Seton Hall sports poll on fans' potential post-pandemic return is a big swing and a bigger miss

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There is so much about the near-term future of spectator sports that we do not know, and after examining the Seton Hall sports poll conducted by the Stillman School of Business, it is quite possible to say we know nothing more than we did before.

According to Seton Hall, 72 percent of Americans, when asked if they would attend games before the development of a vaccine to address COVID-19, answered they would not. It makes for a hell of a headline, which was exactly the point.

"Among sports fans," the survey stated, "the number drops to a still significant 61 percent."

Wait: They asked people who don't go to games if they would go to games?

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It's like that old joke. The patient says, "Doc, will I be able to play the piano after I have this surgery?" The doctor says, "Of course, there would be nothing to stop you." Then the patient says, "Great, I never knew how to play before."

This is being received by some in the sports community as a sobering look at the near-term future of sports, but we really can't know how people will respond to the reopening of our arenas and stadiums until we're further away from the current horrors: nearly 15,000 deaths, more than 427,000 cases, almost every state in the nation shutting down all but essential businesses.

Spectator sports certainly are not among those. There are many millions who are eager to once again cheer for their favorite teams and athletes, even if it only is from the comfort of their family rooms, but no one will be playing again until medical authorities make it clear that can be done safely. The nation's foremost professional leagues — Major League Baseball, the NHL, the NBA, MLS, WNBA and NWSL — have either suspended their seasons, delayed opening or postponed the start of preseason training.

In that environment, Seton Hall conducted its poll by telephoning cell phone and land line numbers from April 6-8.

Choosing to survey randomly is understandable. And the results are going to be impacted, surely, by the tenor of the moment. But there's no way there is any validity to the survey without these two facts being used to screen respondents:

  • Are you a sports fan?
  • How frequently did you attend spectator sporting events prior to the shutdown?

Along with spectator sports, Broadway has been closed since early March. Would we ask those who acknowledge they're disinterested in musical theater if they will buy a ticket to "Dear Evan Hansen" or "Hadestown" after stay-at-home restrictions are lifted? And then declare their negative responses to be indicative of some broader truth?

It is possible many who have, in the past, purchased season tickets will perceive the public experience as needlessly unsafe and opt to consume their sports at home. It is possible, as well, that others who have been priced out of the stadium or arena, or simply could not gain access to tickets without paying above face value on the secondary market, might perceive others' reticence as an opportunity.

All of it is beyond our clear understanding because none of us genuinely knows what the post-pandemic world will be. That uncertainty is reflected in the numbers presented in the poll results, but it is also amplified beyond logic by the methodology of the survey.

If this is the best Seton Hall's business school can do, perhaps it should just stand out of the way and let everyone watch game tape of Myles Powell until the quarantine is lifted.

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