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Monday, May 27, 2024

Trying to fill the void

Sport leagues across the world combat the inability to host fans

For a variety of reasons, this past year was difficult for sports around the world. Stadiums were mostly empty because of local restrictions caused by the pandemic. As teams approached their seasons without any fans in the stands, numerous unique innovations were created to fill the void in games. Thanks to technology, fans are now allowed to attend live games from their homes. 

The National Football League (NFL) started its season back in September 2020 and the number of attendees drastically dropped, as some stadiums were not allowed to have any fans in the arena. To help fans stay engaged on game days, Microsoft teamed up with the NFL and created a platform so fans could attend the games through a digital screen, which brought a different experience from past years.

“As demographics and viewing habits change and society becomes more digital in the way they consume information, the venues also have to change,” said Bennett Indart, a vice president at NTT Smart World Solutions.

These fan screens are called “fan mosaics” and will only be seen on the end zones of the field in key games with no fans, so that players are able to interact with them. For every game, Microsoft creates audio modifications to project an augmented crowd noise and try to mimic that of a real game.

This year’s fans will not be able to line up on ropes or cheer for their favorite players in the U.S. Women’s Open. While the pandemic made it difficult to host the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) tournaments, the U.S. Golf Association and Cisco launched an app that provided viewers with an at-home experience.

The virtual experience has been designed so fans can download the app and watch the tournament from a distance. Not only will fans have a complete experience, but they will also have access to real-time scores, stats, highlights, live-streaming video, player tracking and more.

 Being connected through a screen not only gives fans the joy of watching live, but it gives leagues an opportunity to expand the audience. 

“Cisco brings the technology that enables us to connect fans to the U.S. Open,” said Bryan Miranda, the senior director of partnerships at the United States Golf Association (USGA).

Major League Baseball (MLB) took a different approach to filling in the seats of the stadiums. Teams placed cardboard cutouts of people in each seat, relied on fake fan noise and had music along with the usual in-stadium PA announcers. 

At first, Fox Sports had to move quickly and broadcast games without any fans on the stands. As the season progressed, they moved to augmented reality to fill the void of the empty stadium caused by the ongoing pandemic. The MLB teamed up with Silver Spoon Animation to create realistic virtual crowds in the stadium.

“We believe the crowd and seeing people in seats is part of a broadcast, is part of broadcasting high level sports in the major leagues,” said Brad Zager, the executive producer and head of production and operations at Fox Sports. “So we wanted to come up with a solution for that.”

Similarly, in the beginning of the soccer season, fans had no way of interacting with the game. The only way to watch the games was from your home on live television. The stadiums were completely empty, there were no in-stadium commentators and the shouts from players could be heard. 

Popular soccer leagues from all over the world began to take different approaches. La Liga, Spain’s top flight league, generated screens with virtual fans, similar to MLB’s and added the normal sounds of a typical game. 

“We respect a lot what the Bundesliga are doing and the Premier League, and the NBA, but what we are doing will be different,”said La Liga’s audiovisual director Melcior Soler. “We are thinking of this as a televised entertainment spectacle. What we are going to do is make you recall what you are used to seeing when the stadiums are full.”

Soler says his digital team and La Liga have been working with EA Sports and Norwegian technology specialists Vizrt to produce images which trick the eye into thinking the stands are full of fans.

Every sports league has had a tough time figuring out a solution to help fans feel present at a game. Now, with the never-ending development of technology, they were able to make it possible in less than a few months. As sports continue to evolve and improve, technology seems to do so at the same time.
Written by: Katherin Raygoza sports@theaggie.org


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