We Are More Accepting Of Disease Spreading In Large Crowds Than I Thought

A recent study looking at a connection between influenza mortality and professional sports leagues provides some insights into the possible impact of the more highly contagious Covid-19 virus if large group assemblies were permitted.

The researchers looked at influenza rates and sports activity from 1962 through 2016. They do a lot of work with their data taking into account geography (a number of New York teams that play(ed) in NJ), the entry of new sports franchises in that time period, the extent of public transit lines, impact of people gathering at bars to watch competitions, and the fact that some sports seasons occur outside of flu season, among many other factors.

What they found is:

The results show cities acquiring one new professional sports team experienced 4% to 24% increases in local influenza mortality across all age groups compared to cities without professional sports teams, suggesting that sports-related changes in social distancing patterns represent important influenza transmission mechanisms. These results are in line with Stoecker et al. (2016) who estimated an 18% increase in flu mortality among the local population age 65 or older in MSAs that sent an NFL team to the Super Bowl. In addition, local flu mortality fell in some years when work stoppages occurred in sports leagues, further buttressing the evidence that games played by professional sports teams make substantial contributions to local seasonal flu mortality.

My first thought was that we have been pretty blase about the potential impact of these large gathering on influenza mortality. Though I guess that was sort of clear back in March/April when people were saying Covid-19 wasn’t worse than the flu. There was already an acceptance that a number of people die every year. Perhaps that will happen one day with Covid-19 as we become acclimated to its impact.

One interesting thing to note – while there was an 18% increase in mortality among the 65+ population of MSAs that sent teams to the Super Bowl, in that earlier Stoecker et al. (2016) study they cite, there wasn’t an increase in mortality for the city that hosted the Super Bowl.

…suggesting that changes in travel patterns bringing large numbers of spectators to the host city play a small role in the process. This result does not completely rule out changes in travel patterns as a mechanism for transmission. It is possible that the mechanism works in the opposite direction: fans who travel to the host city for the Super Bowl become infected there and bring the virus back home with them..

One thing to keep in mind, and the study authors point this out, is that all large gatherings are not created equal. They suggest future research do a deeper dive into distinctions like size, age and amenities of facilities. Some sports are played in larger, younger facilities with better HVAC systems and more enclosed seating areas than others. All these things can impact the spread of disease. Likewise, some of these facilities also host concerts and other events with large attendance. Different activities spread disease at varying rates even if they are held in the same facilities with similar attendance.

Also, apparently not all work stoppages are created the same. Flu mortality fell during the 1982 NFL and 2011 NBA stoppage, but there was no impact from the 2004 NHL work stoppage. They theorize fans engaged in substitute activities which exposed them to the flu.

So overall this some clearer information verifying for arts organizations, who I suspect are already doing pretty well at proceeding with caution, the importance of paying attention to the attendance and spacing at your events.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker (artshacker.com) website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (http://www.creatingconnection.org/about/)

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


Leave a Comment