball Tournament — as concerns for the coronavirus were raised. The pause in athletic events and practices remained throughout the entirety of spring. Stadiums were re-opened for events last fall with reduced capacities in an attempt to limit the spread of COVID-19.
On Thursday during his media availability for this year’s SEC Tournament, Sankey noted that the current plan is to host a full season this fall with stadiums back to normal capacity.
“Had you asked me that question maybe not on this day a year ago but like yesterday a year ago, I would have said, we'll have full stadiums, we'll play a 12-game schedule, we'll start on Labor Day Weekend, and I will say the same to you right now,” Sankey said. “Whether that's optimism or not, one will have to evaluate. I think that's reality.
“We announced a schedule with 12 games, eight conference games starting on Labor Day Weekend. That's a plan. We know how to carry that plan out in a different way. While people are announcing their plans for stadiums, I think everyone is going to be in a situation of paying attention to what happens with vaccines, with these variants, with spread.”
While Sankey’s statement was made regarding football stadiums, the same should be expected for all fall sports. Football stadiums hold the largest capacities of any sport, so it would be safe to assume that full capacity in outside arenas of such proportions would translate to full capacity at indoor arenas such as basketball as well.
Sankey said that part of his optimism stems from the positive outlook regarding vaccine distribution and the reduction in new cases across the country.
“The good news is, really good news is rates are dropping while vaccinations are increasing, and that gives us hope to be back toward normal,” Sankey said. “I say that intentionally. I didn't say back to normal, I said back toward normal.”
Less than two weeks ago, the University of Alabama announced that it would be returning its classes to 100-percent in-person this upcoming fall semester. When asked about how that translated to Bryant-Denny Stadium, Crimson Tide director of athletics Greg Byrne stated that he expects the stadium to be at full capacity this fall after a season that saw only 20 percent of fans be allowed to attend.
While the SEC’s plan to return to full capacity in athletics stadiums is still far from ensured, Sankey said that returning to normalcy is the plan and that he and his staff will be monitoring the ongoing situation over the summer as the pandemic continues.
“We'll be planning through the summer to see if that's possible,” Sankey said. “We'll have spring practices starting, strength and conditioning taking place, so that's back toward normal, and I have optimism that that can occur, and what happens with attendance, we'll plan and we'll announce and we'll recognize that the circumstances around the virus are going to guide us in that decision making.”