While the Game is Real the Crowd is Digital
A modest proposal for rebooting spectator sports in the COVID era.
Before I go any further let me clearly state that not being able to watch sports on TV is a concern not even remotely close to the trials routinely faced by health care and other essential workers in the time of COVID-19. We already owe them a debt we cannot hope to repay. Also, it almost goes without saying it’s not even in the same universe as those who have already lost loved ones to the diabolical virus or may be suffering with the disease itself. Compared to these things, not getting the see how the Raptors’ season turns out is a paltry and inconsequential triviality. Not many would argue with that including, I like to think, the NBA players themselves. First and foremost, all of our thoughts should be focused on those who have a real battle on their hands.
All that said, I hope I can still be forgiven for devoting some small amount of time and attention thinking about how professional sports — actually, any activity that attracts a crowd — gets rebooted in the era of COVID-19.
What It’s Not Going to Be
First, here’s what spectator sports are not going to be any time soon: thousands of fans jammed together in one place to watch the game live and in living colour. Certainly not without the same precautions I fear we will all have to endure just to get back on a commercial flight some day: until such time the airline can guarantee no one on the same plane has COVID-19 I am going to be very reluctant to get on one. Obviously, the same applies to attending a Raptors’ game which I had hoped I would some day be able to do. Unless and until I can be guaranteed my chances of getting COVID-19 at the game are essentially zero, I’m going to take a pass on attending what can only described as a very optional event which I can barely afford anyway.
But that’s just me. Every fan will have to make up their own mind whether the risk/reward ratio of live game attendance is worth it. But even if I’m the solitary outlier and everybody else on the planet thinks it’s just fine to attend in person then problem solved. At least from my perspective, as someone watching it all from a safe distance on my TV at home. Like I did until everything was cancelled. Whether fans actually show up for games in the future is, at best, an unknown. At the very least, it seems business as usual in professional sports will have to wait for the successful development of an effective vaccine which renders COVID no more than an incovenience as opposed to mortal theat. That could be a year away. Or more. Quite possibly a lot more.
Then, of course, there is the bigger question of whether the greater society can afford the risk of a future COVID or COVID-adjacent virus hot spot triggered by attendance at an event which clearly didn’t need to happen. There is absolutely nothing at stake other than bragging rights and a shiny trophy. It doesn’t seem like a good enough reason for a future return to the difficult situation in which we currently find ourselves. If the pandemic drags on and consequently the withering cost of the response to COVID continues to grow — both in human lives and financial resources — we will have to ask ourselves one vitally important question: should scarce medical and financial resources be used to restart completely non-essential professional sports when these same resources may be needed elsewhere and under much more dire circumstances?
Taking everything into account, the outlook for our favourite sports to be back on TV any time soon seems pretty bleak.
What It Could Be
There have already been rumblings of major league sports completing at least their current seasons by playing games in empty stadiums. Major League Baseball is supposedly scouting locations in Arizona and the NHL is rumoured to have its sights set on folksy, small town hockey arenas in the Dakotas. The NBA has spitballed some ideas about a ‘soft launch’ with some games played in a few venues in and around Las Vegas.
In all of these scenarios the games will be played without fans or perhaps with a very limited number spaced out by the requisite two metres in all directions. So maybe a quarter of the venues’ capacities? Kind of like the crowd you get between two teams who have already missed the playoffs except spread out all over the cavernous arena. The serious revenue for these games would be that generated exclusively through the sale of the broadcast rights. However, it does beg the question as to whether advertisers will be prepared to pay the same rates for spots for these games as they did previously. Whether games eventually get played without fans, or not, will depend on the answer to that specific question. It’s virtually certain a season will go unfinished if finishing it ends up costing more than not finishing it. It’s just as simple as that. It’s a business before it’s a sport.
Assuming the fanless games do go ahead, it will be an odd way to watch from the perspective of those of us sitting at home. Sort of like watching comedy by yourself without the aid of a laugh track. Each person will have to make up their own mind when to cheer, jeer or maybe shed a tear. Purists will think that’s the way it should be anyway, but the rest of us still rely pretty heavily on the feedback of the crowd to determine how exciting the play is, or not. It’s an integral part of the viewing experience. I don’t think I’m the only one who thinks that the game without the fans in attendance will be the same thing at all. Although I have to say I’ve always wondered what the players and coaches were yelling at each other — at least I will finally get to scratch that itch. It will be easy to hear above the deathly silence provided by a stadium full of empty seats.
What It Should Be
My modest proposal starts with the game-in-an-empty-stadium paradigm I just described. Games will be played in real time by real players on a real court (or diamond or gridiron or pitch or whatever) and with game outcomes that actually count in the league standings. The playoffs, the way they have always done, will eventually determine the year’s champion.
The fans in the seats, however, will be entirely digital.
To illustrate how this would look like for an NBA fixture, for example, imagine the crowd filling the seats would be from the video game NBA 2K20. The court itself, however, will be the actual game captured on camera not much differently than the way it is now. There would be a live call of the game from the usual play-by-play and colour commentators. These basic elements would simply be combined on-the-fly as they are fed out to the viewers watching from the comfort of their own homes.
But wait, there’s more. I also visualize the fans at home would have an app on their phones which would govern how the digital crowd reacts to the play. Pascal Siakam spins, fights his way to the basket and manages to get both the bucket and the foul? Tap the Cheer button on the app. Or maybe the Wildly Cheer button. The refs miss a call so obvious that everybody saw it but them? Tap the Boo button. My button taps are then aggregated in real time with the taps of all the other fans watching and the combined signal governs the response of the digital crowd we’re watching on TV in real time.
From the players perspective, it would be strange experience, to say the least. But the money will spend the same. Or maybe they would love it in the way it reminds them of the game back before they were NBA stars. Kawhi Leonard would like that. But if necessary, to enhance the experience for the players, pipe the app-controlled digital crowd sound into the stadium so the players have a good idea of what the fans at home are thinking. If you think that sounds plain crazy, pro sports’ dirty little secret is that crowd noise, if not sufficiently rabid, is sometimes artificially enhanced already.
What’s most important, though, is there is nothing new to invent. All of these elements currently exist. They only need to be combined in a new way and therefore could be up and running quickly. While I’m only a fan and have no intimate knowledge of the technology required, I’m assuming the remaining technical details could be readily addressed by a collaboration between the super smart and very well healed professional sports leagues, their broadcast partners along with a generous contribution of the enormous talent of the motion picture and video game industries.
It may not be the same as games from the past we knew and loved. But it might be close enough that we can all agree it’s way better than what we have right now or might see any time in the foreseeable future.
©2020 Terence C. Gannon
Thank you for reading and your comments are both welcome and encouraged. Would you watch sporting events with a digital crowd? Do you think it would enhance or detract from your experience? What are your thoughts as to how your favourite spectator sport finds its way back into your life?