On TV, the NFL sounds pretty similar to what it would be like without coronavirus. You have ambient crowd noise, which jumps up when a big play is made, and is accompanied by an announcement from within the stadium. If you were watching the games on mute, you almost couldn’t tell that the only people in the stadiums are staff and players. Careful camera shots eliminate the stands, so as to present the illusion of a full stadium. This is part of a series of measures taken by the NFL to reduce COVID-19 transmission risks, while still running a full 17-week (plus playoffs) schedule. And the NFL isn’t alone. Most pro-sports leagues are seriously limiting or not allowing fan attendance at games. And with little to no live fans, the games aren’t quite the same. So how are leagues and teams keeping fans in the game?
In the NFL, fans are being let in very selectively. The league appears to be letting organizations determine how they want to regulate fans. Most teams have so far kept their stadiums empty, despite plans to reevaluate after the first two weeks. As part of their deal with Microsoft, the NFL is placing LED screens that will show fans, and allow teams to celebrate with their fans in the end zone after a touchdown.
The MLB has taken a more old school approach for the stadium, placing cardboard cutouts in the stands. Fans could buy them for the season at a fairly reasonable rate, and I almost got some for the Mariners. Not all teams are doing this, and some have instead placed photos of essential workers, or photos of players out with COVID in the stands. On TV, fans are being projected into the stands using the same tech that puts first down lines on the field in televised football games.
The NBA took a comprehensive approach to virtual fans, as part of their deal with Microsoft, similar to the NFL. The NBA used Microsoft Teams, their video conference software, to place groups of people in stands, as you would in an NBA game. This shared space created some interesting celebrity meetups, such as Shaq and former president Barack Obama, during game one of the finals. These meetings are being shown in the stadium as well, so the players can share in the experience.
The MLS was afforded a trial run of live fans with the MLS is Back tournament, ahead of their season’s return in February. They used a similar principle as the NBA, using virtual stands to simulate the experience of being in the stadium. They also allowed people outside of the virtual rooms to view the same things that were being shown to the people who had paid for access to the virtual rooms. The use of certain hashtags could land you in the TV broadcast, and the inclusion of pets was encouraged, as it was in all sports leagues.
As with everything since March, sports are weird now. But the efforts by sports leagues to try and include fans have been commendable and inventive. Even if sport viewing never returns to normal, we’ll certainly have an effective way of watching sports that still gives fans many ways to express their support.