If Ohio State does play football this fall, don’t expect the Buckeyes to play in front of a packed Horseshoe.
Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith said Wednesday that social-distancing requirements forced by the coronavirus pandemic likely would limit attendance to a fraction of the 100,000-plus who usually fill Ohio Stadium.
"We haven’t nailed that down, but we have played a little bit with the social-distancing concept," Smith said in a conference call. "We know that probably would take us down south of 30,000 fans in the stands — actually closer to (20,000-22,000). We’ve played with that framework to start as we move forward and think about what we ultimately will be allowed to do."
Smith later clarified in a tweet that as many as 50,000 could attend if social-distancing guidelines were relaxed.
How Ohio State would determine which fans would be allowed to attend is still being decided, though Smith said it would likely be based in part on the point system used to assign seats. He said players’ parents and guests of players and coaches would be a high priority.
"We’d have to make sure that we look at each individual group — faculty, staff, students, donors, Varsity O, parents of athletes, all those different constituencies — and come up with some strategies within those groups," he said.
Playing in front of a sparse crowd is one scenario if football goes ahead. As for playing in front of any empty one, Smith’s opinion has evolved.
Last month, he said he would be opposed to the season being played without fans. His rationale was that if football wasn’t deemed safe enough for spectators, it wouldn’t be for players.
Smith said that as he has conversations with counterparts in the Big Ten and around the country, he is becoming more comfortable with the idea of playing in front of empty stadiums if necessary.
"I’m optimistic that we won’t" play without fans, he said. "But if we do end up there, I think we can accommodate it. It’s still for me an interesting challenge to think that we could create an environment where our players, who are in contact physically, can be safe but we couldn’t come up with a strategy to create a safe environment for X number of fans.
"I still struggle with that concept. However, I could get there if that is ultimately what we do."
Other coaches and university presidents also are warming to the idea of playing — with or without spectators.
"If the choice were to play in front of no fans or not play, then I would choose to play in front of no fans," Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said on ESPN on Wednesday. "And I think probably every guy I’ve talked to on our team, that’s the way they feel about it."
University of Miami president Julio Frenk believes that is the likely scenario for his Hurricanes.
"They will probably play in empty stadiums, like so many other sports," Frenk said on CNN, "but we hope to have a season and we hope to have a winning season."
Whether there will be a season at all remains in question. Smith said he believes a decision needs to be made on that by early July.
"We need to not rush this," he said. "I know everyone is anxious to do that. But we need to have the opportunity for our medical experts to collect data and see how our human behavior responds in the re-opening environment across the country. We can state-by-state, but we need to take into consideration not just Ohio but all other states."
Ohio State is scheduled to open its season Sept. 5 at home against Bowling Green. There has been speculation that the coronavirus could cause teams to cancel nonconference games.
Asked how many games could be cut and still have a viable season, Smith said he hoped to play all 12 regular-season games but would "probably be comfortable" with as few as eight.
"Our kids want to play," Smith said. "It was hard for me to say eight games wouldn’t be important to them. I think it would be. There are a few young men where this is their last opportunity.
"First and foremost with their health and safety in mind, whatever we can do to give them that chance, I want to bend over backwards to give them that chance."