A Depressing Sight
We are at a point where a packed stadium or simply stands filled with fans seem alien or even worse: as if they were artifacts of the past. The pandemic has emptied arenas, gyms, bleachers, etc. Yes, sports are back - at least some of the most high-profile - but how authentic is the experience since it lacks its natural surroundings and some of its most essential aspects - its emotional components, its togetherness, the interconnectedness with fans.
If you do not participate, it is difficult to be up close at sporting events in 2020/21. Even journalists' access is cut short and extremely limited. Therefore, currently the focus lies heavily on catering to the audience at home in front of their screens, but without fans being present even the TV-experience is simply not the same. In the meantime, we got used to hearing fake-crowd-noises and seeing the coaching staff and benchwarmers sporting masks while sitting several feet apart. However, this does not mean we are happy about this development or even content with it.
The aforementioned imagery does not convey the same emotions as spectacles like the NBA usually do. Togetherness, a shared fascination (for the sport) and a certain intimacy are the key aspects that make the experience as intriguing as it is. Unfortunately, these are not given at the current moment.
Alright, I cannot discredit the efforts of large institutions or organizations trying to adapt to the circumstances. Multiple rather successful attempts can be named here: the NBA's bubble experiment, the addition of virtual fans and artificial crowd noises, even adding cinematic elements - i.e., last years' Wrestlemania or the NFL's captivating newly-added camera technologies. With all due respect though, authentically replicating the energy - or even the mere presence - of an actual audience is not possible.
This essay is not directed at authorities as an attempt to open stadium and arena entrances and let fans back in - or in short: act irresponsibly. (Occasionally, you will find footage of sporting events - i.e., high school basketball games - being attended by rather large crowds which is highly questionable, to say the least. Another extremely controversial example: public championship celebrations.) The measurements taken are - in most cases - reasonable and necessary. Nevertheless, fan-less sports are a frustrating sight that needed to be addressed.
Squeaking sneakers and the bouncing of the ball in the NBA bubble, coaches yelling in the distance in empty five-digit-seating-capacity stadiums during the Champions League group stages; these are the dominant sounds during sports broadcasts now. Some may argue it feels closer to the actual game, while others might feel as disconnected as ever - I consider myself to be part of the latter group.
Involvement - at least on an emotional level - is what makes people gravitate towards sports. Currently however, I feel as distant from the spectacle as ever and having to look at empty rows in the stands during a live broadcast just further enhances the disconnection.
Even the athletes' performances are visibly affected. Especially personalities originally used to drawing energy from performing in front of huge crowds might find themselves at a massive disadvantage as a result of the missing masses of spectators. The effects are evident when looking at teams' home- and away-records: the "home-court-advantage" has seemingly become obsolete.
On a much smaller scale - say Austrian football's amateur classes and leagues - the lack of fans makes a restart of play merely impossible. Here, the general sentiment is the following: not restarting at all and simply cancelling the remainder of the season makes more sense than playing without fans in the bleachers. For many small clubs competing without the attendance of supporters and spectators puts them at risk, existentially speaking. The loss of ticket revenue is unbearable for many teams. Furthermore, I have heard coaches say, "the social aspect of the game is what keeps me going and if these key elements are not given, I don't see myself on the sidelines".
Obviously, the state of sports cannot be the authorities' main concern during dire times like these. "There are other things to worry about", would be a massive understatement. Though it should be noted that this pandemic has changed the way we experience sports for the worst. Unfortunately, there is nothing that can be done, other than wait...or watch recordings of sporting events pre-2020.