'A little bit of normal': Despite extreme capacity caps, fans thrilled to see live sports again

·9 min read

Mar. 17—One year ago, the sports world stopped. We thought it'd be a minute.

It would seem like forever.

Only now are things, sort of, getting back to normal. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's latest state order allows up to 750 fans at Detroit Pistons and Detroit Red Wings home games, and up to 1,000 once the Detroit Tigers start the season April 1 at Comerica Park. Michigan and Michigan State are planning for fans this fall, they just don't know how many.

The order runs through mid-April. Local sports teams hope capacity will expand then, if not before, as they watch other states fully open. Last week, the Texas Rangers announced they will have full capacity on Opening Day.

Around here, sports fans will take what they can get, as soon as they can get it.

"I got the email last week at noon," said Ann Arbor's Henry Augustaitis, 56, who was among the 750 fans allowed at last Tuesday's Red Wings game against the Tampa Bay Lightning at Little Caesars Arena. "I bought the tickets at 12:05. To see sports, live sports, hell yes.

"It's just great to be back at a sporting event," added Augustaitis, a season-ticket holder for 28 years, and a Michigan football season-ticket holder for 38.

"You haven't been able to go, to get tickets for anything, for a year."

Sports returned a while ago, the NBA and NHL resuming their 2019-20 seasons for the playoffs after a long shutdown — though the Pistons and Red Wings didn't return. The Tigers played a shortened 60-game season in 2020, fans replaced by cardboard cutouts, which didn't stop Paws from mingling with "customers." Michigan and Michigan State football and basketball played their recent seasons mostly without fans, though eventually with some friends and family.

Detroit's PGA Tour event, the Rocket Mortgage Classic, was held without fans at Detroit Golf Club in July, golfers having no clue how good their shots were without the roar of the crowds. Winner Bryson DeChambeau was applauded by a dozen or two volunteers on the 18th green — all the fanfare of a weekend hacker putting out for 92.

It was a year like no other, and like nothing we ever want to see again — or in the case of live-sports fans, not see again.

"I miss everything," said Kyle Dufrane, 49, a Michigan football season-ticket holder since 1995, "from the tailgate with my friends, we've done it for close to 25-plus years, and watching with 112,000 of my closest friends.

"College football, I'm desperate to return for that, but I don't know when that occurs to what I want to return to, anyway.

"I just don't know."

Dufrane's last live sports event was Michigan-Michigan State hockey at Yost Ice Arena in Ann Arbor on March 7, 2020. The Wolverines won, 3-0. The next night, he attended his last live concert, They Might Be Giants, at the Majestic in Detroit.

COVID-19 then struck in full force, affecting all walks of life, almost all of them far more important than sports.

Deaths are decreasing and vaccines increasing. President Joe Biden has said every adult who chooses to can be vaccinated by the end of May. All adults in Michigan will be eligible by April 5.

But 750 fans or 1,000 fans? That's not normal, and it doesn't appeal to everyone, especially when there's not a good team to speak of in Michigan, outside UM basketball.

"I'm not one of those anti-maskers," said Dufrane, "but I don't want to sit at a sporting event with a mask on for three or four hours to watch a terrible insert-sports-team-here, and that's what we have right now. It's more of a hassle than it's worth. I want to get back, but I want to get back on real terms."

Chris Russell understands that point of view.

Russell, of Rochester Hills, has actually been able to watch live sporting events since the fall. A law student at Notre Dame, he was able to attend Notre Dame's home football games in the fall (20% capacity; students could sit with up to three friends, if they were all from the same house or dorm) and has watched two basketball games late this season, with restrictions recently eased for students, faculty and staff.

He was at Notre Dame's 83-73 win over No. 15 Florida State two Saturdays ago. It was a stunning upset that would've been a wildly raucous atmosphere, if not for limited capacity. Attendance was officially listed at 646.

Russell was happy to be there, but it still wasn't the same.

"I had an entire section to myself," said Russell, 23.

He's also had bragging rights among his family of Detroit sports fans. He grew up going to Tigers games (he was at Justin Verlander's first career no-hitter, in 2007, which was luckily Cub Scout day). He shudders to think about if that game had taken place during an era of no fans. He has seen live sporting events in the last year, while his father and brother haven't.

"I was giving my brother a hard time. He's a student over at Michigan State," Russell said. "I'm sure he's probably glad he missed a few of them."

MSU football was 2-5 in Mel Tucker's first year as head coach, and MSU basketball struggled to make the NCAA Tournament in Tom Izzo's 26th.

"But he was still jealous," Russell said of his brother, Scott, 19.

It's not just the fans who have missed out.

Coaches and athletes have missed the fans just as much, if not more.

"We've had to play in empty arenas, and if anybody says it's the same game they're lying," Red Wings coach Jeff Blashill said. "It's not the same."

Said Michigan State women's basketball coach Suzy Merchant, whose team played in front of fans at the Big Ten tournament in Indianapolis last week, and will do so in the NCAA Tournament in San Antonio this week: "They're so much (a part of ) what these kids do that they've missed out on with regard to energy and why they play the game, for the people that cheer them on and root them on."

Nate Hood of Chesterfield Township had just returned home from a work trip to the United Kingdom when he decided to take his sons, Jakin, 13, and Grant, 11, to a Pistons game Jan. 25, 2020. Blake Griffin's old team lost to his new team, the Brooklyn Nets, 121-111, in overtime.

Since Whitmer's order, Hood has started looking into Pistons tickets, but the price is steep given the limited demand, even for a team that's not very good.

"But I get it," said Hood, 47. "If I get the right opportunity, I will go for sure.

"We miss it a lot."

That's been the theme of 2020, and into 2021. We've missed a lot. Birthdays. Graduations. Weddings. Even funerals. And, yes, sports.

In 2020, the Frozen Four, the NCAA's hockey final four, was canceled. It was set to take place at Little Caesars Arena. IndyCar's Detroit duels were canceled. LCA was slated to host some NCAA Tournament basketball games this week, until the entire tournament was moved to the state of Indiana.

Fans are finally, if slowly, starting to be welcomed back. Masks will be a thing for who knows how long. Same with some form of social distancing, and temperature checks. Cash at the concession stands might become a thing of the past. Same with smuggling in octopus and the "Kiss Cam." Hopefully, autographs don't.

"It was kind of boring without a lot of people in the stands," said Troy's Tim Schmidt, 57. As a season-ticket holder, he was invited by the Red Wings to a game Feb. 23 when only a few hundred were let in.

"But it was good to get back to watch a live game.

"You know, I think right now, I'd be a little hesitant if they were letting the stadiums back to full capacity, but like 50% capacity, I don't think I'd be too horribly worried."

Who knows how long it will take to get to that point.

For some, they're just fine with the lighter crowds.

"With less people in attendance," said Nate Shay, a Pistons fan who has tickets for Wednesday's game against the Toronto Raptors, "my ultimate goal is to finally get on the Jumbotron."

A year ago, when the world went on hiatus, we felt bad for the folks in the spring who couldn't celebrate their birthday — not realizing everybody would go at least once without doing so.

"Both of us have birthdays in March and last year at this time was about as depressing as it comes," said Sterling Heights' Jeff Schoonfield, 55, of Shelby Township. He and cousin Mike Stelma, 66, of St. Clair Shores, have tickets for Thursday's Red Wings game against the Dallas Stars at Little Caesars Arena.

They splurged for lower-bowl seats behind the net.

"Well, a year has passed," added Schoonfield, who, as a teacher, got his vaccine, as did his older cousin, "so we are going."

Schoonfield's last live sporting event was Michigan State-Oakland men's basketball, at LCA, back in December 2019. He gets to celebrate his birthday out and about this year at a real, live game. Those not lucky enough to get tickets can settle for the bars or restaurants — which, at 50% capacity, actually could have serve more patrons downtown than the Tigers on Opening Day, Detroit's biggest annual party (all due respect to St. Patrick's Day and Thanksgiving).

The Tigers have sold more than 1,000 Opening Day tickets — less than 2.5% of the ballpark's capacity — through season-ticket holders and general-public sales. They expect that cap to be raised, but don't know by how much. The team will give priority to its season-ticket base. Exact plans are expected in the coming days.

For now, the Red Wings and Pistons are open for business.

"It's not like normal," said Steve Perkins, who drove up from Monroe to watch last Tuesday's Wings game. "I could do without the pumped in (fan) noise.

"But like I said, it's so nice to be back.

"A little bit of normal."

tpaul@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @tonypaul1984

Detroit News Sports Writer Ted Kulfan contributed.

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