Thursday, December 31, 2020

Without fans, the arena set-up becomes a key factor for TV viewers

By Zachary Baru

The way an arena chooses to set up the floor and lower bowl has typically been overlooked by television audiences.  It is usually a decision that affects the fans at the game, instead of the fans watching at home.  But what happens when all of the fans are watching at home?  For the first time, arena set-ups are getting more attention from sports fans on television, and the way an arena chooses to set up, can potentially affect the on-screen product for the fans.

The Fans' Perspective

Like so much on television, the visual appearance is a very important factor of the on-screen product.  Typically in sports, people care much more about what is happening on the court or ice over how the playing surface is set up.  But in 2020, with many games being played with 100% of the fans at home,  the way a venue sets up changes the entire audiences' perspective of the game.

For example, if this was 2019, and you were watching one of the G-League games that is broadcast on NBATV, you might see a team that plays in a medium-sized arena that has a much different floor setup than the NBA.  The reason is obvious, minor league teams in all sports attract smaller crowds than the major league teams.  

Major League Teams Face a Minor League Problem

One thing that is often seen in the G-League to combat this issue is a different approach to a floor setup.  Since all of the floor space is not needed for seats, many teams will set up "boxes" with table seating or "private" seating areas for fans or companies.  Some minor league teams have displayed new cars next to the court to fill in the space, and other minor league or college teams have taken most or all of the seating away from the floor, filling up the space with press tables or a second row for team personnel to sit.  

This is an approach teams have made to fill in empty floor space in the past, but what should NBA and top-tier college teams do in 2020?  And what about the lower level for NBA and NHL games, should all the seats be empty, or covered with tarps displaying ads or team logos?  All of this is still a work in progress, but is also overlooked as potentially a key factor in the on-screen image of the game.

For the teams playing without fans, their fans entire experience of the team now comes from a 16:9 aspect view through their television.  And lets not forget about the fans watching on phones and computers, all of which are watching the same broadcast and experiencing the game the way all other fans are - at home.  

The Importance of the Visual Fan Experience

For the teams playing without fans, 2020 marks the first time ever in sports history all fans can experience the game in the same exact way, through the screen.  For these games, with zero fans getting the experience of watching live in person, the view the fans see becomes such an important factor.  And thus the questions, should there be empty seats on the floor?  Fill in the floor with press boxes?  Or maybe screens of virtual fans?  And so on.  And for both hockey and basketball, what should teams do with the empty lower levels?  Should fans on TV see empty seats?  Tarps of ads?  Tarps with team logos and messages?  And so on.  Which brings us back to the main question, how do arenas set up in 2020 without fans?  The answer might be more simple than one would think.

The answer just might be that there is no one true answer.  All leagues are different, all fans are different, and the desires of fans are most certainly different.  It is an impossible question for teams to get 100% right, as the on-screen image all fans see of the game will most likely come down to the decisions of front offices throughout the leagues.  

Once a simple decision of three rows of seating behind the bench at a basketball game, or placing a banner over an empty wall at a hockey game, now becomes a much different decision.  Watching a basketball game without any seats on the floor simply looks strange.  Watching a hockey game with 100% empty seats behind the glass looks boring.  But then what about the people who enjoy the extremely rare sight of a completely empty arena?  Placing tarps over all of those seats ruins that rare opportunity.  It might not seem like a big problem for the average sports fans, but it is one front offices around the sports world are trying to tackle.  In a year when everything changed, the perspective sports fans have of the games has changed as well.

Zach Baru can be followed on Twitter @zbaru and reached at  Zach also writes and

Saturday, September 12, 2020

The cost of losing fans at games runs much deeper than just the stadiums

By Zachary Baru

In response to COVID-19, many professional and collegiate sports decided to ban fans at stadiums and arenas, but just how far does the economic and personal loss run for those with sports industry-related jobs?

To look at this accurately, one could start by looking at the stadiums and arenas themselves, and work out to all of those affected in the cities in towns where the games are played.  It becomes apparent that many who are affected do not actually work for the sports teams, or in some cases, may not refer to themselves as sports-related employees.  The reality, however, is that sports is a major economic driver in any town, city, state or region.  And while closing games off to fans may be the right public safety decision, it is a major economic loss for all those affected.  Lets take a closer look at who those people are.

If you started at the stadium or arena, you would first find many ticket agents and customer service agents helping fans.  You would see security outside of the venue and throughout the inside of the stadium or arena.  It should be noted that some of the security staff would be retained for games even without fans.  

Next, you would find a long list of food-related employees.  One of the most notable losses are those serving food up and down the stands.  But there are still a long list of other employees at concession stands, others as servers or bartenders, and others as dishwashers, bar backs, and of course, managers supervising the concession stand, in-venue restaurant or bar.  

Without fans, there is a smaller need for public parking, and this means the loss of parking attendants.  Especially at large stadium events or even arena events, parking attendants can employ a large amount of people.  It is easy to overlook parking, but this is an area that is hard hit by the loss of having fans. 

One of the last areas that will be impacted are team employees working in the fan relations department.  Many teams will have different names for these employees, and sometimes they may be unpaid interns, but regardless, they still offer a key opportunity for those seeking experience in the sports industry.  Without fans, these employees are not needed.

It is safe to say, as you leave the idea of the venue, that already a great deal of jobs have been lost.  But unfortunately, this is really is just one part of the economic affect.  One of the first areas outside of the venue that will see a monetary loss are the restaurants and bars.  There are two major issues here: first, the business owners, many of them small businesses, who see a major loss of revenue.  But secondly, the fact that many of the employees at these businesses are often college-aged and using their wages toward paying for their education.  Added to the loss of in-school learning, students can easily become one of the hardest hit demographics of the pandemic.  The restaurants and bars near the venues depend on the stadiums and arenas for pre and post-game business, and become extremely hard hit when fans are absent from the venues.

The restaurant issue runs a little deeper than just the business owners and staff.  It becomes a municipal and state issue when the loss of local and state taxes are figured in.  Local and state governments depend on these tax revenues, and have seen major losses during the pandemic.

When examining the outside of the venues, restaurants and bars are not the only business affected.  Shops see a similar loss, and even taxi and ride-share drivers that typically see a large surge in traffic from these events.  The local and state tax revenue from both of these areas should also be noted, and adds up to a major loss for governments.

The last area we will examine, although there are arguably others, will be hotels.  This is a major industry with a lot of parts affected.  Hotels near venues will still get teams, team staff, league staff, referees, and a great deal of media, but one big part of their revenue will be missing: fans.  The loss of fans represents a major loss of revenue for the hotels, affecting the staffing levels including front desk agents, managers, room service, restaurant servers, restaurant managers, dishwashers, bartenders, bar backs, and maintenance.  No fans, means less patrons, meaning less hours or jobs for all of these staff members that keep hotels running each and everyday.  It should also be noted that while many hotels are corporate-owned, plenty are also independently owned or franchises owned by local business owners, who are also greatly affected.

This list could possibly be continued, but the issue is clear - the loss of fans at sporting events is a massive loss for the entire community.  It runs far deeper than the arenas and stadiums where the games are played, affecting millions of people just trying to make a living.  Whatever your position on the COVID-19 response is, and politics aside, the fact remains that there is a real affect of removing fans from games.  It becomes apparent that just as much as the teams are affected, it is the people around the teams who are also very much affected.

Zach Baru can be followed on Twitter @zbaru and reached at  Zach also writes and

Friday, June 19, 2020

Life in the indoor game after the bankruptcy of the Arena Football League

By Zachary Baru

After thirty-two seasons, the Arena Football League may be no more, but life for the indoor game still remains very active in arenas throughout the United States.

The AFL filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in November 2019, which as it turns out may very well be a blessing in disguise for a sports world suffering a very questionable year ahead during a pandemic.  But whatever the future may hold for the AFL, which has come back from bankruptcy before, the fact remains that the indoor game remains very strong.

A New Era for Indoor Football

While the AFL was once a very nationwide league, it has become very clear that indoor football now sees two leagues that have risen to the top.  Officially, of course, neither is considered the major league, that all comes down to the opinion of fans.  In terms of media coverage, however, it is clear that the two major leagues are the Indoor Football League and the National Arena League.  The IFL has mostly western teams, and the NAL has mostly eastern teams.    

These two leagues are not affiliated with one another, and at one point the NAL was widely considered a development league to the AFL, but these two independent organizations carry the privilege of being the top two indoor football leagues in the country. 

The rules of arena football were immediately patented back when the AFL began in 1987.  With the patent and trademark of the name, the AFL was able to be the only "arena football" league in the country for decades.  The AFL had original ideas such as nets behind the end zones, bordered by yellow bars, allowing a kicked ball to bounce off and be returned during play.  It was not only extremely interesting for fans to watch, but it created a very fast pace for the game, and attracted a growing audience of younger fans who demanded a quicker pace of game play.  

A Focus on Streaming

While the current leagues, the IFL and NAL, do not use the same end zone nets that the AFL became known for, the two current leagues are still going strong.  One of the best things both the IFL and NAL have done has been a focus on streaming games, an area of sports which has seen a large amount of growth in over the last five years.  Some leagues have done it better than others, but the IFL and NAL have not allowed one thing to keep them behind: greed.  

While many leagues, both major and minor, make fans pay to watch streamed games in terms of a package, subscription, or for many minor leagues, a pay-per-view approach, the IFL and NAL has taken the Joe Rogan approach - put everything on YouTube.  All games are live streamed, no sign-in required.  By using the massive reach of YouTube across all devices, computers, phones and smart TVs, fans anywhere can watch any game live from the comfort of their own couch.
While the IFL and NAL may not get the financial benefits of a subscription service or a TV deal, what these leagues are doing is guaranteeing access to fans worldwide, however they may be accessing YouTube.  And in 2020, with so much of the world on YouTube every day, this type of access is priceless.  The leagues don't have to worry about network time slots, and they can guarantee their fans can watch from any device, anytime they choose, either live or on demand.  

There is no question TV deals are where the money is, but for emerging leagues like the IFL and the NAL, access to fans may very well prove to be more important to support long-term growth.  The IFL and NAL's focus on streaming has proven to work for both leagues, as thousands of fans watch every streamed game on YouTube, and the IFL's championship last year has been streamed a combined 36,000 times between the separate streams of each teams' broadcasters.  Highlights of this game also have been streamed an additional 7,000 times on the IFL's YouTube Channel.

The Two Leagues on Top

Officially neither league is ranked higher than the other, and now that the AFL is not playing, both are widely considered to be the "major leagues" of indoor football.  But in terms of league age, number of teams, and streams, the IFL would win all categories.  Does this mean the IFL is above the NAL, not exactly.

The IFL has been around longer than the NAL, as the IFL was founded in 2008.  The IFL also has more teams, with 13 during the now cancelled 2020 season, most of which are western.  The IFL also gets more streams on YouTube than the NAL, as four games last season in the IFL were streamed at least 10,000 times.  Other games are frequently over 5,000 streams, showing a growing audience for not only the IFL but indoor football in general.

The IFL's digital media presence also arguably is supreme, as they not only have an excellent YouTube Channel, but a very modern website that has a lot to offer fans.  

The NAL of course should be recognized as the other "major league" of indoor football.  The NAL was founded in 2016, has 7 teams, most of which being eastern.  The NAL also live streams all games on YouTube, something that should only grow the league more in the future.

Legacy and Future  

With two top-tier leagues, and what ends up being a very strategic regional approach, the sport of indoor football remains in good hands.  The AFL will always be remembered as being the top indoor league in the country, and at one point had a national TV contract that rivaled other major leagues, when NBC broadcast multiple national games every Sunday afternoon in the mid-2000's.  

The AFL was also featured on ABC/ESPN throughout its three decades, and later on CBS.  It will always have a place in football history, and while the league remains dark now, there is no telling what the future may hold.

Source: USA Today, Arena Football League, Indoor Football League, National Arena League

Zach Baru can be followed on Twitter @zbaru and reached at  Zach also writes and