Oklahoma City Thunder won't host fans for 2020-21 season, becoming first NBA team to go that route

In an email sent to season-ticket holders on Tuesday, the Oklahoma City Thunder announced they will not be hosting fans at home games at any capacity for the 2020-21 season, becoming the first NBA team to decide to go fanless for the entire season.

"The decision was based on several factors," the email said. "The ultimate one being that the overall health and safety of our fans and our community is the most important thing to us."

Prior to the beginning of the season, the Thunder intended to host fans at limited capacity, with health and safety protocols in place throughout the arena. However, with the fall spike in COVID-19 cases across the country, and Oklahoma hit particularly hard, the team announced in late November it would begin the season without fans.

But despite a positive trend line in dropping cases and hospitalizations in the state, the Thunder made the final decision to continue the season without fans, citing that it is "too soon" and that there are "too many variables that still must be overcome" to bring thousands of fans back into the arena.

"Our long-term personal relationships with our fans are something that we value deeply, and as we look toward our future with you, it is critical for us to ensure that when you do come back, it is in a safer environment than the one we are currently in," the team said.

With the Philadelphia 76ers and Charlotte Hornets announcing plans to host fans later this month, there are now 18 teams that are either welcoming fans back into arenas or have a plan to in the near future. Teams allowing fans are doing it at reduced capacity so as to allow for physical distancing, with attendance in the 10-15% range (typically around 3,000 total fans).

The Thunder, known for their enthusiastic home fan base, said the "limited game experience" fans would encounter "under the strict conditions that would be required" also played a factor in the decision.

"The current protocols that are necessary would not allow us to live up to our standards of a high-level and engaging entertainment experience," the team said. "We have always felt an obligation to deliver in this area for our fans, but under these circumstances, we don't feel that it is possible."

In Oklahoma, public health measures such as masking and physical distancing have been polarizing issues. And within the organization, there is an awareness of the tension that enforcing protocols at games could create between the team and fans.

The email said the Thunder want to instead focus attention on preparing to host fans for the 2021-22 season.

"We want to make sure that your experience at our games is always safe, healthy and the best it can be," the team said. "We look forward to having you back next season under those conditions."