Why Sports Can’t Go on with Empty Stadiums

The Covid-19 pandemic has had an obvious effect on the sporting world: fans cannot attend games in person.

The Covid-19 pandemic has had an obvious effect on the sporting world: fans cannot attend games in person. Season ticket holders and one-time attendees alike were relegated to watching on television, and while the media has discussed the tangible effects of empty stadiums on teams’ revenue and the newfound silence, few people have argued staunchly on behalf of fans’ emotional interests. We need to reshape the way we think about this crucial aspect of professional sports: the fans who comprise live audiences and the role they play in professional sports. Fans need to return to stadiums not so that owners can sell tickets, but to make sporting events complete: to fill the gaping emotional hole fans once filled.

In-person fans are an undeniably crucial asset to any league, and no matter the advancements in virtual fan engagement, the NBA and other leagues cannot readily compensate for the atmosphere they create. LeBron James said, “I definitely love playing in front of the fans. The fans are what make the game...Without the fans, I wouldn’t be who I am today.” People provide an electric atmosphere that music, artificial cheers, or trash talk simply cannot reproduce. For example, when then Toronto Raptors forward Kawhi Leonard hit the buzzer-beating game winner in Game 7 of the 2019 NBA Eastern Conference Semifinals against the Philadelphia 76ers, the deafening cheers of the 20,000 fans inside Scotiabank Arena were more than enough to give any casual fan watching from home goosebumps. Imagine if that historic game-winning shot occured in the NBA Bubble with no fans present. The moment would not have felt nearly as significant. These 2020 playoffs yielded monumental game-winners such as Luka Doncic’s in Game 4 of the first round against the Los Angeles Clippers and 2020 NBA Champion Anthony Davis’ in Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals, but both felt emptier without fans. As leagues adjust and retool for the new seasons, they must do everything in their power to safely reintroduce fans back to the games.

However, it is important to acknowledge that, with the absence of in-person fans, the National Basketball Association (NBA) Bubble did add a new, enjoyable element to the television experience. Davis of the Los Angeles Lakers said, “We miss the fans. But when you’re playing in front of fans, that noise drowns out a lot of the trash talk that goes on out there on the court...You hear everything from anybody and everybody [now].” The Bubble, however, spotlighted on-court communication, as essentially every player on the floor was somewhat “mic’d up,” an occasional media exercise pre-Bubble where certain players would play with small microphones attached to their jerseys. For the first time, fans could more distinctly hear exchanges between players, coaches, and referees. Hearing the on-court talk could develop a whole new level of fan engagement, making us feel like we’re actually part of the game. This will not be so easily captured when fans repopulate the arenas, and for this reason, leagues and networks should continue to expand their “mic’d up” programs. That being said, we should not lose sight of the in-person fan’s importance.

The lack of passion in the stands applies to other leagues as well, including the National Football League (NFL), where the feeling of playing on the “big stage” disappears with the absence of fans. Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers said that the silence in the stadium “threw [him] off,” and the relative silence in NFL stadiums makes for strange atmospheres. New England Patriots cornerback Jason McCourty explained that it “felt more like a high school scrimmage” than a typical NFL game. Much of the pressure and excitement that comes with playing in the NFL can be attributed to the fans who keep players accountable for their every action. Without spectators that cheer at every first down and “boo” at every dropped pass, players struggle to reach the intensity level of previous games. Fans provide extraordinary energy and passion, and while athletes do get paid to play, that energy further motivates and inspires them, be it positively or negatively, to perform.

Simply put, dedicated fans want to return to their home stadiums. Live games offer an infinitely more memorable, sensual experience than watching or listening on the television or radio. It’s an escape from reality where one can make visceral connections with fellow fans, with one’s family, and with one’s team. When an entire crowd chants, there is nothing else in one’s head than the emotion of the moment. The chant, “Olé, Olé Olé Olé,” brings people together and rings in the ears and hearts of soccer fans everywhere. When doing the wave, the only thing that matters is making sure that one stands up at the precise moment, hands waving and people yelling with maximum excitement. Those elements shape the unique emotional experience of watching in person, where worries disappear and all that’s left is one’s rush of adrenaline and pounding heart. Sports were around long before television, broadcasting, and radio stations. Live fans from decades past made our favorite sports relevant and exciting today, something we should never forget or delegitimize.

As many grow accustomed to viewing sports through their electronic screens, one must not forget the emotions that are entrenched in the traditions of all sports. Teams in major leagues can always find a way to make up for lost ticket sales, but nothing replaces tens of thousands of strangers coming together to enjoy a memorable game. The value of sports lies in its ability to connect players and fans to the inherent, shared emotion of athletic competition.

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