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Executives from South Florida sports teams discuss fans returning to games in new coronavirus reality

MIAMI – The business of sports during a time of COVID-19 was the focus of a one-hour conversation on Wednesday among the top leaders for South Florida’s professional teams.

The virtual discussion was part of the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce trustee luncheon. Attending the event were Tom Garfinkel, CEO of the Miami Dolphins, Eric Woolworth, President of Business Operations of the Miami Heat, Caroline O’Connor, COO of the Miami Marlins, Matt Caldwell, President of the Florida Panthers and Jorge Mas, Managing Owner of Inter Miami CF.

I served as the moderator for the conversation, and while we discussed a number of topics, the main focus turned out to be when and how fans can return to sporting events.

Each executive spoke about the concerns they had and also the ideas moving forward. First and foremost, safety is the priority for all teams for their fans, players and staff. Not every team has the same theory on when fans can come back and if having limited fans come back is an option.

The Dolphins have a number of scenarios for how the upcoming NFL season will be.

“We put together what we called a no fans scenario, a socially distant stadium scenario, which in our case would be roughly somewhere between 15 to 20,000 fans if we’re six feet distance apart in the stands and then maybe a half capacity scenario,” Garfinkel said.

For Woolworth, the idea of partial fans at Heat games didn’t sound like a potential option.

“It’s financial suicide for us. There’s, I think, a sense amongst most of my peers in the NBA that we should not be starting next season until we get all the fans in the buildings,” Woolworth explained. He stressed that this was his opinion and he was not speaking for the entire organization, but he added, “In a facility like ours that’s roughly 20,000 seat capacity. That gets you around 2,500 people. What kind of a fan experience can we actually deliver for 2,500 fans?”

Mas had hoped to get a packed house for his club’s first ever home game, but he said, “we’re anticipating a restart with no fans.” That restart of home games in the MLS will likely happen in August. Mas believes the focus now for potentially having fans at games would be more for October, November and December, but he knows the way the news surrounding the virus is changing, nothing is a certainty.

O’Connor said the Marlins are keeping options open, but the health and safety of the staff and players is really the focus as the team is set to return to games in three weeks.

“We’re just going to learn and keep abreast of the situation and be nimble,” she said.

Caldwell explained all options are being considered for next season for the Panthers, including having no fans for part of the season and fans for another portion of the schedule, but he cautioned, “at the same time, you don’t want to overanalyze because things are changing so quickly.”

One thing that hasn’t changed is the amount of work all the local professional teams are doing to help in the community during a difficult time. From food distributions to having their facilities used for Covid-19 testing, each organization has made a big commitment during a difficult time.

For now, the plan is to keep adjusting as news changes daily about the virus. The bottom line, they’re ready for whatever comes next but hopeful that sports with fans will return sooner than later.


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