Sunflower Showdown: Kansas State vs Kansas

Could this be what Bill Snyder Family Stadium looks like on gamedays this fall? That’s the plan, according to Kansas State athletics director Gene Taylor. K-State is expecting to be able to return to full attendance in 2021 after limiting capacity at the 50,000-seat stadium to approximately 25% last year.

Nearly five months remain until Kansas State will tee it up at Bill Snyder Family Stadium for the first time this fall. And as of now, K-State plans to have no limitations on fan attendance, and the stadium could be back at its 50,000-seat capacity.

“Until we hear anything different, yeah, that’s the plan,” K-State athletics director Gene Taylor told The Mercury in a phone interview Monday night. “All that can change if the virus explodes again, or if the county comes out (and tells us something different).”

K-State Athletics also is expecting to bring back tailgating (five hours prior to kickoff) as well as standard exit and re-entry to the stadium.

None of those things were permitted last year, as the coronavirus pandemic altered countless aspects of everyday life. Attendance at Bill Snyder Family Stadium was limited to approximately 25% capacity, or approximately 12,000 fans per game.

Taylor said his department’s decision-making is almost identical to what it was in April 2020.

“We were selling season tickets like we were going to have full capacity, too, so it’s not really that different than last year at this time,” he said. “We hadn’t offered refunds or anything of that nature until later in the summer.”

Two notable parts of the plan for this fall:

  • K-State hasn’t determined whether face coverings will be mandatory to enter the stadium;
  • Taylor said K-State likely won’t require spectators to prove they’ve received COVID-19 vaccinations.

The athletics department is taking the same tack.

For now.

“No, I don’t think we’re going to be asking for indications that they’ve been vaccinated,” Taylor said. “We’re assuming that things are going to be back to normal come September. That’s all I can tell you. If they’re not, we’ll make the necessary adjustments that we did last year.”

Any modifications would come because of decisions from one of two entities: Riley County commissioners, or the health department.

The county commissioners have not recently discussed the topic of K-State football attendance this fall.

For the health department, it’s too early to make any declaration.

“We have always had great communication and partnership with K-State,” Julie Gibbs, director of the Riley County Health Department, told The Mercury Tuesday afternoon. “When it gets closer to (the fall), we can let the data drive our decisions and put in all necessary precautions that are needed at that time.”

Taylor is prepared to work under any restrictions the county could enact.

“We don’t control what the county wants to do,” he said. “But again, this time last year, we were selling tickets as if we were going to have full capacity in the stadium, too. Then of course, all of that changed come summertime. So we’re hopeful with the vaccines and everything else that that’s not going to be the case.”

To develop the football attendance plan, Taylor has consulted with multiple sources, from health experts to the Big 12 Conference.

“Our doctors are saying, ‘The vaccinations are out there. We have plenty of vaccines,’” he said. “But if all of a sudden we have a spike in May or June or July and the county comes back and puts restrictions on us, then we’ll have to make those adjustments.”

Taylor said fans he’s spoken with regularly express their eagerness for things to return to normal. And he said that’s not just talk; as proof, he pointed to season-ticket sales.

“Our renewal rate is ahead of what it was last year,” he said. “It’s not at 90% yet, but it’s almost at 80%.”

Conversely, Taylor acknowledged there have been a handful of season ticket holders who didn’t renew, voicing concerns about the danger COVID still might present this fall — particularly at a stadium filled with tens of thousands of screaming fans.

“I think we’re absolutely going to have people who aren’t going to want to come back to a crowded stadium,” Taylor said, “there’s no question.”

Above all, Taylor is itching to put the pandemic in the rear-view mirror, ready to return to a time when the words “coronavirus” and “COVID-19” didn’t dominate international discourse. Bill Snyder Family Stadium welcoming back fans, without limitations, would be a step in that direction.

That won’t occur without careful deliberation, though.

“We’re not going to put anybody in harm’s way,” Taylor said. “If the county comes back to us and says, ‘It’s not safe to have 50,000 people,’ then we’ll do exactly like we did last year. There’s nothing different, other than we know we have a vaccine now. We know there are going to be more people vaccinated over the course of the summer. We anticipate that this is going to get under control.”

Flexibility, Taylor said, is paramount. He noted how quickly his department pivoted — multiple times — last year, from attendance policies with no fans to 5% to the eventual 25%. The same went for the discussions surrounding football schedules, centered around how many games would be played, and whether any non-conference contests still would occur.

The situation constantly changes.

Best-laid plans only go so far, after all.

“We can’t control this virus. But we have to move forward like everything is going to be back to normal,” Taylor said. “If we try to anticipate what’s going to happen, we’ll drive ourselves nuts.”

Mercury reporters Hailey Phillips and Savannah Rattanavong contributed to this story.