Essential reporting in volatile times.

Not a Subscriber yet? Click here to take advantage of All access digital limited time offer $2.99 per month EZ Pay.

Interested in Donating? Click #ISupportLocal for more information on supporting local journalism.

There is one group of people who are underestimated and often underappreciated in the sports world.

The fans.

Despite rising ticket prices, despite mandatory contributions to keep seats, despite rising concession prices, despite convenient game times being changed to inconvenient by television …

Despite all that and more, fans continue to attend.

Yet, in the throes of the coronavirus pandemic, what group of people is the first to be thrown under the bus by professional and collegiate sports leaders?

Who else?

The fans.

Major League Baseball is discussing opening the season in early July, but with one caveat: No fans. Similar situations are occurring in the NFL, NBA and NHL.

The same policy is being discussed by the leaders of major college football. If and when the 2020 season begins, there is talk of no fans or allowing only 25 percent stadium capacity and on and on.

A game without fans is comparable to the old adage “If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, did it make a sound?” Updated version: If a game is played in an empty stadium, did anyone really win?

The answer is — no.

This is a twin-edged situation. Sports are dependent on fans, and fans are dependent on sports. They need each other.

Yet all our sports leaders seem to be minimizing the “fan effect.”

There’s one reason for that.

Television.

Since professional and collegiate sports have lucrative television contracts, a considerable amount of revenue still is going to roll in despite the absence of fans. That’s why the sports leaders are so eager and anxious to get their particular sport up and competing — with or without fans.

These leaders are missing the boat.

For starters, how can anyone assume fans will flock back into stadiums to cheer for their favorite teams? After all, the coronavirus pandemic is ongoing. Who knows how many fans will be willing to throw caution to the wind?

My guess is there will be some. But there also will be frightened fans who won’t expose themselves or their families to the potential threat of exposure that comes with thousands of fans in an open-air arena.

I mean, who can imagine sitting in Mountaineer Field at Milan Puskar Stadium or in Joan C. Edwards Stadium and practicing “social distancing”?

It would be pretty difficult to do the wave while sitting 6 feet apart.

Then, there’s the No. 1 factor.

Television.

Wow, talk about a twin-edged sword.

The former bane of sports fans’ existence is now their salvation. Fans don’t have to put themselves at risk by attending sporting events. Instead, they can stay home and safely watch the game on television.

How much easier — and safer — could it get?

That’s where sports leaders had better start worrying. It would be very easy — not to mention, a lot cheaper — to stay home and watch the game, eat your own concessions and drink your own beverages.

Don’t have to pay to park, either.

How habit-forming could that become? Either fans can’t attend sporting events or are afraid to, so they stay home and watch on television, get accustomed to it, realize the money they are saving and see no reason to attend any more games.

We are, after all, creatures of habit.

The sports leaders in our nation had better pay attention to this scenario.

It would be a big mistake to take fans for granted.

Chuck Landon is a sports columnist for The Herald-Dispatch. Contact him at clandon@herald-dispatch.com.