The last three months have provided an opportunity to re-watch plenty of classic games, and honestly it’s been a fun experience. But nothing compares to a real, live sporting event, and I think we’re all reaching a point where it’s becoming harder and harder to be without them.
The last few weeks have provided a few viewing options, though, as a handful of sports and leagues resume competition in empty facilities. And they’ve given us a taste of what might be in store for the country’s major sports when they resume this summer or fall.
I’ve been wondering myself what a ballgame will look, sound and feel like in this new, uncharted world. And so Sunday I did something well out of my typical comfort zone. I watched a soccer match.
The English Premier League just resumed play, and several matches were televised over the weekend, so I decided to check one out. It was Everton versus Liverpool, a matchup that meant nothing to me aside from the fact I knew it was a major sporting event from the world’s top soccer league.
So what was it like? It was strange.
Now I fully admit I didn’t enter this exercise with much of any context for what I was watching. I quickly learned Liverpool holds a commanding lead in the EPL standings and is on the verge of clinching its first major title in three decades. So this was an important match with real stakes.
But it was tough to actually glean that from watching the match on TV. The stands, of course, were empty. The teams weren’t using their typical benches; reserves and coaches instead were sitting in the first few rows of the stands, spaced three or four seats apart from each other.
The public address announcer was still calling out lineups and changes, but those announcements echoed throughout the empty stadium. Except for the times when artificial crowd noise was being pumped in.
The artificial crowd noise was only being used on the broadcast, so nobody inside the stadium could hear it. I’ll give the sound technicians credit, because they did a pretty good job punching the right buttons at the right moments to make it sound like the crowd was actually reacting to what was taking place on the field.
But it was far from perfect. And I imagine it will be much tougher to accurately convey the sounds we’re used to hearing during a baseball game, where there’s much more variety than in a soccer match.
Regardless, what was most noticeable was the lack of energy and precision by the players themselves. What by all accounts should’ve been a comfortable Liverpool victory wound up a scoreless tie, with only a few legitimate scoring chances produced by the two teams. The announcers acknowledged at the end of the match it must’ve been tough for the players to maintain the kind of energy they’re used to when 40,000 fans are carrying them through a full 90-minute match.
Maybe they’ll start getting used to the conditions the more they play like this. But let this be an important reminder to all sports fans here in North America that what we’re hopefully going to see this summer and fall isn’t going to look or sound normal.
Athletes acknowledge they feed off the energy of crowds. Why do you think they get so excited when a game sells out, or when they’re playing in a particular road venue known for boisterous fan bases? And though they’re careful not to say much about it out loud, they dread games in front of sparse gatherings. Yes, they’re professionals and they always try their best, but it’s not always easy to bring your A game when you’re facing the Marlins in front of 3,000 warm bodies on a Tuesday night in Miami.
Not that anyone has any choice but to accept it now. This is going to be the reality for all sports for the immediate future. Maybe a limited number of fans will be allowed in as the 2020 season progresses. Maybe it’ll all be back to normal in 2021. Or maybe we’re going to be stuck with these restrictions for a long time.
It’s impossible to know how it’ll all play out. All we do know is this: Baseball and other sports may be returning in the coming weeks, but it won’t look, sound or feel like anything we’ve experienced before.