Amusing Ourselves to Death
You don’t make the timeline, the virus makes the timeline.
— Dr. Anthony Fauci
The stadium gates open at 9.00am EST on Sunday, 13 September. Stadium personnel, teams and league officials flood in. Temperatures are taken. Both teams have been mass tested for COVID-19 symptoms in the build up.
Sixty minutes before kick-off, the two teams emerge from their locker rooms to warm up. Players warily survey the desolate stadium, free of cups, food wrappers and fans of all shapes and sizes. Over the stadium halfway line in the broadcast booth, commentators look down on the field and wonder how hollow the experience will be without actual fans and traditional atmosphere. Everything has a price. For morale alone, persevering with the 2020 NFL season for now, risk and all, seems worth it.
Football Without Fans The task of restarting football with COVID-19 is as puzzling as it is for other professional sports worldwide. In Europe, the IRFU, the body overseeing rugby in Ireland has talked about a €20 million budget hole and indicated a bailout from the Irish government could be next. Observers have a keen eye on German soccer as the Bundesliga was the first major sports league to come back with no fans present. Before May 2020, we’ve only seen empty stadiums in the persistently naughty Italian soccer league because of violence and racism over the past decade. In U.S. sports the unprecedented move to play a Baltimore Orioles baseball game behind closed doors in 2015 followed civil unrest in Baltimore after the death of Freddie Gray. The NFL was able to conduct free agency and the draft when the storm was raging. Allowing teams back to practice, and then delivering a regular season, culminating in playoffs and a Super Bowl is the daunting part. Every conceivable contingency is being studied and discussed long into the night. Options include starting the regular season later and building in the flexibility to push the Super Bowl back into April. Cataclysmic change, but necessary to reassure state governments and public health officials that football can go ahead, with major caveats, in what threatens to be a grave winter. In a document titled “Economics of Playing Without Fans in Attendance”, Major League Baseball has estimated a loss of $640,000 per game without fans. In football, revenue losses for each team will be spectacular, even if they each will still pocket $255 million in television.
Fake Noiseville The atmosphere that comes from having fans at games is special. Look at how intimidating Seattle’s CenturyLink Field is for Seahawks opponents. The New Orleans Saints thrive at home where the deafening crowd noise often forces visiting quarterbacks to burn timeouts because they can’t hear the play calls. Hall of Fame quarterback Steve Young played in front of crowds as low as 10,000 in the United States Football League - the upstart rival to the NFL in the 1980s - and he said he had to whisper in the huddle. Joe Buck, Fox’s play-by-play caller, has warned if crowd noise goes it will inevitably make the broadcast flat.
On the other hand, Miami Dolphins have proposed phasing in a small number of socially distanced fans. How NFL policy addresses states that have more relaxed laws on crowds will be fascinating. And the lack of atmosphere? One concept up for consideration is piping in fan noise through stadium speakers.
The Atlanta Falcons were actually penalized in 2016 for pumping in crowd noise, a move that might give them the edge dealing with the lack of crowds this year. Joking aside, it seems a highly peculiar move: sports bodies and major television networks deciding fake noise is necessary for our entertainment.
The Latest Vibe As I write, America’s cities are gripped by fire and fury. Race relations has again inserted itself into a society already reeling from a dire public health and economic situation. Lockouts and union mobilized blockages have hit football before. This time it's much different.
Players and the NFL are being kept awake thinking about what if one player has COVID-19 and infects the entire team or half the NFL? When you pour over the premise of contact sports, you might also wonder how can you protect players in the tackle area? And as troubling, is it absurd to think players should be sanctioned for spitting during the game? Sports are slowly emerging with major conditions attached. If there is a second surge in the next three months, the 2020 football season could still be derailed. We know fans are an integral part of the sporting spectacle but it's irresponsible to countenance them returning before a vaccine is available.
If the safety of players and those involved is not compromised, then I think a weird stadium vibe is better than no stadium vibe.
Call it a new form of entertainment.