Return of fans to NYC sporting venues bringing sense of normalcy 2 years since COVID

COVID New York Sports
Connecticut Huskies forward Adama Sanogo tips off against Villanova Wildcats forward Brandon Slater to start the Big East Tournament semifinal game at Madison Square Garden.
Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

When the sports world stopped in March of 2020, there was one moment that stood out in many people’s memory. As college basketball tournaments across the country announced their cancellations, the Big East forged on with their tournament at Madison Square Garden. 

That was until halftime of the quarterfinals game between St. John’s and Creighton. The players walked off the court at halftime never to return as the conference called off the rest of the tournament and sports in the US paused due to COVID-19. 

Two years later, sports in New York City has started to regain some of the normalcy that it once held prior to the pandemic. Last week Madison Square Garden returned in all its glory as the epicenter of Big East basketball and the ACC took up shop across the Brooklyn Bridge at Barclays Center for their men’s basketball conference tournament. 

“Ultimately sports bring everyone together. It’s a community for people to gather around,” said Jared Lowenthel, who was at Tuesday’s Rangers win over the Anaheim Ducks. “I think the Big East Tournament and even what was going on at Barclays with the ACC simultaneously are just great moments for people to like get together. Honestly, the last time the four of us went to a Rangers game was March 4 of 2020, so we were on the other side of things. 

“Just being back here having the concourse filled is great.” 

This season for all of New York’s pro teams marked the first time they’ve played in front of full arenas since the pandemic started in 2020. Things took another step towards normality just recently when New York City Mayor Eric Adams lifted the Key2NYC mandate which, in part, required fans going to Knicks, Nets, Rangers and college basketball games inside the five boroughs to be vaccinated to enter the building. 

Even on Long Island, vaccine and mask requirements were lifted at UBS Arena, where the New York Islanders play.  

The Big East and ACC Tournaments were the first sporting events held in New York following the lifting of the Key2NYC mandate, followed by Sunday’s Nets game against the Knicks at Barclays Center. And after playing last season’s tournament with a limited capacity, Madison Square Garden was filled with Big East Basketball fans once again this year. 

I want to say how blessed we all think we are to play here, be part of the Big East in Madison Square Garden,” Villanova basketball head coach Jay Wright said after winning the conference title. ” You guys were here, you watched it. There’s nothing like this. Playing the game is awesome, but doing it in here, with these fans, and at this storied arena, it’s just off the charts.”

Boston College ACC Tournament
General view during the first half between the Pittsburgh Panthers and the Boston College Eagles at Barclays Center.Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

While only two of New York’s four professional sports teams in action look bound for a postseason run, Both the Rangers and Nets are in a playoff spot in their respective sports, but that hasn’t diminished the excitement of local fans for the normality that is returning to the games that they love. 

“The past couple of years have been tough,” Rangers fan Sam Christiansen said. “Seeing what’s happened to the New York community. Being back with a packed stadium and certainly having the Rangers performing at a top level it feels right. It’s just exciting to be a part of it.”

While the optimism is palpable in most venues around the city as people begin to turn the page on COVID, its impacts are still playing a part in the current sports sphere. Private sector mandates have continued to keep Nets superstar Kyrie Irving off the basketball court in Brooklyn.

The Nets star is unvaccinated and thus barred from playing home games, which has become as much of a topic as the Nets play itself. That could impact the Mets and Yankees season as well with a number of players also remaining unvaccinated.