It’s not time to allow fans back in stadiums

David Koier, Courier Staff

All Elite Wrestling (AEW) announced in a press release on Aug. 20 that limited tickets were on sale for the wrestling promotions weekly live show DYNAMITE on Thursday. AEW hosted live fans at the open-air Daily’s Place amphitheater in Jacksonville, Fla.

The live episode marked the first time ticket-paying customers were in attendance since early March. The company’s goal for last night’s episode was “to safely bring back the energy of a live audience to AEW’s shows — in compliance with state and local regulations and CDC guidelines…” Fans were socially distanced in seating pods that consisted of no more than six attendees of the same party, with each member wearing a face covering and having their temperatures taken upon entry.

Thursday night’s episode of Dynamite marks the second major sporting promotion since the COVID pandemic began to play host to live fans in attendance (the first being MLS with the Aug. 12 matchup between FC Dallas and Nashville SC). While this is a major step in the sports world and great for fans who have been longing to attend a live event, a major question still stands: is now the time to allow fans (even at limited capacity) to attend live shows?

The answer? No.

While every fan, broadcaster, reporter, columnist, and even owners, coaches and players want to have fans attend events in person, the global pandemic we are living in doesn’t seem to be any closer to the light at the end of the tunnel. All it takes is one fan to be asymptomatic or one employee to make a misstep and let in a fan with a high temperature and now everyone in attendance is at risk of contracting the virus.

For a promotion like AEW, whose company headquarters and live events are located in Jacksonville, there is even more risk in allowing fans to attend. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) website, Florida has the second most total cases of COVID-19 in the United States (602,113 as of 12:16 p.m. on Thursday). Again, while the wrestling promotion is taking all of the necessary precautions (facial coverings, hand sanitizing stations, socially distanced pods, taking temperatures, etc.) it is still quite an unnecessary risk to take that may lead to an even longer absence of live fans in the future.

World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), who just a few months ago were under scrutiny after positive COVID cases were contracted by enhancement talent serving as an audience at television tapings, recently debuted the WWE Thunderdome on the Aug. 21 episode of Friday Night Smackdown. Thunderdome is very similar to the NBA’s virtual fans, as members of the WWE Universe can be virtually placed into a crowd that surrounds the ring as WWE Superstars perform, simulating a live audience.

WWE’s debut of the Thunderdome is a step in the right direction, as any fan around the world can come and sign up online to be in attendance of their favorite weekly shows and pay-per-views while still being safe and socially distanced from the comfort of their own home. While it may not be the same atmosphere that comes from the roar of a live audience, it’s the safest choice for the world we are currently living in.

In the statement released by AEW, President and CEO Tony Khan went on record saying, “We’ve missed the incredible energy of our fans at shows, and from what we’ve heard from them, they’ve missed being with us… The health and safety of our AEW family and our fans remains our highest priority.” While all of that may be true, hosting a live wrestling show in the world we are still living in shouldn’t be the company’s top priority right now. WWE and the NBA have nailed it on the head with their virtual fans concepts and for right now, if any other league is thinking about hosting fans, it should be in digital format for the near future.