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Tuesday, April 23, 2024

A new reality

As sports begin the process of returning, packed arenas aren’t coming with them

There is nothing like walking into your favorite stadium or arena and feeling the tense atmosphere of competition. From the second the game starts to every exciting moment during it, being at a live sporting event is an experience that is nearly impossible to recreate. But at this moment, that feeling seems like a relic of the past. With the ongoing COVID-19 crisis and no signs of returning to normalcy anytime soon, the belief is that sports will have to enter a new era — the era of empty arenas. 

If leagues like the NBA, MLB and NHL elect to resume their activities, they will have to do so by following health guidelines, including the exclusion of fans. 

When you think about the most iconic moments in sports, the swell of cheers and emotional reactions from the crowd are a significant part of them. Whether it’s a big shot, a clutch home run or a timely goal, the explosion of sound that accompanies it is unique. For the time being, it appears to be the end of that.

Before the season came to a halt, the NBA was gearing up for its postseason that was scheduled to begin in mid-April. Now, the league is beginning to finalize a plan to continue the season in July, and it seems like all games will be played in Orlando, Florida without fans. The playoffs are always intense, but if the NBA ends up proceeding with this plan, the element of home-court advantage will not be a factor. In terms of any sort of advantage, everyone seems to be on equal footing. 

“You still focus on winning the game, but you need the extra wind in the back to push you and give you energy that basketball is all about,” Dallas Mavericks center Boban Marjanovic told Bleacher Report. “When you hear the fans, hearing everyone cheer your name, say something good to you, you feel awesome.”

Fans give players an extra boost of adrenaline in a NBA game and can sometimes be the deciding factor in the outcome of a series. At least for this season, that won’t be the case. But, some still see this as a positive and unique experience. 

“I guess playing without fans would be much more like a typical practice environment and I think that the one thing about these guys is they don’t compete any less hard in practice,” Boston Celtics head coach Brad Stevens told reporters a few weeks ago. “In fact, sometimes in those quiet gyms where you can hear everything somebody else is saying, it gets even more feisty. And so, I think that it would be great basketball if we’re able to do that.”

The MLB was preparing for the start of its season when everything was put on hold. Now, it is working on a plan for a shortened 82-game season without fans in attendance. Anaheim Angels superstar Mike Trout doesn’t seem to mind it. 

“It’s going to be strange,” Trout told FOX Business. “I think any baseball is better than no baseball, so if we have to do it, we have to do it. It’s definitely something to get used to. It’s the world we’re living in right now. If that’s what it takes to get back, obviously that’s what we’ve got to do to get back.”

“I think that’s going to be tough for a lot of guys because people feed off the electric crowds, people feed off the energy,” Trout said. “But I think everybody’s just anxious to get back.”

Unlike the NBA, which was close to wrapping up its regular season, the MLB’s regular season never officially got underway. After the extended hiatus, there is now a growing competitive itch among those in baseball to get out on the field, regardless of whether the season is shortened or not. 

The NFL regular season does not begin until September, but what happens from now until then is still largely unclear. Being that football stadiums are typically outdoors and much larger in capacity than that of other types of arenas, there could be a case where fans are allowed in the stadium under social distancing guidelines. But at the moment, it seems that the NFL is planning to carry on as normal.

“We are planning to have full stadiums until the medical community tells us otherwise. Now remember when we’re talking—we’re talking about September, August, September,” NFL Executive Vice President of Football Operations Troy Vincent said on “The Brian Mitchell Show” on The Team 980. “So there’s a lot that can happen here. So we’re planning for full stadiums.”

“We also know that we have to plan for half stadiums. Three-quarters. So we’re planning for all of these different scenarios. But first and foremost, we’re making every effort, working with the medical community, if we can have those stadiums with all people until they tell us otherwise when that time comes, that’s our plan. That’s our plan of action.”

As Vincent said, a lot can change, for better or worse, between now and the beginning of the NFL season. There is still concern that games may be played without fans in attendance, and that doesn’t seem to sit well with some players. 

“You need fans to play a game,” Los Angeles Rams all-pro defensive tackle Aaron Donald said in a video conference with reporters. “I don’t see how you could play a game without no fans. I feel like that takes out the excitement and the fun out of the game.” 

Many other athletes and many of the team owners share similar sentiments. For owners and league executives, the financial losses that would result from a shortened or fan-less season would be quite large. The hope is that this will be the only year that these types of changes would have to be made, but it will take some time to recover from the billions in lost revenue. 

The return of sports with games being played in empty gyms, rinks or stadiums could offer some interesting new features for fans watching at home. With no noise aside from the action itself, fans could be able to hear everything players and coaches say, from trash talk to coaching tips throughout the game. How television networks approach this new reality remains to be seen, but they will have to get creative if they want to avoid some vulgar language. 

“Now you’re gonna hear everything,” former New York Knicks coach David Fizdale told NBC San Diego. “You’re gonna hear dialogue between people. You’re gonna hear a lot of vulgarities. You’re going to hear a lot more conversations. I think it’s going to add a cool element to TV games.”

As Fizdale suggested, the idea of miking up players across all sports during the games could provide those watching with a unique experience. It will definitely take some adjusting, but it has the potential to be positive if done correctly.

Another thing that could change is the mental side of the game for players, where the absence of fans could help those players who tend to crack — or “choke” — under pressure. It could also affect those who do show up in high-pressure situations, as the pressure may not be as intense, leading to a let-down from someone who would otherwise show up. 

“You remove (the crowd) altogether, you’re probably going to see changes in performance for individual players,” chairman for the University of Buffalo’s department of communication Mark Frank told CBS Sports. “Those who tend to rise up for the moment, their performances may not be as good. Whereas others, for example, some who have a reputation for choking may choke less because of the lack of arousal that takes them into that domain.”

This new reality of limited fan attendance will take some time to get used to, but for those who crave sports, it will likely not matter as much. Just the return of sports alone would be enough to satisfy fans who have been waiting for something to cheer about. Right now, the health and safety of the athletes, coaches and the public is and should be the number one priority. Perhaps someday stadiums and arenas will be packed with screaming fans once again. 

Written by: Omar Navarro — sports@theaggie.org


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