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Share with us, in the form at the end of this article, your personal experiences of watching sports live.
From the press box, I covered the Baltimore Orioles’ hosting the Chicago White Sox in an empty stadium on April 29, 2015, an afternoon of eerie quiet and desolation at Camden Yards.
It was believed to be the first major league game played without spectators. Balls leaving bats produced hollow echoes. No one scrambled to retrieve a home run or a foul ball and hand the souvenir to an excited child. The official attendance was announced as zero.
As mainstream sports begin to return during the coronavirus pandemic, social distancing will be vital. Filling a stadium to capacity would be reckless and probably lethal. At the same time, that barren game five years ago raises doubts about whether sports can fully sustain our devotion, or maintain their television audiences, if played for many weeks or months in front of empty seats.
Sure, social media, gambling and fantasy leagues stir fan interest. U.F.C., NASCAR, golf, German soccer and some other sports are holding competitions without fans on hand. And baseball leagues in South Korea and Taiwan have found early-season television audiences despite empty stadiums. But without live spectators for an extended period, traditional games risk being reduced to mathematics with trading cards, especially once the novelty of sports’ return wears off.
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.
Fallow stadiums would not signal a return to normalcy as states reopen. 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? Especially since many sports rely heavily on black and brown athletes while Covid-19 disproportionately affects the lives of black and brown people in the United States.
The optics would be “a little gladiator-like,” said Rick Gentile, a former longtime executive at CBS Sports who directs a sports poll at Seton Hall University’s business school.
“This isn’t the way you want to make history,” Chris Davis, the Orioles first baseman, said that day.
Inside the park, a sense of absence and loss was leavened by humor. Davis tossed balls to nonexistent fans between innings. Caleb Joseph, then the Orioles catcher, gave imaginary high-fives and signed make-believe autographs.
But bullpen phones could be heard ringing more than 400 feet from the dugouts. And players could hear the voices of broadcasters while on the field. This only heightened the feeling of vacancy.
When sports resume, networks could try to alleviate the silence with piped-in crowd noise, as Fox is considering, along with digitized fans. But this would further enhance the sense of artificiality, as do the sex dolls and the placards of faux, masked fans in South Korean soccer stadiums and the robot drummers in Taiwan’s baseball league.
Cooped-up Americans in general are eager to watch live sports, according to a recent poll conducted by Seton Hall. But one in five who consider themselves devoted sports fans said they would be less interested in watching broadcasts of games without spectators present.
“I’d hate to think that I’m going to do a broadcast and 20 percent of the people are already turned off,” said Gentile, the poll director. “I’m not sure that the viewing audience would be sustainable without a crowd at the event.”
Scores will be kept. Winners and losers will be declared. But without fans, the games might soon feel sterile.
A soccer game without fans “has no soul,” even if it becomes necessary, Bob Bradley, the manager of Los Angeles F.C., told reporters last month.
This can be seen in other sports. Watch again Tiger Woods’s impossible chip shot on the 16th hole at the 2005 Masters — and hear swelling expectation in the gallery as the ball rolls slowly toward the flag, beseeching shouts as the shot pauses on the lip of the cup, yowling release as the birdie plops into the hole. The eruptive joy and validation of fans elicit fist pumps from Woods and elevate his greatness beyond clinical expertise.
Joseph, the former Orioles catcher who is now with Toronto, told The Athletic during spring training that he could not imagine playing again without being caffeinated by a crowd. He compared the 2015 game to a coffee withdrawal “and kind of being dependent on that energy — and then out of nowhere it’s gone.”
TV viewers, too, will miss that energy in empty stadiums. But Gentile and other TV experts said they hoped Fox and other networks would avoid the off-putting trick of artificial crowd noise.
“That would be almost offensive,” Gentile said.
Which is the same response apologetic South Korean soccer officials had about the sex dolls.
We’d like to hear from you. When was your last significant moment at a live sporting event, either professional, scholastic or recreational? Does being there really matter?
Please share a photo or a video that you captured at a recent sporting event that resonated with you personally. How does it feel to look back at your memories?
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