After four soul-crushingly long months, professional sports are finally set to return - although I don’t think another pause of sorts is out of the realm of possibility.
Not thinking about that possibility for a moment, we can finally watch some major league baseball in an abbreviated season, and we should finally see an NBA and Stanley Cup champion crowned.
There’s just one sticking point: There will be no fans in the arenas.
I know that’s a “well, duh” thing to say. If you are trying to stop the spread of an illness, having 20,000 to 40,000 people sitting shoulder-to-shoulder in an arena setting is typically frowned upon. However, there is no denying that fanless sporting events is an incredibly strange scenario.
Think about some of the most memorable games you have seen in your life. I would argue the fan reactions are a big part of what made them memorable.
Go back and watch the Vikings’ “Minneapolis Miracle” game. The moment it was apparent that Stefon Diggs had a clear lane to the end zone, 66,000 fans absolutely erupted.
Go watch Game 6 of the 1991 World Series when Kirby Puckett hit that 11th-inning home run. Same story.
The same goes for any buzzer-beater or overtime goal ever recorded. Yes, those plays go down in history with or without fans, but tell me in all honesty that those fan reactions don’t make the moment just a bit more special.
Now go back and watch the 1998 NFC Championship game when Gary Anderson missed that field goal (I won’t, but you should). There were 64,000 fans in the Metrodome, and their laments were very audible as the kick sailed wide left.
Now, there is silence - in good situations and bad - or there is canned, recorded crowd noise that’s pumped through the stadium speakers.
The latter is actually happening in some places. If you aren’t paying close attention, that may not be too bad. However, I watched a walk-off home run in a summer league game last week, and I could see the empty seats of the arena so I found the fake crowd noise to be just plain weird.
In every other walk-off in MLB history, there is a sort of “pop” of cheers that is different from the standard cheers now being pumped through a stadium’s sound system. When the ball in that recent game cleared the fence, the cheers I heard were no different than what you’d hear if the home team had completed a routine fielding play in the middle innings.
On the visual side, I was watching the Twins last weekend and I found another thing particularly jarring: the cardboard cutouts of fans in the seats behind home plate. For the life of me, I can’t figure out who that is for, and they are actually a little creepy, in my opinion.
I honestly don’t know how that was deemed less distracting than empty seats.
Though I complain, I can’t think of a better alternative to silence or fake crowds. Without real human beings in the seats, I admit these are probably the best alternatives.
I thought for a while it would be fun to have three or four players and/or coaches mic’d up for each game, but I assume emotions would run high and words would be thrown about that are not particularly TV-friendly.
Quite honestly, I am just happy to have sports back. So long as we have sports, they can blare metal music through the speakers that is in another language for all I care.
As long as the athletes are safe and the games are competitive, let’s just count our blessings.