Expanding fan access to games through additional COVID-19 vaccine-only sections and other measures is being contemplated for next month by Seattle’s active professional sports teams ahead of a possible full July reopening of venues across the board.
But despite Gov. Jay Inslee last week newly allowing unlimited expansion of vaccine-only seating, the Mariners, Sounders and Storm say they’re sticking with current capacity limits for now, given tickets already have been sold for upcoming or ongoing homestands. They’re also weighing the possibility of Inslee fully reopening sports venues to fans as part of a broader lifting of state COVID-19 restrictions by June 30 or sooner if at least 70% of Washingtonians over age 16 have had their first vaccination shot.
The most recent state health figures show 59% received their first shot as of May 17.
Given only a month or so remains before Inslee might fully reopen venues — and the limited home games remaining before then — local teams are weighing the benefits of interim capacity boosts against the risk of alienating some fans if they appear to be cramming in as many people as possible to make up for lost time.
“We’re not really looking at this right now as a bottom-line situation,’’ Mariners spokesperson Rebecca Hale said. “We’re not looking at this as the need to make up for the past year.’’
Hale said the team wants all fans to feel comfortable once they enter T-Mobile Park and not apprehensive about lingering COVID-19 safety threats. But the team, she added, also has seen increased demand for the vaccine-only sections, where fans don’t have to stay socially-distanced.
“I think we’ve seen the demand for the vaccine-only sections and what we’d like to do is look at scenarios that balance that out a bit more with the socially-distanced seats,’’ Hale said. “We’re just trying to bring things more into alignment with what we’ve seen fans are wanting.’’
The Mariners currently are authorized for a capacity of up to 22,000 fans, but can’t fit more than 14,000 in because socially distanced pod seats of 1-to-6 take up the overwhelming majority of ballpark space. There are about 9,000 pod seats and only 5,000 of the tighter-spaced regular ones available in the three current vaccine-only sections.
A solution would be to remove some pod seating, freeing up space to greatly increase the vaccine-only sections and get total capacity much closer to that 22,000 limit. But tickets for the socially-distanced seats have been sold through June 2 and the team has to honor the space guarantees it told fans they’d get with their purchases.
So, any changes won’t take effect until the next Mariners homestand in mid-June and might only impact nine games – 11% of the team’s home schedule – if Inslee reopens sporting venues to full capacity come July. Given that, Hale said, the team is “walking a bit of a fine line’’ and taking a conservative approach to any capacity boost it eventually makes so it doesn’t cause fans that still prefer socially-distanced options to avoid the ballpark.
Attendance numbers thus far seem to support concerns that fans might balk at attending games that are too crowded.
The Mariners have yet to draw even 11,000 fans to any of six home games since capacity was increased to 14,000 through the introduction of three vaccine-only sections. In their most recent full-capacity 2019 campaign, they drew more than 11,000 fans to every game until the final September month with the team by then long-since eliminated from playoff contention.
The more hesitant approach by the Mariners and other Seattle teams differs from that of the Class AAA Tacoma Rainiers, whose owner, Aaron Artman, told Seattle Times columnist Larry Stone this month he plans to squeeze as many vaccine-only sections as he can into Cheney Stadium.
“Our mission is to make Cheney Stadium as full as possible,’’ Artman said. “So, we’re really not drawing a line in the sand or making a political statement about vaccinations. The fact of the matter is vaccinated people don’t require social distancing. And so, we can get a lot more of them into the stadium, all other things equal, than we can non-vaccinated.
“We understand the perspective of those who aren’t vaccinated yet or do not want to get vaccinated. But from a realistic standpoint, it’s a math equation for us. We can fit thousands more vaccinated people than we can non-vaccinated.”
Minor-league baseball teams lack money from national and even regional television deals and are almost entirely dependent on gate revenue. The Mariners, in contrast, draw revenue from their team-owned regional sports network and are among 30 teams splitting $1.55 billion in national TV money this season.
The Sounders, typically one in only a handful of annually-profitable Major League Soccer teams, generate a much smaller portion of money off local and national TV. MLS commissioner Don Garber revealed ahead of the championship game last year that the gate-driven league was down just under $1 billion in revenues due to COVID-19 impacts.
So, the Sounders do need to get back closer to the 40,000 or so fans a game they typically draw to have a shot at profitability. That would appear to leave them incentivized to add as many vaccine-only seats as possible, though they’re in largely the same boat as the Mariners on that front.
The Sounders have been selling tickets to two remaining home games through month’s end. Their next Lumen Field game after that isn’t until June 23 following an international break and is one of only two remaining home matches ahead of Inslee potentially reopening venues to full capacity.
Like the Mariners, the team had sold about 7,000 seats in socially-distanced pods before announcing May 11 that vaccine-only sections would be introduced. Those take effect starting with the match Sunday against Atlanta United FC and should boost attendance to about 13,000 or 14,000.
Sounders spokesman Alex Caulfield said the team will see how that game and another one next weekend go before deciding on expanding its vaccine-only zones. As with the Mariners, the two remaining Sounders games at Lumen Field in June before a possible full July reopening represents just 11% of the team’s home schedule. So, the Sounders would need to weigh the proportional benefits of any near-term capacity boost against possible fan hesitancy.
“As a club, our mentality has been that slow and steady wins the race,’’ Caulfield said. “And that it’s better to ease back into things as we go along.’’
Unlike the Mariners, who are allowing vaccinated fans to go mask-less throughout the ballpark, the Sounders are requiring those in socially-distanced pods to keep theirs on whether they’ve been vaccinated or not.
The Storm faces similar seating alignment constraints at Angel of the Winds Arena in Everett. Under Inslee’s recent changes, indoor sporting venues are limited to 2,000 fans but the Storm can fit only about 1,500 in the building given spacing they’ve allotted in both vaccinated and unvaccinated sections.
Unvaccinated seating takes up the majority of the venue and is capped at 600 seats spaced 6 feet apart under state guidelines. The vaccinated sections feature seats spaced at 3-foot distances to form the remaining capacity.
The Storm has drawn just more than 1,000 fans to each of two previous home games but limited access to only season ticket-holders. Friday, the team put an additional 300 seats on sale to the general public in its vaccinated sections for the upcoming two home games against Connecticut and Dallas.
Storm spokesman Jeff Hoffman said it’s unlikely the team would further boost capacity much beyond 1,500 before Inslee decides whether to open up venues more fully.
Hoffman said the team could already put fans “shoulder to shoulder” in vaccinated sections if it wanted to instead of keeping them 3 feet apart and get closer to the 2,000-person capacity that way. But it’s opting not to do so, out of concern about how fans might react.
“I think the hesitation was the comfort of the fans,’’ he said. “It might have scared more people away had we tried to pack them in.’’