Sports in Society Fueled by fans

Covid-19 restrictions have changed the fan experience

From father-daughter duos to die-hard New York sports fans, Americans are mourning the loss of the in-person game-day moments they grew up with and treasure. And it may be a while until it’s back to ‘normal.’

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The team identification–social psychological health model predicts that sport team identification leads to social connections which, in turn, result in well-being. Source: Group Dynamics: Theory, Research, and Practice

On March 8, 2020, my daughter and I got in the car for the 20-minute drive from our home in Bloomfield, New Jersey, to the Ironbound neighborhood in Newark. During the drive, I offered a word of caution to my then-12-year-old Carla. 

“Enjoy every part of the experience today, hon,” I said. “Because this may be the last time we go to a game for a long time.”

This was a journey we’d made many times. We’d park and walk across the Passaic River to Red Bull Arena for our usual Major League Soccer affair. This day’s special event featured the U.S. women’s national team playing in the SheBelieves Cup. After all, we love soccer and sports in general, and we love going to games in person.  

The coronavirus pandemic was already wreaking havoc throughout swaths of Asia and Europe. The first known cases were popping up in the United States. Outside the arena, CNN reporters with cameramen were doing “man on the street” interviews, asking people how safe they felt being in a big crowd. 

The U.S. women’s national soccer team played one of the final sporting events last March before the national shutdown. Ben Osborne and his then 12-year-old daughter attended the contest at Red Bull Arena on March 8, 2020. The U.S. defeated Spain, 1-0, as an overflow crowd of 26,500 fans cheered without masks for the final time before the coronavirus pandemic swept across the country. (Photo courtesy of Ben Osborne)

Besides the extra news coverage, and some conspicuous hand-sanitizer stations that had never been at the stadium before, it was a great day for a game. 

Sparked by a dramatic late goal from Julie Ertz, the U.S. held off Spain, 1-0, as an overflow crowd of 26,500 fans, sans masks, screamed and chanted and danced with joy. It was a perfect advertisement for the beauty of live sports. 

Three days later, it was over. 

On March 11, Utah Jazz All-Star center Rudy Gobert tested positive for Covid-19, and the NBA shut down its season. While sporting events across the country were completed that evening — including the U.S. women’s national team wrapping up the SheBelieves Cup with a win over Japan in Dallas — by the end of the week all sports were shut down, from high school to the pros.

It’s a year later now, and while American sports are, for all intents and purposes, back — fans are most certainly not. Sure, some states started allowing small, distanced, masked crowds last fall, and the number of places allowing those types of crowds keeps growing. The Texas Rangers allowed a capacity crowd for its April 5, 2021, home opener despite criticism from President Joe Biden

But it’s not the same. The experience that I grew up with, that my daughter was growing up with, that millions of Americans treasured as much as any ritual in their lives, is gone. And it may be a while until it’s back. 

New Yorkers Michael Katos and Rick Molina are die-hard fans that live for attending sporting events. In April 2010, they met at a Mets game via Molina’s cousin. They instantly bonded over their love of sports, and while Katos is a Mets fan and Molina supports the Yankees, they realized they both loved the same NFL team — the New York Jets.

A few months later, together they attended a Jets game at MetLife Stadium and the hosts won in dramatic fashion. “Late touchdown catch by Santonio Holmes!” Molina recalls excitedly. They’ve been close friends ever since.

The feeling of being at a game is like “being a kid again for a few hours,” said Katos. The 35-year-old is the founder and co-host of Fan Experience TV, a YouTube show and Podcast that is dedicated to just what it sounds like — the experience of being a fan. 

New Yorkers Rick Molina, left, and Michael Katos are die-hard sports fans who live to go to games in person. In April 2010, they met at a New York Mets game at Citi Field and today co-host Fan Experience TV — a YouTube show and podcast that is dedicated to the experience of being a fan. (Photo illustrations courtesy of Fan Experience TV)

“You can get lost in that atmosphere,” added Katos, a married father of two who lives in Long Island. “When there’s two strikes and two outs, you could have a lawyer to your left and a gas station attendant to your right, and you’re all concerned about the same thing. Age, race, gender — we forget about all that. Of course, that’s how we should be all the time in this country, but a ballgame is one of the only places you actually feel it.”

Since before the pandemic, Katos has been building out an app called Playing the Field, which will be dedicated to connecting sports fans romantically and platonically. He noticed there were dating and friendship platforms for all sorts of niche communities, so why not develop one for sports fans? Once the pandemic hit and everyone was homebound, he decided to start a podcast that would attract many of the same people who might use his app. 

Katos linked up with that old friend he’d met at the Mets game, Molina, and the show was born last July. 

“With the sports world turned on its head and fans not allowed to go to games, we decided to make a show that took them back to that,” said Katos. “Let’s ask them for their best experiences, when they got hooked on sports.”

Molina has a day job as a banker and never worked in sports media in any fashion. Yet, the 43-year-old bachelor from Queens has long understood the unity sports can create.  

“I liked Mike’s idea, and it’s working,” Molina said. “Talking to people about sports really is a great unifier.”

The show has been running about twice a week since July. Among the most striking guests was Wayne Randazzo, radio play-by-play man for the Mets, who discussed the unusual and difficult circumstances he worked through last season. He described the home games with no fans in attendance, and how he watched road games on a monitor from the press box at Citi Field instead of traveling with the team.

Whether it’s no fan admittance or being allowed to attend under very different circumstances, fans are definitely missing out. Daniel Wann, a professor at Murray State University, has written about the Team Identification-Social Psychological Health Model, which posits that the two are “positively correlated because identification leads to important social connections which, in turn, facilitate well-being.” 

An increase in self-esteem is also a benefit of connecting with others as a sports fan, Wann’s studies have revealed. Katos and Molina, were “others” until they met at a game, started talking, and are now friends and business partners. 

For my daughter — or my father, for that matter, who took me to numerous sporting events when I was a kid — there is already a bond that is strengthened each time we are together at the stadium. 

As Katos put it, “When you go to a game, you’ve got a family for three hours.”

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