It was almost impossible to imagine sport without the fans cheering from the stands. Until COVID-19 struck. When sports struggled back to its feet again after a lengthy lockdown, there were only empty stadiums to cheer them on.
The German Bundesliga was the earliest major sports league to restart post the break necessitated by COVID-19. While there is no question that sports is better with spectators at the venue, there was still something fresh about watching Bundesliga matches without fans in the stands. You could hear the players and coaches shouting, albeit in German, the thud of the ball when it was hit with power and the “crunching” tackles. You could now see who was a leader on the pitch, which players never stopped calling for the ball; which coach was the most vocal?
Granted, the ambience was not the same. But, it was only supposed to be temporary; till it was safe for the fans to return. In the meantime, the TV and OTT audience could hear the usually unheard sounds of the game. But, it was not to be. Soon after the restart, the league decided to add recorded crowd sounds to their broadcasts—partly to enhance the ambience, partly to protect the younger viewers from the cussing which accompanies competitive sports. It was an understandable, though disappointing, decision. Other football leagues followed suit.
In the Premier League, it was done well, with both positive and negative fan reactions. The chants of the fans were loud enough, but not too loud. When a home player was fouled, there would be a chorus of boos; if it was a mild push, there would be some whistles. There was even the difference between the “ohh” when a shot on goal was not that good and the “ohhhh” when it just missed. In LaLiga, irritatingly, it was all good. According to Joris Evers, chief communications officer, LaLiga, they were “focusing on the positive side”.
While most leagues chose to restrict fake sounds to broadcast, some like the Indian Premier League and Major League Baseball before it, decided that the players and coaches, too, needed to hear it. The social media in India was divided over the IPL's decision. But, there is no doubt that it added to the ambience of India's most popular sports tournament. It was odd at times as the cheering did not seem to match what was happening out in the middle. But, these issues were minor and were mostly rectified fast. But, what about those who would have preferred the real sounds?
If you are wondering whether the “real sounds” really make a difference, check out a Major League Soccer match that was broadcast by ESPN. Not only did the network not add recorded fan sound, it enhanced the match sounds by setting up additional microphones around the field and on the teams' benches. You can hear the grunts of the players and feel the impact of collisions. It was definitely not pretty and the language may not be for the faint-hearted, but it was, in a twisted way, intimate. How could that have been made suitable for all ages?
The short answer is: It cannot be. That is where there is scope for further customisation. If or when there is another situation where games take place behind closed doors, the broadcasters or the OTT platforms can offer choices. Listen to the fake sounds or choose the option with the real audio. They could even charge extra for enhanced audio, for adults only. If it happens, it may surprise us to find out how many viewers are willing to pay more for raw versions of the games. But, what if there is no need to have games without an audience?
That brings us to a more fundamental question. Is there going to be a major change in fan behaviour post COVID-19? People who had been going to games routinely may rethink their choice keeping in mind the money and time that could be saved. They could just watch the games at home with some friends and a few beers (not available in Indian stadiums). However, anyone who has attended even one live game knows that the atmosphere cannot be duplicated. That is why we have seen crowds back as soon as they were allowed, in limited numbers. As much as sports missed a live audience, spectators may have missed live sports more.