Despite there being no end in sight to the pandemic, soccer has resumed all over the world. Perhaps the most prevalent restart has occurred in England, home to the Premier League. The world’s game is back in full swing.
Soccer is not alone in its timely return to a new season for all its sport-starved fans; the sport is joined by the thirty-two teams of the National Football League in their quest for Super Bowl LV. The NBA, too, continues to play, with their bubble approaching its end by way of a Los Angeles Lakers v. Miami Heat championship finale after three months of existence. The US Open also just concluded in dramatic fashion, with Naomi Osaka claiming the women’s title and cementing her seat at the table among tennis’ elite.
In one sense, everything is normal in the sporting world: Lebron & Company’s Lakers still look like the team to beat in the NBA, Tom Brady is somehow still throwing a football at age 43, and, despite the overwhelming evidence otherwise (and inevitable choke), Manchester United fans are still saying, “This is our year.” On the contrary, it is quite an unusual time. In fact, it is downright unprecedented.
Sports leagues around the world are dealing with a massive change that goes beyond instituting a season: for the first time in recent memory, fans are not allowed to attend games. At first, this seemed like the least of the problems facing any league trying to restart play when the literal act of sporting involves doing pretty much everything on the “don’t” checklist for COVID transmission.
But, after a couple weeks of this new, fanless experience, it has become abundantly clear that fans are the cornerstone of any sporting endeavor. Sports just aren’t the same without the high-fiving, tail-gating, figure-out-how-to-rhyme-a-swear-with-the-other-team’s-name conglomerate of sports fans.
Most leagues’ responses to the current, fan-free climate have been unilateral and overstated as they seek to induce as much normalcy as possible. Fans are invited to watch via Zoom, players do not have to wear masks, and most consequentially, leagues from all sports have decided to artificially create a traditional match day environment by piping prerecorded fan noises into the stadium or, in some cases, even directly integrating this canned audio into the broadcast for a more “realistic” atmosphere.
The Premier League, in particular, has really caught my attention as a proponent of using “canned noise” for their matches. It is impossible not to see the barren stadium and masked staff seated on the sidelines; despite what the league might have you think, it really is a different experience. The fake crowd sounds on NBC’s Peacock Premium platform does not hold a candle to being one of 40,000 spectators at Stamford Bridge in London, or even just watching those Chelsea fans go ballistic through the TV screen as Christian Pulisic scores a solo goal.
There are some sports, however, that have decided to embrace the lack of fans instead of compensating with fake noise. The WNBA has declined piped-in noise for the remainder of their fanless season, and it is fascinating to hear the players struggle for the ball, call out plays, and generally squeak around the court. Another great case is tennis; the sport has long been following a rule of general silence while play is occurring, even when fans were permitted to attend matches. It’s equally intimate and frankly boosts my viewing enjoyment.
Attempts to revive in-person fan culture also beg the question of what actually makes for an enjoyable viewing experience in the first place. The French Open provides the game, set, and match; though a socially-distanced audience of 1,000 is allowed to spectate in-person, the lack of cohesion and the general amount of artificial noise produced leaves me feeling worse than watching an empty stadium. While tennis’ dictations may be a bit idiosyncratic, can you imagine only 1,000 fans in the Super Dome? It would certainly be a sad spectacle. All or nothing is the way to go with professional sporting environments, and with the former impossible, it seems empty stadiums are the best, and most authentic, course of action.
A sneak peek into what’s actually being said in the field of play is also an incredibly neat thing, and something we don’t normally get a chance to hear, so why not take advantage of a situation that raucous chants will prevent us from ever having again? I, for one, am a massive proponent of the anti-artificial noise cause. I want to know who’s yelling and what they’re saying, the coach’s instructions, and the referee’s chats with an egregious foul-committer. Give me a Tottenham-Arsenal spat in its London-lilted glory. Give me Pep Guardiola screaming at De Bryune to “pass better” (as if that’s even possible). Give me an audible sigh from Mike Dean after harangued about a yellow card. If I can’t have the regular Premier League experience, I at least want an interesting replacement.
Of course, this intimacy would compel its own challenges: professional sports are notorious for foul language, and divulgement of strategy on live television is probably the last thing teams want. But I’m inclined to think that these are more liability of the game than a flaw exacerbated by a changed format, and am certainly willing to accept these complications as part of a weirder, potentially cooler viewing situation.
I can’t imagine that the artificial atmosphere feels the same for the players as having fans in the stadiums right now, either. So, why even bother? Let’s sit with change and enjoy it for what it is; an anomalous atmosphere for a peculiar period of sports.