Indiana high school football, should it come about, won't have to be played in empty stadiums, like professional baseball, basketball and hockey in the United States right now, but the Friday Night Lights atmosphere this season won't be quite the same.
The Indiana High School Athletic Association issued guidelines Thursday that will cap crowds at 50 percent capacity with a maximum of 250, even if social distancing can be maintained with a larger group.
"The worst part is it's all a stolen experience for the kids," Michigan City Athletic Director Craig Shaman said. "I've been thinking about it a lot already. I fully support the IHSAA's stance, the model of Safety First. It gets lost in the shuffle sometimes. We're losing the opportunity to make some revenue, but it's not about that at all. It's about safety."
The fan limit, both Shaman and New Prairie's Ben Bachmann admit, all but rule out students attending games. Both intend to prioritize parents/family of players for tickets, and working off the plan that each will receive two tickets, the remaining number, particularly at bigger schools, dwindles in a hurry.
"We have 75, 80 players, then with the coaches, that's 160, 170 already," Shaman said. "Then you have officials, administration, staff, media. It gets up to 250 pretty quick."
Bachmann is awaiting specifics from the La Porte County Department of Health before establishing a particular plan, but concedes the fan base will largely be comprised of parents. New Prairie has roughly 70 players.
"Depending on the county, there are different interpretations," Bachmann said. "Some are saying essential personnel don't count against the 250. What does La Porte County say? We don't know yet. Until we see what their interpretation will be on the ruling, we're projecting without absolute details. We'll take care of parents first, then we'll see what we have left. For a school like Penn, with 115, 120 kids, I'd assume they won't dress third and fourth string. They'd have to have something like an active roster. We'll check out our capacity and map out how we can keep people distanced. We're not going to completely police it during the game, but we'll encourage it. It's the situation we're in and we'll have to adapt."
Fan attendance at Indiana high school football games this season will be limited to 50 percent capacity of the stadium or 250 people per bleacher section, meaning there will be few tickets available for students, particularly at larger schools. (Photo by Robb Quinn)
At Ames Field, as well as all Michigan City High School venues with seating, areas will be clearly designated as green (open) and red (closed). Families may sit together but maintain six feet of distance from other families.
"There'll be no problem with volleyball," Shaman said of the school's 7,000-seat gym. "Soccer, say we have 30 or so kids varsity and JV, with two (tickets) each, that's 120, which is basically all we'll have room for with social distancing. The boys and girls teams have always shown support for each other, and now they won't be able to. It won't even be hard to do (for football). Basically, everybody will be on a pass list. We're waiting as long as possible to make a final decision. We don't have a home game until Sept. 11, so I've been telling my DAC colleagues I'm going to wait and see what they do."
Shaman said school officials in the Duneland Athletic Conference have discussed staying in close contact during the week on the availability of tickets.
"There's been a lot of communication," he said. "We don't want people making a long drive and not being able to get into a game. There will be a lot of pre-sale, tickets being bought in advance."
For the hundreds, in some cases, even thousands, left out of the equation, their only viewing option will be a live stream aired either by an Internet outlet or video done by the school.
"We're going to try to support it with the live stream," Bachmann said. "There are logistics, cameras, etc., that a school with broadcast journalism is much better equipped to handle, but it's an avenue for people to watch our student athletes and it can provide them a platform to stay connected with us and all the good things a high school brings."
The IHSAA is providing the use of its web site as a platform if schools can provide the footage. Games will be available, Shaman said, for $10.
"We had to make a little investment, $1,200, $1,500, to buy a Mac Book," he said. "You can put as much into it as you want. I know La Porte has the equipment and Valpo's been doing it for years. I'm just processing it, but it's a way to make money with (limited) fans if people want to see it."
The whole issue could become moot if the season is cancelled at any point. Michigan City football was suspended for a period during voluntary workouts, but is on course to play as its first week of practice concludes. The volleyball team won't resume practice for at least a week as a result of a positive test. They'll have nine practices to gain eligibility once they return, which has resulted in the cancellation of their first three or four matches.
New Prairie football didn't start practice until Wednesday as a precautionary measure. It has one player sidelined due to a positive test, though no tracing was found and the team has been able to continue practicing.
"Our student-athletes and their families are doing a great job being vigilant," Bachmann said. "It's one of those things that they're taking pretty seriously. If a kid wakes up with a cough, they'll call and say they're not coming to practice. They're following the guidelines. We're fortunate we've had several situations that turned out to be nothing and no additional positive. That shows how committed they are to adapting to situations."
Even so, Bachmann concedes all the variables are not under a school's control, so nothing is guaranteed.
"It's something that will be a part of the routine as long as we're operating under this," he said, noting additional strains on transportation and officiating. "I don't think we're going to see a team play every match, every game. Logistically, we're just a phone call, an email away, from someone else who isn't. There's no easy route. We want to try to make it happen and it's great that our student-athletes take it seriously and have faith in their peers. Everybody's connected, doing everything right, but there's a reason they call it a pandemic."