Sports are back but they look, feel, and sound way different than before. No longer are fans cheering (or players hearing them) nor is all the adrenaline pumping as it once was. Now, fans are replaced with their cardboard or digital replicas in some cases, or stands are completely barren. The sports equivalent of a laugh track (cheers from the crowd) has replaced real audience engagement. The whole experience is, well, an experiment.

To get a pulse on how Americans at large feel about professional sports returning, CivicScience surveyed 3,068 U.S. adults. Interestingly, but not surprisingly, it’s very much split three ways. One-third of Americans are in favor of the return of professional sports, with another third opposing it. The remaining third is a lukewarm neutral. 

But again, that was among all U.S. adults, sports fans or not. Just under 60% of U.S. adults show any level of interest in watching sports, according to data from the last 90 days.

When comparing this to different levels of sports fandom, we observe more than half of people who say watching sports is important or a passion of theirs are in support of the return. Duh.

Reopening Support by League

Interestingly, NFL fans are more likely to say they broadly oppose the return of professional sports than any other leagues’ fanbase.

Approach to ‘Fans’

What about the cardboard cutouts, jeered or revered? Rebased by sports fans only, another poll found that 54% of fans think neither cardboard cutouts or digital replicas should mitigate the fanless environment. Though, between the two, digital fans appear to have a slight lead.

Fake fans by league

MLB and NHL fans seem more stoked on cardboard fans than digital, while NBA and NFL fans prefer the digital route. However, as we see among sports fans at large, neither option is the most popular answer.

Intended Engagement This Season by League

What does viewer intent look like this season among fanbases? The MLB just kicked off, though had to postpone a few games due to positive coronavirus cases among Marlins players. The NBA and NHL are about to start later this week. The NFL is slated for September as of this writing.

Main takeaways: 

  • NFL fans intend to be the most engaged with watching this upcoming season, compared to the others.
  • Forty-four and forty-one percent, respectively, of self-reported MLB and NHL fans say they don’t plan to follow this season closely at all. That’s rough.
  • Even rougher is the NBA fanbase’s level of engagement this season. Sixty-two percent say they will follow this season ‘not at all closely’

There’s no right answer for any of this, and like everything now, people are just figuring it out as they go. This is the definition of uncharted territory. People will still get something out of watching sports though, right? How it all plays out remains to be seen.