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As Richmonders return to sporting events this spring, what will the new normal look like?
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As Richmonders return to sporting events this spring, what will the new normal look like?

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Gov. Ralph Northam, as a resident of Richmond and a representative, may reasonably be considered an advocate of local sports.

Richmond’s professional sports organizations want his help.

Virginia COVID-19 restrictions currently limit attendance at sporting events, indoor or outdoor, to a maximum of 250. The Double-A Richmond Flying Squirrels baseball franchise, the Richmond Kickers soccer club and Richmond Raceway desire a relaxed policy that allows their operations to return to a model closer to normality, though by no means prepandemic business as usual.

They’re looking for a percentage-of-capacity allowance at their stadiums.

The Flying Squirrels from 2015-2019 averaged a high of 6,255 and a low of 5,745 at The Diamond, which seats 9,560. With 25% occupancy, The Diamond could hold a maximum of 2,390 fans sitting distanced.

From an economic standpoint, playing before 250 or fewer fans is not viable, according to Lou DiBella, the Flying Squirrels president.

“But at the point at which the cities move to a 25% occupancy, then … My sense is that we’re going to move to a percentage of occupancy at some point soon, God willing,” DiBella said. “I’m optimistic. I think things are heading in the right direction. So if that’s the case, and we’re able to go to a percentage and such, I’m very optimistic we’ll be playing this spring.”

Northam said he anticipates issuing guidance for larger, outdoor venues sometime this week.

Still to be determined is the fans’ appetite to return to stadiums and arenas after a year away, and lingering concerns about COVID-19.

The region’s largest venue is Richmond Raceway, which normally hosts tens of thousands of fans on its two NASCAR race weekends.

A year ago, as the pandemic raged, NASCAR’s first stop in April was canceled, and the second in September included races without fans in attendance.

If Northam allows it, the track is hoping to welcome a reduced number of fans this April, but it won’t resemble the traditional all-weekend party.

Asked if tailgating would be allowed around the Truck Series and Cup Series events — April 17 and 18, respectively — raceway president Dennis Bickmeier had the simplest of answers: “No.”

Bickmeier is one of a core group of seven managers of state venues who have been holding weekly Zoom meetings to discuss their approach to the state’s loosening of attendance limits.

Other venue leaders have added input as well.

“The discussions,” Bickmeier said, “have centered around a smart, scaled and safe re-opening … We’ve been closely monitoring what other states are doing, including protocols.

“We do not take this responsibility lightly as venue operators. We know we have to adjust. A good portion of our conversations have centered around how we have to operate differently going forward.”

The Flying Squirrels went dark in 2020, but hope to return this summer.

Todd Parnell, the CEO of the Flying Squirrels, said a percentage-of-capacity plan “is an incredibly important issue for our fans. Hopefully, we’ll have some word on that because right now ... we’re hoping to go to market with a lot of our great fans that have rolled their tickets over from 2020 and a lot of sponsors who rolled their sponsorships over from 2020.”

Parnell views percentage-of-occupancy as a way “to help our communities heal,” and noted that other parts of the country have successfully and safely returned to sporting events with thousands of fans in stadiums.

In a Feb. 3 column in The Times-Dispatch, Parnell wrote that Virginia’s current 250-spectator maximum “fails to take into account the size, scope and existing capacity of each and every venue. Venues of larger size can — and should — safely manage more attendees.”

He pushed in his column for a percentage-of-occupancy approach that “would allow for measurable targets of expansion or contraction while allowing minor league organizations and other venues a runway for planning.”

The chairman of Richmond Kickers Pro Soccer, Rob Ukrop, followed with a column in the Feb. 9 edition of The Times-Dispatch, concurring with Parnell’s position. “We are hopeful that Northam and other leaders across the community will swiftly move in activating our proposed percentage plan for sports and entertainment facilities across the commonwealth,” Ukrop wrote.

The Kickers were a pioneer of sorts in Richmond when it comes to fan attendance. In August, they hosted the first professional sporting event in town with fans there to watch since the pandemic began last March.

The club followed the state policy at the time, which permitted a capacity of 1,000 at City Stadium, before the current restriction of 250 was put in place in November. The 1,000-person capacity included teams, media and other personnel, which meant the maximum number of fans by themselves was less than 900.

That continued through the end of the season in October. Camp Peery, the Kickers’ chief operating officer, said the club received much positive feedback from attendees.

“We made it happen at 1,000 folks,” Peery said. “And we’re definitely confident we can do that even more. And do it the right way.”

Ukrop and the Kickers are part of the working group of sports and entertainment leaders in the state pushing for gradual reopenings of venues. Also included are Parnell, Bickmeier and Dan Schmitt, president of RMC Events, which provides event staffing services at a variety of venues.

Schmitt said RMC Events, in a typical year, has staff at about 11,000 events. The Mechanicsville-based company staffs events around the state. Its work fell 78% last year. RMC Events has more than 2,000 staff members, who last year dealt with a struggle for hours, or absence of hours.

Schmitt supports a percentage plan and also supports giving the entertainment industry a long-term runway that lays out industry benchmarks the state would like to see for openings. But also a system that allows the state to pull back if pandemic issues arise.

“When the health metrics are bad, we shouldn’t be talking about putting 10,000 people in an arena,” Schmitt said. “But we need to plan for when health metrics are better. And that’s the conversation that needs to happen now. By Sept. 1, where can we be? By July 1 where can we be? And let people make business decisions based on that.”

Typically, the Flying Squirrels begin in early April. The first pitch in 2021 is scheduled to come on May 4, because of a staggered approach to spring training. Players from Double-A and below reportedly will start spring training after MLB and Triple-A players break camp, for COVID-19 reasons.

“Our goal is to play as many games as we possibly can safely at The Diamond in front of as many people as we possibly can,” Parnell said. “The good news is that in the last week or so, we’ve really had a lot of hope, and the light is shining that 2021 is going to be something. We just don’t know what that something is yet.”

According to Parnell, how the Flying Squirrels will deal with vaccinated and unvaccinated fans is one of the “unanswered questions” that his organization continues to study. Another is how the team’s food-and-beverage services will safely be operated, but he is confident concessions will be available if and when the Flying Squirrels play at The Diamond.

Parnell said the way the Flying Squirrels will move forward on many fronts depends on “how many people will be in the ballpark, and how we’ll be able to keep people socially distanced.”

The outlook is uncertain for an event headed to Richmond next month. The Atlantic 10 men’s basketball tournament through the semifinals will be held March 3-6 at VCU’s 7,637-seat Siegel Center and the University of Richmond’s 7,201-seat Robins Center.

Currently, attendance at those games is expected to top out at 250, per Virginia guidelines. John Hardt, UR’s vice president and director of athletics, said “it’s possible” that the A-10 tournament could get relief from the 250 maximum, though the league is proceeding with the understanding that 250 will be the cap.

The A-10 women’s tournament will be held at the Siegel Center on March 10-14.

From there, attention shifts to the Kickers.

“So 250, it’s tough. I would say we always want to make it work at any number,” Peery said. “But we really need things to open up and really go towards that percentage-based capacity plan that Rob mentioned in the op-ed, and Parney as well.”

From Ukrop’s perspective, a one-size-fits-all attendance protocol doesn’t work for the sports and entertainment industry.

“Whether it’s Busch Gardens or Kings Dominion, or Lane Stadium at Tech or Scott Stadium at UVA,” Ukrop said. “So we need the governor ... we need them to start thinking out of the box. And we proved it last year with 1,000 folks, that we can actually get it done in a safe manner.”

Ukrop said there are people in the working group who have been in direct contact with the governor and the governor’s office. They’re also working with senators and delegates, Ukrop said, to say, “‘Hey, here’s what we really need your help on.’”

He said they’re optimistic the governor, and health leaders in the state, will give them the opportunity to go to a percentage plan.

“Even if it’s a lower percentage than we’d like,” Ukrop said, “we want to get started so we can prove that we can do this safely and people have a really positive experience.”

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