At this point, there are really only two certainties about the return of live sports: it'll revolve around testing capacity, and fans won't be a part of it.
Earlier this week, Los Angeles' stay-at-home order was extended indefinitely and the California State University system had already announced its fall semester would be run virtually. Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer already said her state "won't be filling stadiums" this fall. Even in places like Arizona and Florida, where economies are beginning to reopen and politicians are explicitly lobbying for the leagues' business, fans currently aren't a part of the equation. It's no longer a matter of wondering whether fans will be let into stadiums this fall, but more-so what those fan-less broadcasts will look – and feel – like.
The good news, if you want to call it that, is we already have a blueprint – courtesy of the UFC. The league has already staged more than one fan-less event, and while the echoes of each corner yelling in an empty arena are undeniably eerie, the broadcasts have produced some great mic'd up moments that we otherwise wouldn't get:
Being extremely pleasant to one another while you literally knock the teeth out of each other is weirdly charming? Being professional and courteous while the oxygen to your brain is cut off feels way more impressive than any early-round knockout. UFC's not alone in that level of access, either. Before it shut down in early April, the XFL's up-close approach won fans over almost immediately:
😂😂😂😂😂— René Bugner (@RNBWCV) February 8, 2020
Jim Zorn: "Oh come on man. PUNT IT! PUNT IT!
I love the XFL 😎 pic.twitter.com/EbENyOXwPm
Fans eat this stuff up even when they can see games in person, so imagine the demand for this type of content after 10 weeks with nothing. Even with a boring first round, the 2020 NFL draft was a ratings hit in part because of the very constraints that league planners and TV producers had to work with. Teams – and leagues in general – that embrace access and the content it allows will find fresh and imaginative ways to re-present themselves to fans, and the ones that still haggle over 18-second clips on Twitter will fall behind. Watching sports won't feel normal until there are fans back in seats, but that doesn't mean it has to be a bummer until then.