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Will Sports Be the Same Without Fans in the Stands?

5 Jun, 2020

By: Michael Popke

Will watching professional and college sports on TV with no spectators make a difference in how fans experience the games?

Glenn Cummins, a professor at Texas Tech University who has studied the effect of crowd noise on sports viewing, thinks so.

“Social aspects are obviously such a crucial part of the sports viewing experience, and that’s if you’re watching at the stadium or in the arena, or whether you’re watching at home. It’s an inherently social activity that you watch with others,” Cummins told Yahoo! Sports as discussions accelerated about ways to jumpstart Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association, the National Hockey League, NASCAR, English Premier League soccer and college sports. “Such a big part of the broadcast is trying to capture some of that in-person, in-stadium experience. When all of a sudden that component is absent from the broadcast, it is striking. It’s something that, until it’s absent, we give so little thought to. It’s a very eerie experience.”

Get ready for a very eerie summer into fall.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who became a national figure after his state emerged as the coronavirus epicenter of the United States, asked major professional sports leagues to begin planning to resume play with no fans in the stands. He still, however, encourages them to broadcast the games.

“New York state will help those major sport franchises to do just that,” Cuomo said at one of his daily news briefings in May. “Hockey, basketball, baseball, football, whoever can reopen we’re a ready, willing and able partner. … I think this is in the best interest of all the people and in the best interest of the state of New York. And then they’ll be up and running and when we can fill a stadium again, we can fill a stadium. But why wait until you can fill a stadium before you start to bring the team back? And if you can televise it in the meantime, great.”

Talk of spectator-free events has — no surprise here — generated a vast difference of opinion.

“Playing a Grand Slam is the greatest thing there is, and playing without fans who are our engine doesn’t look nice to me, and the Grand Slam doesn’t deserve it,” two-time Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova, told Agence France-Presse. The French Open, one of professional tennis’ four Grand Slam events, has been pushed back from late May to mid-September. “Of course, I would like to play another Grand Slam, but if it’s like this, I’d rather cancel them.”

Yahoo! Sports reports that Kvitova’s remarks came before the start of  an all-Czech tournament in Prague played with no fans or handshakes.

On the other hand, University of Michigan head football coach Jim Harbaugh would have no problem leading his team onto the field of an empty venue — even if it’s Michigan Stadium, the largest football stadium in the country with a capacity of more than 107,000.

“Heck, yeah, I’d be comfortable coaching a game without any fans,” he told ESPN’s “Get Up!” podcast. “If the choice were play in front of no fans or not play, then I would choose to play in front of no fans. And darn near every guy I’ve talked to on our team, that’s the way they feel about it.”

In Germany, soccer club Borussia Mönchengladbach placed more than 12,000 cardboard cutouts of fans (including season tickets holders who paid for the privilege) in seats at 54,000-seat Borussia-Park for a recent match against Bayer Leverkusen. “The cardboard cutouts are a monument — they’re supposed to show that football without fans just isn’t the same,” proclaimed the team’s Twitter account. “It’s a great campaign which provides a lot of atmosphere in the stadium.”

Similarly, KBO — South Korea’s baseball league — has perched cardboard cutouts in the stands of fans wearing team jerseys and sporting speech bubbles. Likenesses of members of the K-Pop group BTS, as well as those dogs, cats and babies, can be found in the mix. “The idea is so wholesome,” concludes Hector Diaz, a writer for SBNation.com.

Meanwhile, Fox Sports broadcaster Joe Buck has gone on record saying the network probably will pump in crowd noise and project virtual fans if the NFL winds up playing in empty stadiums.

“It’s pretty much a done deal,” Buck told SiriusXM’s Andy Cohen Live. “I think whoever is going to be at that control is going to have to be really good at their job and be realistic with how a crowd would react depending on what just happened on the field. So it’s really important. And then on top of that ... They’re looking at ways to put virtual fans in the stands, so when you see a wide shot it looks like the stadium is jam-packed and in fact it’ll be empty.”

Still, replicas of fans will never replace real ones.

“For those watching on television, spectators are necessary surrogates. They provide jersey-wearing pageantry, face-painted tribalism and adrenaline for the players. Their responses of jubilation and anguish verify our passionate responses. Their voices become our soundtrack, collectively rising in anticipation, thunderously exhaling in joy or disapproval. And they reinforce the belief that we can directly influence the outcome of a game with our loyalty and howling presence,” writes longtime New York Times sports reporter Jeré Longman, who covered what is considered the first Major League Baseball game ever played without fans, between the Chicago White Sox and the Baltimore Orioles in 2015.

“Fallow stadiums would not signal a return to normalcy as states reopen,” he continues. “They would confirm that we remain in a time of dire abnormality, undercutting the appeal of sports as escape and distraction. And they would raise an uncomfortable question: If it is unsafe for people to gather in the stands or in places like restaurants and parks, why is it acceptable to ask athletes to compete for our entertainment?”

As with everything else about COVID-19, there are no easy answers.

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