White Paper: When They Return to Play, Will We Return to the Stands?

An Examination of Consumer Intentions to Attend Sport and Entertainment Events and Engage in Related-Travel Activities

Stephen Shapiro and Todd Koesters, University of South Carolina

The COVID-19 pandemic led to widespread postponement and cancellation of sporting events and other forms of entertainment.  As a result, travel and transportation related to these events have also been slowed down considerably. An additional, and perhaps more challenging, aspect of this pandemic is the uncertainty regarding future events of this nature.

Sport and entertainment organizations find themselves in a holding pattern, and there is no timeline for consumers to consider regarding the length of this outbreak or when it will be safe to resume normal activities. Although many U.S. sport leagues are starting to resume training and have tentative schedules for sporting events that will be played without a live audience (“Impact of COVID-19”, 2020), there is no specific timetable for spectator attendance at these events, and it is unknown how comfortable fans will be attending large gatherings when they are permitted (Murphy, 2020).

With the heightened level of uncertainty in mind, it is important to understand the likelihood of U.S. consumers to attend sport and entertainment events (and associated travel and transportation) once these events are allowed to resume.

Therefore, we investigated consumers’ intentions related to sport, entertainment, and associated travel once these opportunities are available.

An online survey protocol was developed and data were collected during the first week of April 2020 via a consumer panel organized through Amazon Mechanical Turk (MTurk). Certain protocols were considered when using a crowdsharing panel source for data collection (Hauser & Schwarz, 2016; Kees, Berry, Burton, & Sheehan, 2017).

To ensure an effective and representative sample through Mturk, multiple filtering and attention check procedures were implemented throughout the online survey.  These strategies enhance the authenticity of a respondent and reduce the number of individuals motivated by monetary incentives alone.

A total of 406 completed surveys were collected, with a margin of error rate of approximately +/- 4.5%. The surveys included demographic information, intentions to resume attendance at sport and entertainment events and associated travel shortly after resumption of activities and over a longer period of time. Additionally, consumer interest in sport, and avidity towards various sport leagues were considered to assess the impact on various aspects of the U.S. spectator sport industry.

The sample was primarily male (52.5%) with an annual income of $50,000 – $100,000 (42.4%) and at least a 4-year college degree (67%). In terms of geographic location, the largest group of participants resided in the southern states (39.2%), followed by the northeast (23.9%). The vast majority of participants identified themselves as sports fans (78.8%).

Respondents were asked to rate how likely they were to attend sport and entertainment events within the first two weeks after restrictions are lifted in their area and businesses reopen. When asked specifically about attending large sporting events, the results showed most fans were unlikely to attend, with 58% responding negatively, 9% remaining neutral, and 33% responding positively.

Table 1. Likeliness to attend sport and entertainment events within the first 2 weeks of restrictions lifting

Respondents were then asked to rate how many days it will take for them to be comfortable attending sport and entertainment activities after restrictions are lifted. When asked specifically about attending large sport events, the results showed an average of 57 days.

These results suggest once this pandemic is over, sport attendance is not going return to normal immediately after games are scheduled and the lights are turned on.

The data from this study suggest 33% of fans were likely to attend sporting events within two weeks, but the average fan indicated they would wait almost two months before being comfortable attending these events. Additionally respondents were asked about attending other forms of entertainment, including concerts/theater, social gatherings with 1,000+ people, and eating at a dine-in restaurant. When focusing on sport fans specifically, the likelihood of consuming other forms of entertainment followed a similar pattern to large sporting events.

The majority of sports fans were unlikely to attend a concert/theater event (57% negative, 12% neutral, and 31% positive) or attend a social gathering of 1,000+ people (63% negative, 11% neutral, 26% positive). Eating at a dine-in restaurant was the only entertainment activity yielding a positive response, as 58% of sports fans were at least somewhat likely to dine out two weeks after restaurants reopen. This result is most likely attributed to the size of typical dine-in restaurants where consumers will not encounter large crowds.

Table 2. Likeliness to attend other forms of entertainment

Consumers were also asked how likely they were to engage in travel activities associated with entertainment events, including traveling more than 50 miles from home, air travel, hotel lodging, and ground transportation (i.e., taxi or rideshare).  Sports fans responded in much the same way as entertainment consumption, with 32% likely to travel by airplane or stay in a hotel, and 37% likely to use a rideshare service after restrictions are lifted.

Table 3. Likeliness to engage in travel activities

Interestingly, when examining differences in intentions between sports fans and non-sports fans, it appears sports fans are more likely to engage in entertainment and travel-related activities within the first two weeks after restrictions are lifted. Additionally, the average number of days it will take sports fans to feel comfortable attending these activities is lower.

In addition to sporting events, sports fans were more likely to feel comfortable attending, most other activities and related-travel as well. For example, sport fans were 72% more likely to attend social gatherings of 1,000 people or more and would feel comfortable attending these events approximately 3.5 days sooner (58 days compared to 61.6 days on average). Sport fans were also more likely to dine out (+20.1%), attend concert/theater events (+57%), travel by air (+58%), and stay in a hotel (+38.7%).

Demographic differences, between sports fans specifically, also produced interesting results regarding likelihood to return to large sporting events within the first two weeks after restrictions are lifted. Males (38%) were more likely to return within the first two weeks compared to females (27%). Sports fans over the age of 55 (41%) and under the age of 25 (18- 24: 39%) were more likely to return than middle aged groups. Households with higher reported income levels ($150,001+: 41%) were more likely to return than households with lower reported incomes ($75,001 – $150,000: 34%; $75,000 or less: 32%).

Geographic differences, based on the U.S. Census’ four region model, showed some important results. Not surprisingly, the West (64 days) and Northeast (63 days) regions, which include states heavily impacted by COVID19 (i.e., California and New York) reported the highest number of days before feeling comfortable participating in entertainment related activities and associated travel. However, surprisingly, the West Region showed the greatest willingness to return within the first two weeks at 52% compared to the Mid-West Region (24%), the Northeast Region (24%), and the South Region (29%).

Table 4. Likeliness to attend sport events based on demographics

In addition to comparing sport vs non-sport fans and variances among sport fan demographics, we examined consumer interest levels for various sport leagues and grouped sports fans based on league interest. Consumers were asked to rate their interest in each league based on a 10-point scale with 1 being “Not at all Interested” and 10 being “Extremely Interested.” For analysis purposes, respondents who answered 1 were excluded. Fans were then grouped as High Interest Fans (those recording scores of 10, 9, or 8), Medium Interest Fans (those recording 7, 6, or 5), and Low Interest Fans (those recording scores of 4, 3, or 2). Below are the results for the groups, related percentages by league, and sample size.

Table 5. Sport fandom based on sport league

In every scenario, High Interest Fans showed a much more positive outcome for returning to large sporting events within the first two weeks after restrictions are lifted. Likewise, with one exception (the NFL), Medium Interest Fans showed a much more positive outcome over Low Interest Fans. Not surprisingly, Low Interest Fans showed more negative responses than positive responses.

Table 6. Sport fandom by return to sport

Therefore, teams with more Higher Interest Fans (compared to their league average) should see more positive gate revenues in the first two weeks after restrictions are lifted. For example, generalized for every 10,000 fans, the average Major League Baseball (MLB) team, based on respondents from this study, had an interest level break down of 49% High Interest Fans (4,900), 31% Medium Interest Fans (3,100), and 20% Low Interest Fans (2,000).

The numbers below show for MLB, 44% of High Interest Fans, 34% of Medium Interest Fans, and 20% of Low Interest Fans are likely to return within the first two weeks after restrictions are lifted. Generalized for every 10,000 fans, the average MLB team should see 3,610 fans for every 10,000 fans. Thus, if the average MLB team has normal home game attendance of 30,000, this study shows a potential attendance number of 10,830 for each game played within the first two weeks after restrictions are lifted. Teams with more High Interest Fans, may see even greater numbers while teams with less High Interest Fans, may see lower numbers.

Table 7. MLB Return to sport results

In summary, the results from this study show a hesitancy on the part of sports fans to jump immediately back to normal entertainment consumption once the COVID-19 pandemic slows down.

However, sports fan respondents in this study showed they are on average 2.5 times more likely to return to entertainment and travel activities within the first two weeks after restrictions are lifted. For teams looking to show positive attendance numbers, this study also shows another 15% of fans on average between the leagues that reported as either “Neutral” or “Somewhat Unlikely” when asked about returning to large sporting events with the first two weeks.

Teams must work with league offices and their staffs to create and communicate social distancing and other “clean” solutions they plan to implement at their venues once games resume in order to instill confidence in consumers regarding increased safety at sport and entertainment events.

Results from this study also showed variances among demographics (age, gender, household income, etc.), region of the country, different sport leagues, and interest level of fans. The more data teams and leagues can gather during different stages of this pandemic can help them make more informed decisions.


Hauser, D. J., & Schwarz, N. (2016). Attentive Turkers: MTurk participants perform better on online attention checks than do subject pool participants. Behavior Research Methods, 48(1), 400-407.

Impact of COVID-19 pandemic on sports events around the world. (2020, May 25). Reuters. Retrieved from https://uk.reuters.com/article/uk-health-coronavirus-sport/impact-of-covid-19-pandemic-on-sports-events-around-the-world-idUKKBN231245

Kees, J., Berry, C., Burton, S., & Sheehan, K. (2017). An analysis of data quality: Professional panels, student subject pools, and Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. Journal of Advertising, 46(1), 141-155.

Murphy, D. (2020, May 10). For spectator sports, will COVID-19 hasten the end of a golden age already in its twilight? The Philadelphia Inquirer. Retrieved from https://www.inquirer.com/phillies/pro-sports-attendance-coronavirus-lockdown-mlb-nba-nfl-tickets-20200510.html

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