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How COVID-19 accelerated the NBA's decline in attendance

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While the entire world is slowly getting back to its feet after COVID-19, the sports world has yet to see its fan attendance get back to its pre-pandemic levels. Data reveals that through Nov. 25, 23 NBA and 23 NHL franchises were suffering fan attendance decreases. Among those 46 teams, 27 of which have seen fan attendance slump by over 10%. Eight teams experienced steeper declines of more than 20%. 

COVID-19 is the prime suspect for these declines. There is an understandable hesitancy for fans to head back to arenas to watch their favorite team. Entertainment is a human need, but the pandemic made people put an ultimate premium on their health.

However, according to several sports economists, there are other reasons for the decline in fan attendance besides the pandemic. The stay-at-home protocols for students and employees did not dampen the human's need for rest and leisure. Since they couldn't go out to their neighborhood entertainment venues, they created their hubs at home. 

"People had a whole year to sit at home and upgrade their experience. They needed to upgrade their internet anyway so they could work from home. We've just accelerated that natural trend to watch sports at home rather than live."

Victor Matheson, a sports economist at Holy Cross, The Score

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The people's new home set-ups, coupled with the array of streaming services available right at their fingertips, opened new doors to other forms of entertainment other than sports.

"There are so many entertainment options to choose from now. The world changed and the game was not going on, so (fans) looked for something different. Maybe they settle into that habit. The younger group, they might enjoy playing video games more than they enjoy watching the games. How do you deal with that as those fans get older?" Rodney Paul, a Syracuse University sports economist.

Rodney Paul, a Syracuse University sports economist,The Score

Mass vaccination is one of the solutions to attract fans back to stadiums. However, lack of accessibility plus vaccine hesitancy may prolong the process. As such, sports executives are implementing new strategies following these recent trends. 

The MLB offers subscription-based ticketing programs that offer discounted seats for a fixed monthly fee — pretty much like a Netflix subscription. Paul proposed that some arenas should lower their parking prices in response to rising gas prices. Apart from these economic fixes, Paul offered one answer athletes themselves will understand as if by instinct.

"I think it also is a feedback loop. If you go to a game and there aren't that many fans there and your team is losing and the atmosphere is not very fun, you're unlikely to go back."

Rodney Paul, a Syracuse University sports economist,The Score

Winning does indeed solve everything, even something as dreadful as the pandemic. 

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