The Indianapolis Colts will be limited to 4% capacity at Sunday’s home football opener at Lucas Oil Stadium even though crowds for Indy Eleven soccer games at the venue have regularly doubled that figure since early July.
The 2,500-person limit, announced by the Colts on Sept. 4 after weeks of negotiations with the Marion County Public Health Department over its pandemic safety plan, is in effect for the first home game. The Colts have been working with the health department to revise the figure up for future contests, but no decisions have been made.
Indy Eleven games have averaged nearly 5,500 fans per contest through seven games.
In fact, for Eleven games, there is no specific capacity limit. Instead, the team and the health department agreed to limit ticket sales to the lower bowl of the stadium and to restrict seating to every other row—with at least six feet between each group of seats. Practically speaking, that would likely put capacity at about 10,000 people or fewer.
The disparity between the health department’s approach to capacity for the two professional sports teams during the pandemic has raised eyebrows among fans and industry observers. The Indy Eleven are expected to draw thousands of fans for a key rivalry game against Louisville City FC on Wednesday in a matchup that will determine first place in their group.
The Marion County Public Health Department did not provide a response to questions about the safety-plan differences between the two teams.
David Pierce, an associate professor of sports management in the IUPUI Department of Tourism, Event and Sport Management, said he finds the incongruity “odd.”
“Most stadiums have no fans right now, so I feel like [2,500 people] is kind of a middle ground,” he said. “But given the other events going on in the venue, it does seem like an arbitrary number.”
The smallest home crowd for the Eleven so far was the home opener on July 11—a crowd of 4,761—while the highest attended game was against Louisville on Sept. 5, which drew 6,778.
The Eleven said in a statement that the plan it submitted to the health department in early July has “resulted in one of the safest environments in professional sports.”
The team is one of several in the USL Championship league to allow fans at games, and it enforces strict social distancing and temperature check guidelines—just as the Colts have promised to do for their games.
“Indy Eleven and Lucas Oil Stadium worked diligently with local health and government agencies to create a comprehensive Health and Safety Plan for the return of live sports to the venue, one which would be in strict accordance with the state’s successful ‘Back on Track’ guidelines,” the Eleven’s statement said.
The Eleven declined to comment specifically on the crowd limit set for the Colts.
Andy Mallon, executive director of the Capital Improvement Board of Marion County, which operates Lucas Oil Stadium, responded to questions with a written statement that didn’t directly address the crowd-limit disparities.
“The Indiana Convention Center and Lucas Oil Stadium have safely hosted events of many sizes in the past month and, in all cases, our primary responsibility is the health and safety of attendees, vendors, and staff,” Mallon said. “Part of this responsibility is to work within the direction of the Marion County Health Department in regards to the [COVID-19] mitigation plan they have approved for each individual event.”
Unlike the Colts, the Eleven generally have crowds of far below 15,000 people. In fact, its record attendance is 20,251, set last March. In 2019, the Colts drew more than 61,000 fans per game, compared to the Eleven which drew an average of 10,734.
The Eleven’s announced attendance is also often higher than the total number of people who actually attend games, but by how much is not entirely clear. A broadcast of the team’s first game this season appeared to show fewer than half of the nearly 4,800 people who had tickets for the event. (The team and the CIB have declined to share turnstile counts for games since early 2019, despite multiple requests from IBJ.)
Pete Ward, chief operating officer for the Colts, told IBJ on Monday he doesn’t have enough concrete information to form an opinion about whether he thinks the capacity disparity between the Colts and the Eleven is warranted.
“I don’t know what the reasoning is behind it, so I would hesitate to comment on that,” he said.
The Colts had previously eyed a capacity of up to 15%—about 10,500 people—before the health department drastically cut down the first game’s attendance.
He said the Colts never discussed Indy Eleven’s plan during its own negotiations with local health officials.
“We never discussed Indy Eleven, and I think they have had their own conversations with the department of health,” Ward said. “I don’t know what has been discussed or what capacity they’re at.”
He said the Colts and the health department are still trying to determine plans and seating capacities for future games, but said he is “hopeful” the capacity for the team’s second home game will be higher than the first.
Pierce said he is surprised the health department did not make a blanket decision about how many fans will be permitted at Colts games throughout the season since it can be difficult for teams to plan ahead without that information.
“From an event management perspective, it does seem like a moving target at all times,” he said. “And so, that just becomes a challenge to rapidly pivot and contact people that have tickets if the number goes down.”