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Fake Noise and Fake Fans?

Not so long ago, Hank Williams, Jr. appeared on ABC every Monday Night and belted out “Are you ready for some football?”  Sports fans from coast to coast are ready, but are still faced with a sports drought, with the continued restrictions on large gatherings brought upon us by COVID19.  Leagues at the professional and college levels are formulating plans to resume their seasons or to begin their seasons later without fans in the stands if they begin the seasons at all.

Yesterday, John Ourand from Sports Business Journal reported an interview that Joe Buck gave on SiriusXM’s “Andy Cohen Live.”

Needless to say, the responses and the comments were epic.

Virtual broadcasting is not unprecedented.  Early in his career, Ronald Reagan, yes THAT Ronald Reagan, did play by play from inside a radio studio while reading a ticker tape which originated from the ball park.  On one occasion, the “feed’ from the stadium was lost, and rather than remaining silent, Reagan filled the void with vivid descriptions of the batter fouling off one pitch after another, until the feed was restored.  Maybe there was, but I have not found any account which indicates that virtual crowd noise was added to Reagan’s broadcasts.

There is no question that crowd noise is an important component of sports broadcasts. You may recall that both Skip Carey and Harry Carey, both longtime baseball announcers, had a tagline after something exciting had occurred in a baseball game as they paused and told the listening audience to “listen to this crowd.”

As to virtual fans, let’s just say that there’s a reason NASCAR tracks have seats that are different colors. I have also seen a report that a German soccer team is selling cardboard cutouts for fans to put in seats.

At the Little Washington Inn in Virginia, Chef Patrick O’Connell has taken the concept of virtual patrons to a different level altogether.  My colleague Gene Garmon will have more to say about this in a separate post, but Chef Patrick has decided to reopen his Michelin 3 Star restaurant with mannequins at some tables to maintain social distancing between live diners.  This may be a little over the top and even a little creepy – even for Chef Patrick.

I am not a regular viewer of NFL games on television.  The only reason I watch ESPN is for the college football games, and most of the time, I turn the sound off on the television.  I know enough about the game to keep up with the action on the field, down and distance, etc. without having an announcer tell me.  I have grown weary of sportscasters who yammer on endlessly about this or that when all I really need for them to do is describe what they are seeing and adding a comment here and there.  I understand that I may be in the minority on this, because on December 20, 1980, ABC broadcast a game between the Jets and the Dolphins without announcers.  Needless to say, that experiment did not take hold as a permanent fixture.

Although the fake crowd noise might be a benefit to watching games, it may become more of a distraction, depending on the technician who is controlling the noise as Joe Buck observed in his comments.

For example, when in a stadium at a college or professional football game – and you absolutely cannot duplicate the in-person stadium experience – the home fans are quiet when their team is on offense and then very loud when the other team is on offense. The goal is obviously to try to disrupt the other team’s communication on offense.  However, in empty stadiums, which will actually sound like middle school football games in person, despite what you may hear on the television, there will be no problem at all communicating on the field.  Will the home fans boo and curse with one voice when an official makes a questionable call?

Crowd noise is a uniquely organic quality at live sporting events.  It will take an extraordinarily talented technician to anticipate the situation on the field and insert the appropriate crowd response.

Will fake crowd noise and fake fans become part of the “new normal?” I sure hope not.  Will it be a welcome addition to sports broadcasts?  We’ll see.

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