Utah is going to play football in 2021, but will the COVID-19 vaccine help get fans back to Rice-Eccles Stadium?

Rice-Eccles Stadium has hosted 64 straight sellouts dating back to 2010. If state reaches goal of vaccinating everyone by summer, it could happen.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) The University of Utah football team will be back on the field in Pac-12 play at Rice-Eccles Stadium despite the ongoing expansion project at the stadium's south end, Sept. 28, 2020.The expansion project will allow Rice Eccles to go from a capacity of 45,087 to 51,444 in both premium and non-premium seating. The project is scheduled to be completed by July.

There may have been a lot of uncertainty, a lot of testing, and a lot of cancellations, but the 2020 college football season got played, including five games for the University of Utah.

The 2020 season got played despite all the hurdles, so it stands to reason that the 2021 season will get played, too. The question then becomes, with a COVID-19 vaccine now part of the general pandemic equation, what will the Utes’ run-up to 2021 look like?

For starters, neither the NCAA, nor the Pac-12 has offered anything in terms of what spring football can or will look like. The current expectation at Utah is that whatever spring practice is conducted, it will be done so featuring the same elements that highlighted last season’s COVID-fueled effort.

“I am confident that we will continue to test our athletes heading into the spring,” Utah athletic director Mark Harlan told The Salt Lake Tribune last week. “I believe that we will be able to conduct our spring practices under the way we conducted our fall practices. I am confident we will be able to do that. We still have all of our daily-testing capabilities, we still have our lab set up here for all of our student-athletes, so I’m confident about that.

Added Utah football coach Kyle Whittingham last month: “We’re hoping that spring ball can have a return to normalcy, and get our 15 practices in, our spring game, and everything that usually goes on. That would be ideal, if we can get back to the routine.”

The COVID-19 vaccine rollout in the state of Utah is ongoing. Utahns that are 70 or older became eligible to receive it on Monday, following first responders and K-12 school staff. Beyond those groups, the Utah Department of Health expects the vaccine will be available in March for “other age groups, people with certain underlying medical conditions, and those who live in congregate settings.”

College students and, more specifically, student-athletes spending a considerable amount of time together in dorms and athletics facilities, would appear to fall under those living in congregate settings, but Harlan did not have a timetable for when the vaccine would reach his athletic department. Furthermore, when asked if he or athletic department medical personnel would mandate that student-athletes get the vaccine, Harlan said he would follow the lead of the university side on the matter.

What has been made clear is that Utah student-athletes will not be skipping the line, so the earliest anyone there is getting vaccinated would be March.

As far as the vaccine goes, Harlan is using that topic to bolster his optimism towards not only getting the 2021 season played safely, but doing so with a full crowd at Rice-Eccles Stadium.

With its official capacity listed at 45,807, Rice-Eccles has registered 64 consecutive sellouts dating back to the 2010 season-opener vs. the University of Pittsburgh. Thanks to the pandemic, there were no fans allowed at Utah’s three home games in 2020, costing the athletic department at least mid-seven figures in ticket revenue.

As Harlan, Whittingham and everyone else involved crave normalcy, part of that normalcy is to allow fans in the stadium and draw considerable ticket revenue.

Once the south end zone construction project is complete, the official capacity will rise to 51,444. There is healthy optimism within the athletic department that, if fans are allowed at the stadium, all of those new seats will be sold. Per Harlan, construction in the south end zone remains on schedule and on target for a July completion, in plenty of time for Utah’s Sept. 2 opener vs. in-state FCS power Weber State.

The state believes it can offer the vaccine to all residents by July, which is part of the reason Harlan believes a full Rice-Eccles is possible. As his athletic department did in June when a full 2020 12-game season was still on the table, Utah will eventually survey season-ticket holders on matters of comfortability with attending a game at Rice-Eccles.

Utah may be in a position to host fans this fall, but that doesn’t necessarily mean fans will come flocking back. At least, not immediately.

“It comes down to, will we be able to open the gates and have our fans back and I just believe that we can,” Harlan said. “I think we’ve come a long way with the vaccine. Then, there’s the comfortability of the fan, so we’re going to spend a lot of time with our season-ticket holders as we go into the renewal process. We want to survey them, we want to know how they’re feeling, we want to know what we can do to make them as comfortable as we can.”