No Fans, No Fun?

“Anyone who thinks this is somehow a wave of the future has either never been to a game or isn’t a real sports fan. Because fans ARE sports. A big time crowd makes the event. And sports needs that back.” — Bob Wischusen, Broadcaster

If sporting events happen in a vacuum, do they really happen?

Sports being back is great.

Sports in the bubble has worked. And yet…

After all of the bemoaning, bitching and complaining in the early months of COVID-19, back when we thought that by now we would be back to normal—presently, of course, we wonder if we will ever see anything like what we thought “normal” was and I rue the day that “New Normal” became part of our vernacular—we have had lots of sports to consume!

Has it been good?

Well, yes and no.

I think the best way I can describe the new sports scene, other than strange, is anti-climactic.

It is good that sports have returned and we have almost non-stop action on the tube. NBA, NHL, MLB and now the NFL and (some) college football as well as the continuation of golf, tennis, horse and car racing. I’m not a big soccer guy, so if that is your thing, I hope you have had your fill as well!

The athletes are still wonderful, and we are seeing some exceptional play in many areas. (Aside from the Jets who failed to inform the league they were opting out of the season.  I kid, I kid!)

But take a recent golf tournament for example:

Jon Rahm and Dustin Johnson combined to deliver some late fireworks on Sunday, August 30th at the BMW Championship at Olympia Fields both sinking over 60-foot putts!  “I played an unbelievable putt, got in the playoff,” Johnson said, “and then Jon made an even more ridiculous putt on top of me [to win].”

But…shhhh…other than a few volunteer workers, there was no throaty roar from the gallery as would normally accompany these great shots.  Same with other sports.

Or how about when Novak Djokovic was disqualified from the US Open? Imagine the groans and moans of New York fans, who for the most part would probably have paid specifically to see him play?

Any tennis player would tell you that a US Open crowd for tennis is unlike any other. Ask Jimmy Connors if the crowd helped him back in the day. Imagine the kind of potential, visceral reaction the US Open management may have been subjected to in the wake of Djokovic’s ouster?  (The decision to DQ was correct, by the way.)

It is just so different and so surreal watching any sporting event without live fans. Fans really do make a difference, in viewers’ reaction and absorption of the content and quite frankly, in the results!

Okay, I am not saying that fans have a role in every contest, but they can make a difference in a game and perhaps the outcome. Muffet McGraw, the former outstanding head coach of the women’s basketball team at Notre Dame said that fans at their home games in South Bend were worth at least ten points to her team. That is an average of 10-20% of their overall scoring on the Lady Irish home court!

I do not have any empirical evidence to back this up, but I think that there are some sporting events that would have a different outcome if there were fans in the stands. Fans bring excitement to the games. They are also, in my opinion, instrumental in the outcome of some close games. Some fan bases can catapult a team to victories that perhaps they may not have earned. As Mike Tirico of NBC Sports noted when talking about no fans in the stands at the Kentucky Derby, “A little atmosphere makes a ton of difference.” And, when heavy favorite Tis the Law finished second in a major upset we were left to hear…well, nothing. By the way, ratings for this event and many others are much lower than they have historically been, and I believe lack of fans at events is a factor in this.

It is an inherently social activity to watch games with others, in the stadium or at home. I often look at fans, dressed in their team’s colors or even in costume, screaming at the camera or players and think to myself, “that guy is probably a respected executive during the week.”

Watching games on TV and seeing the empty stands or even the cardboard cut-outs makes you realize just how much more interesting the games are with the fans in the background, whether it’s the obnoxious and annoying ones, or the hardy souls who stick around after a four-hour rain delay making you wonder what kind of lives they have that they are there still sitting in a wet stadium on a Tuesday night at 11:30PM watching a fourth and fifth place team play.

Somehow, without the fans, even the most exciting games seem “dulled” or just missing a vibe. The fans bring excitement, enthusiasm and help pump the adrenaline that players feed off of in one way or another. That is why they call it “home field/court/ice advantage,” not because they get to sleep in their own beds!

And what is better for any player of a visiting team than to walk away from a vociferous and insufferable den, such as, say, Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Massachusetts, with fans screaming at them the whole time after beating the Patriots!? (Wait, let me re-read and enjoy that last sentence for a few minutes.) Apologies to my Patriot fan friends (and wife), but there really are levels of fans with distinctive “natures,” (I am looking right at you Philadelphia).

I am truly glad that we have sports back, but at the end of the day is this, heaven forbid, our New Normal?

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Dave Torromeo
Dave Torromeo
Dave Torromeo has served as the head of the Sport Business Management Program at Manhattanville College since its inception in July 2006. He has over 30 years of experience in sports business, including serving as VP of the National Football Foundation & College Hall of Fame, (NFF), 15 years in collegiate athletics and as an industry consultant. He has worked in nearly every capacity of the sports world, from a minor league team, to a D-I athletic program and the Football Foundation. He is also a consultant to the sports industry and founder of Future Sports Business Executives, Sports Business Advocates, LLC which operates the Sports Business Institute.