Major sports teams could soon lose money, fans if they fail to adopt COVID-19 vaccine passports, say academics

The Saskatchewan Roughriders and other major sports teams could soon find themselves in a deep financial hole if they don't adopt a COVID-19 vaccine passport system, say experts in sports management.

Saskatchewan Roughriders 1 of only 2 CFL teams with no COVID-19 vaccination requirements for fans

The Saskatchewan Roughriders are one of only two CFL teams not requiring fans to show proof of COVID-19 vaccine or a recent test. Sports business experts say this could hurt the team, and other teams across the province, if they don't change course soon. (Glenn Reid/CBC News)

The Saskatchewan Roughriders and other major sports teams could find themselves in a deep financial hole if they refuse to implement a COVID-19 vaccine passport system, say experts in sports management.

Marvin Ryder, a professor of sports business strategy at McMaster University, said an anti-passport fan revolt is highly unlikely, given the surging COVID numbers and hospitalizations. Ryder said the vocal minority claiming infringements on individual liberty is rapidly losing support.

"If you put in vaccine passports, a large number of people would be thrilled. But there will be [other] people who won't be thrilled. And you know what they're going to do. They're going to write letters to the editor. They're going to say 'I never thought my team would do this. I am so offended. I'm never going to a game again,'" Ryder said.

"Those threats are usually hollow. If you were a diehard Roughriders fan, eventually they start winning, your friends are going, so you'll come back."

Members of the Saskatoon Blades and Prince Albert Raiders in a scrum during Western Hockey League action. The WHL and other leagues are considering vaccine passports for fans, as they have for players and staff. No decision has been made. (Rick Elvin/Saskatoon Blades)

At the moment, the Roughriders and Edmonton Elks are the only CFL teams not requiring fans to show proof of vaccination or a recent test.

A Roughrider official said they will instead focus on other safety measures such as hand sanitizer, ventilation and pop-up clinics on game day.

The Roughriders next home game is the annual Labour Day Classic on Sept. 4.

Ticket sales have been brisk to to this point, but observers noted a large number of empty seats at previous games, a possible indication that people are rapidly reconsidering their comfort levels. 

Ryder said ticket sales could soon drop if people don't feel safe. Sponsors could also start to question their association with franchises not doing all they can for public safety. And if the Roughrider games are linked to too many positive cases, it could lead to fans being completely banned from games, as they were last year in leagues across the world, he said.

Portland State University professor of sports management Marvin Washington agreed. Washington, who worked until this year at the University of Alberta, said vaccine passports allow all fans to feel safer. He said fans who feel good about their team also spend more money on tickets, hot dogs, beer and merchandise.

"Think about sports. We're cheering. We're yelling. We're high-fiving a stranger who's now your closest buddy because our team's now winning," Washington said.

"In that type of environment, I can understand why teams and leagues would want to ensure some confidence. If I feel confident everyone around me is as protected as I am, I'm nore likely to attend."

Marvin Washington, a former University of Alberta professor of sports management now at Portland State University, said vaccine passports allow all fans to feel safer, and that will be good for a team's bottom line. (Submitted by Marvin Washington)

It's not just the CFL and other professional leagues suddenly confronted with this issue. Saskatchewan's five Western Hockey League teams welcome thousands of fans to dozens of games per year inside their indoor facilities. WHL teams elsewhere, such as the Calgary Hitmen, have announced a vaccine passport plan for patrons, but none of the Saskatchewan teams has done so.

The next level of competition down — the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League — averages 800 fans for each of the 348 games on its schedule in communities across the province, from La Ronge to Estevan. That's nearly 300,000 tickets sold over the course of the winter in one league alone.

SJHL commissioner Bill Chow said there are many complex issues to consider and no decision has been made. He admitted that with training camps opening in the coming days, a decision will have to be made soon.

"With the increase in the number of cases, it's increased on our radar. We're in challenging times. The safety of everybody concerned is first and foremost," Chow said.

Michael Scissons, business manager for the WHL's Prince Albert Raiders, agreed safety is paramount and said the team wants to make sure everything is done in consultation with health officials and the league.

Washington and Ryder say most teams, especially in smaller communities, would love for governments to mandate vaccinations as they have in B.C., Quebec and likely elsewhere. Sports teams — but also concert venues, festivals, theatres and other groups — hosting large gatherings wouldn't have to shoulder this burden, they say.

It would save teams the hassle of creating their own system and allow them to tell any dissenters that it's out of their hands, they say.

"If you are in a province where it's mandated, then you can say 'Look folks, it's not my idea. It's them. I'm just playing along,'" Ryder said. 

The Saskatchewan government isn't going in that direction at the moment.

This week, Health Minister Paul Merriman admitted that it looks like the province is entering a fourth wave and that most of those 100-plus people occupying beds in hospitals and intensive care units are unvaccinated.

But he said mandatory vaccination would infringe on human rights. He instead encouraged everyone to take personal responsibility.


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