After a season of nearly empty stands, UA officials are allowing full-capacity crowds for all athletic events on campus this fall, and athletes and fans alike are celebrating the return.
The COVID-19 pandemic significantly derailed college sports and fan engagement in the spring of 2020. In addition to all Division I conferences instituting attendance caps and mask requirements, 51 Division I schools cut low-earning programs.
Adjusting to regulations and empty venues was difficult for Razorback athletes. Arkansas Soccer senior forward Parker Goins said capped attendance made games less enjoyable.
“Ultimately winning is what matters, but it was a little less fun without fans,” Goins said.
Kevin Trainor, chief public relations officer for Vice Chancellor and Director of Athletics Hunter Yurachek, coordinates crisis management for Arkansas’ athletic department. Trainor said the priority at the beginning of the pandemic was ensuring the safety of student-athletes.
“Our main focus at the very beginning was getting our student athletes home safely,” Trainor said. “And after that, we immediately began planning for a return to campus and putting a confidence plan together. So really, in some ways, we began planning even before the university itself.”
The Southeastern Conference suspended the 2020 baseball season March 12, just one day before league play was set to begin following back-to-back College World Series appearances for the Razorbacks in 2018 and 2019.
In July 2020, the NCAA issued return-to-sports guidelines for member schools that included daily health checks, face covering recommendations and testing requirements.
A few weeks later, the SEC provided pandemic guidelines for its 14 members, including face covering requirements, digitizing ticket sales and stadium and field disinfection procedures. Other guidelines were left up to the individual universities.
UA officials capped attendance for football games at about 17,000, or 23% of Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium’s capacity, not including student tickets. Tailgating and Hog Walks were disallowed.
“(The student section) was super disappointing last year,” UA junior Josh Teeter said. “First off, the social distancing meant there could not be people beside each other. In my opinion, that makes the student section great. We need everyone jumping around and freaking out together.”
Trainor thinks 2020 was difficult for Razorback fans, and the athletic staff was eager to give students and other fans the experience they missed last year, he said.
“As we saw (at the Texas game),” Trainor said, “the students are a tremendous part of the experience of all Razorback events.”
Teeter said the electric crowd during the Sept. 11 football game against No. 15 Texas, in which Arkansas triumphed 40-21, made it the best event he’s been to as a student. He hopes fans will keep that energy up now that the team is competitive in the SEC West for the first time in several years.
Razorback Field, Arkansas’ soccer stadium, was limited to 20% of its 1,500-seat capacity for the 2020 season. Despite the attendance cap, the No. 7 soccer team won the division and the conference to earn a 3-seed in the NCAA Tournament in 2020.
Because of limited capacity, Goins said not even players’ families could make every game.
The Razorbacks opened the 2021 season with a two-week road trip to No. 6 Duke and No. 3 North Carolina. They returned to Fayetteville for a match against BYU in front of a crowd of 2,370, the fourth largest in Razorback Field’s history, according to Arkansas Athletics.
“Seeing people in the stands again kind of shook me,” Goins said. “It gave us the energy we needed.”
In 2019, UA officials reported national attendance rankings of third in baseball, 13th in men’s basketball, 21st in football, 16th in gymnastics, 27th in soccer and 50th in softball. Arkansas was one of two athletic departments nationwide to rank in the top 25 for football, men’s basketball and baseball attendance.
During the 2018 Razorback Football season, the average attendance was 43,989. Through three home games this season, the average attendance at Razorback Stadium has been 68,302.
“It’s a great time to be a student here,” Teeter said. “And it’s not just football. All of our sports are good.”