It's difficult to imagine more than 65,000 fans crowding into Gillette Stadium in September to watch the New England Patriots' home opener. Unless you're Jonathan Kraft.
The Patriots president spoke on a virtual "life after COVID" panel at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference late last week and laid out why he believes Gillette Stadium should be at full capacity for games by the 2021 season.
"Once vaccines have been available in a community for a long enough period of time where anyone who’s wanted one could’ve gotten it and reached two weeks past their second shot, just to take the outlying point, then I don’t know why you shouldn’t be at full capacity,” Kraft said, via The Boston Globe's Michael Silverman.
"It’s sort of intellectually dishonest to say we’re going to be at a quarter percent of capacity even though theoretically you have herd immunity in the local population. At some point you have to get back to living your lives."
Sports venues in Massachusetts are currently capped at 12% capacity as the state continues its vaccine rollout. The vaccine will be available to all adults beginning April 19, however, and Kraft believes enough people will be vaccinated by August and September to create an environment where COVID isn't a significant risk in a full stadium.
"As President Biden said, April 19, (the vaccine’s) available to everybody in America," Kraft said. "Clearly, there’s a backlog so let’s say anybody who really wants it will have it by June 1 or June 15 -- we’re still months out from the start of the NFL season (in August)."
Kraft's thought process is logical, but even if a majority of the public is vaccinated by late summer/early fall, will fans flock back to sporting events in pre-COVID levels? Jessica Gelman, the CEO of Kraft Analytics Group, warned of a potential dip in attendance.
"What we’re seeing, and this is very early data, but for teams that have had 15-plus games, initially there’s huge pent-up demand and people want to go back, then there’s this inflection point at 15 games where we’re starting to see less sell-through on the tickets,” Gelman said.
"I think the focus is going to be marketing to these fans and getting the older fans more comfortable. But I do think there will be a slow return in many cases and it’s going to be very incumbent upon the teams for that great communication and clarity of communication."
Any significant number of fans in Foxboro will be a welcome sight for Patriots executives and players after they played the 2020 season an in empty stadium. But how loud Gillette Stadium will be for the first New England home game is very much up in the air.