Day 6

With cardboard spectators and fake cheers, sports leagues aim to make games 'normal' during the pandemic

As sports leagues gear up to play despite the COVID-19 pandemic, fans won't be allowed in the stands — but that hasn't stopped some teams from making the experience as authentic as possible with the sounds of artificial spectators and cardboard cutouts of real-life fans.

Normalization efforts help to make fans feel engaged, says soccer writer

Cardboard cutouts of fan "crowdies" are pictured inside the stadium ahead of the Sky Bet Championship match between Leeds United and Fulham at Elland Road on June 27, 2020 in Leeds, England. (George Wood/Getty Images)
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As sports leagues gear up to play despite the COVID-19 pandemic, fans won't be allowed in the stands — but that hasn't stopped some teams from making the experience as authentic as possible.

"We've seen broadcasters and leagues do a huge amount to try and make closed-door games as normal as possible for fans of the sports," said Jon Mackenzie, a freelance soccer writer, editor and podcaster.

Soccer leagues worldwide resumed action at various points within the past two months. New restrictions, such as the wearing of masks by off-field personnel, were put in place to prevent the further spread of COVID-19.

The most jarring restriction was the barring of fans from entering stadiums.

"I don't think anyone would disagree that when you're watching a football game in a closed-door setting, it feels very much like you're watching a training game or you're watching almost like a rehearsal for an actual event rather than the event itself," he said.

With the NHL inching closer to a return to action, according to reports that suggest Toronto and Edmonton will be the league's hub cities, how global soccer leagues and broadcasters have adapted to the lack of fans hints at how the league could handle its fan-free games.

It is now all but certain that Edmonton and Toronto have won the bid to host what's left of the NHL season. But while their status as hub cities comes with perks, it also raises health concerns among players and the public. 2:02

Artificial cheers and jeers

To overcome the lack of crowd noise, most broadcasters are incorporating fake crowd noises into their broadcasts.

"You're often given the option of being able to watch a game with fake crowd noise that's piped in by broadcasters," he said. "So, you can listen to it as you would a normal game of football."

Some broadcasters do allow viewers to watch a game without the added crowd noise, but Mackenzie says that the sound of spectators can be an important cue for viewers. 

"One of the things that we have found out post-lockdown is that the majority of people need to have that crowd noise there, just as a sort of direction for them, as well in order to concentrate on the game," he said.

Charlton players warm up in front of cardboard cut outs of their fans ahead of a championship match between Charlton Athletic and Queens Park Rangers. (Alex Pantling/Getty Images)

Enhanced fan engagement is also something broadcasters have kept in mind. While previous sports broadcasts might have limited fan engagement to tweets on a ticker, now broadcasters are offering more options for fans looking to get on TV.

"We've had Zoom fan meetings, where you can zoom into a shared meeting with other fans of your club," Mackenzie said. "Then they're broadcasting the responses of fans on the TV screen."

Cardboard cutouts and raunchy mannequins

Individual teams have also attempted to engage fans in new ways. Along with broadcasting fan Zoom meetings on their Jumbotrons, some soccer clubs, such as Leeds United, are putting cardboard cutouts into their stands.

"You can send in your photo, or a photo of a loved one … and they'll print them out onto a cardboard cutout, and then they're in the stadium when you're watching the game on TV," he said. 

Leeds United discovered that the cardboard cutouts didn't hold up to weather when wind and rain rolled through a game last month. (George Wood/Getty Images)

With a crowd of 15,000, Mackenzie says the paper spectators can be "quite a visual spectacular."

But it isn't a perfect solution, as Leeds United found out in a June 27 game against Fulham.

"The weather was very blustery; it was very wet and windy, and the cardboard cutouts really didn't withstand the pressure that they were put under by the elements," he said. 

"So in a very strange turn of events, it almost looked like the fans got displeased and walked out."

While Leeds' embarrassment was saved with replacement cutouts, other clubs weren't so lucky.

"There's been a story about a club in South Korea who put out some mannequins around the pitch, only to find out that these mannequins were actually sex dolls that were advertising a sex toy company," he said. "That particular club ended up being in more trouble than it was worth." 

Nonetheless, Mackenzie says it's important for leagues and broadcasters to take these steps to keep fans engaged.

"You're getting that notion that the crowd are engaged in the game, and I think that's important — that the crowd are involved with their team," he said. 


Written and produced by Mouhamad Rachini.

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