June 13, 2021

Opinion: More teams should join Milwaukee Bucks in turning games into vaccination drives

Go to a game, get a shot.

As the pace of COVID-19 vaccinations in the United States slows, more teams need to follow the lead of the Milwaukee Bucks and Racing Louisville FC, which used games this week to entice fans to get their first shots.

Racing Louisville gave free tickets to anyone who got vaccinated at a pop-up site at Monday’s game. The Bucks say any eligible fan 16 and over can be vaccinated at a mobile site in Fiserv Forum before and during Sunday’s game against the Brooklyn Nets.  

“We strongly encourage everyone to get vaccinated and are pleased to team with the Milwaukee Health Department to give fans this easy and convenient opportunity,” Bucks president Peter Feigin said in the statement announcing the program. “This is a critical time for all of us to take the necessary step that will help return our lives to normal.”

Where only a few weeks ago Americans were struggling to get vaccinated, stalking pharmacies for leftover doses and trading tips on social media about where to find appointments, many cities and states are beginning to see supplies of vaccines outweigh the demands. But with the world still in the grips of the COVID pandemic – there continue to be more than 50,000 new cases a day in the United States – and newer, more transmissible strains of the virus emerging, it’s imperative to get as many people as possible vaccinated, as quickly as possible.

Unfortunately, there are still too many people who are either reluctant to get the vaccine or will downright refuse it. There are still those spreading disinformation about the vaccine or the dangers of COVID, particularly about its impact on younger people.

I wish those spewing that particular lie – yes, Joe Rogan, I’m talking to you – could talk with Alex Kopacz, a gold medalist in bobsled for Canada at the 2018 Olympics. At 31, he was too young to be vaccinated in Ontario, where he lives, and wound up being hospitalized after contracting COVID.

“I’ve never felt so close to my own death before,” Kopacz, who was so fearful about his prognosis at one point that he drew up a will and said goodbye to family and friends, told The Canadian Press on Saturday.

Getting vaccinated is the best way to protect yourself and those around you. It’s also the only way we’re going to be able to return to the normal we so desperately crave, and if teams can use their games to help get us there, they must.

Because of their exalted status in this country, teams and leagues have a unique ability to influence and entice fans to get vaccinated. There will be some people who will be willing to let go of their fears or obstinance if it means free tickets to see their favorite team play. There are those who will be persuaded to roll up their sleeves because of the communal nature of our games.

And there will be some who will get their first shot at a game simply because they’re already there and the hassle has been removed.

The reasons don’t matter. Getting shots in as many arms as possible does, and public health officials are going to need to get more and more creative to make that happen as the weeks go on.

Many teams have already turned their arenas and stadiums into vaccination sites, so it should be easy to give out shots before and during games. For those that haven’t, I am confident local health officials would be happy to help them find some space for a mobile site in their cavernous buildings, many of which were paid for with taxpayer money.

And if teams need more incentive than doing a solid for their local communities, think of the financial impact. The more people who are vaccinated, the sooner capacities at stadiums and arenas can be expanded.

Which means more money for the teams and their owners.

“Selfishly, we know the more people who get vaccines, the faster we can get this place full,” said Jonathan Lintner, a spokesman for Racing Louisville, which is playing its inaugural season in the NWSL. “That’s the ultimate goal.”

No, the ultimate goal is to put this pandemic behind us. And, in this case, playing games can help do that. 

Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.