Will closed-door sport drive fans away?

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On May 31, Arsenal supporter Frank Stubbs, who hasn’t missed a home game in 30 years, wrote: “Football without fans attending is not football I’m afraid.” For him, the season ended on March 13 when it was announced that Covid-19 would halt football in England.

In a blog headlined, ‘The Season That Never Was’, Stubbs said the idea of closed-door games is “absolutely mindblowing.” On May 22, he had tweeted: “Am I the only one who couldn’t give a f**k what happens in football until I start going again?”

With a pathogen still virulent, elite sport will mostly be played to empty bleachers and an absolute lack of atmosphere. Possibly till mid-2021, said Dr Nate Favini. That too will be contingent on massively increasing the scale of testing, the American told The Guardian. Or a vaccine must be available. “For people to be travelling, coming together, and in that kind of close proximity, a vaccine is key”, said Dr Geoff M Dreher of the Johns Hopkins University in that report.

How important fans are to players could be gauged by Lucas Ocampos’ salute to empty seats on Thursday when La Liga resumed after 93 days with Sevilla taking on Real Betis. “Even though fans are not here, I still wanted to honour them and make it feel like they were,” said the Argentine after Sevilla won 2-0.

Playing to a vacant cauldron, for Spain coach Luis Enrique, is “sadder than dancing with your sister.” Of watching Bundesliga, Enrique said: “You hear the voices, you even hear the insults... you lose the intimacy of the better moments.” For Thomas Mueller, Bayern Munich’s first game on resumption away to Union Berlin on May 17, felt “a bit like the atmosphere you get for old man’s football.”

Roger Federer has said he couldn’t imagine competing in an empty stadium. “I hope it will never happen,” said the holder of 20 Grand Slam titles who won’t play this year because of injury.

On May 31, despite Bundesliga being the only live sport available in India, streaming service Disney-Hotstar showed that Jadon Sancho’s first career hattrick in Borussia Dortmund’s 6-1 win against Paderborn was watched by 6,000. A week later, the number for the Union Berlin-Schalke game was 1,000, and even less for Augsburg versus FC Cologne later on June 7.

‘Enthusiasm will ebb’

Will fans’ excitement of watching live sport ebb if held at empty venues? Unless it is a short-term measure it will, said Arsene Wenger. “You cannot imagine a whole season without any spectators,” the former Arsenal manager told the beIN Sport network. “Will it damage the show on the longer term without supporters? I am convinced of that.”

Wenger’s is not a lone voice. “Your enthusiasm will go down. The atmosphere in a stadium is also what you take in even when you are watching sport on television. Half the time you are watching the crowd’s reaction,” said sport medicine expert Dr PSM Chandran.

Ad-film guru Prahlad Kakkar added: “Even when you don’t see the crowd, you hear them. Ambient value is very big.” International brand strategist Harish Bijoor said: “I contest the claim of a lot of people that cricket will be a broadcast-only sport and lot more people will watch it because they are locked in. That is not true at all because watching a silent sport is different from watching one which has emotions in it.”

Former India wicket-keeper Deep Dasgupta said the altered scenario could affect “10% of the audience that exclusively watch the Indian Premier League (IPL).”

Connect won’t be lost

There are two sides to every story. “Human beings have extreme coping strategies, especially when it comes to global issues. Unless fans find a substitute, they will not let go of their love for sport,” said sports psychologist Sumiran Tandon.

Efforts are on provide the fan experience. AGF Aarhus put up a screen in their stadium to give supporters the ‘live’ feel via a video link when Denmark’s football league resumed on May 28. Cut-outs of fans have been installed by teams; Bundesliga is trying sitcom-style canned laughter and La Liga virtual crowd and fake noise.

Transition will take time

The transition for fans though will take time, according to Tandon. “For six months I worked with athletes to ensure they are not affected by the crowd. What we are now doing is training them to keep that audience in their head because you can’t make a drastic change. Similarly, fans will slowly adapt to the new reality.”

The dire need for spectators though is being addressed.

The Australian government said on Friday that some venues with a capacity of less than 40,000 can allow up to 10,000 spectators for sports events from July.

Hungary allowed one in four seats and every other row to be occupied when football resumed, a rule since observed in the breach. Ditto in Serbia when 16,000 attended a Red Star Belgrade-Partizan Belgrade derby. Next month’s World Team Tennis will allow 500 fans; Russia will let stadiums be 10% full when its league returns on June 21; Italy hopes a few fans will be let in before the season ends.

It should happen in India too, said Chandran. “If you are going to run trains, metro and flights, why not allow people inside stadiums with physical distancing?”

Till then and largely even after that, curated content for television is what sport will be. That is where the money is. For 2019-22, the Premiership, scheduled to restart on June 17, fetched 4.35 billion pounds, a 35% increase from the previous cycle; 46% of that revenue is from overseas rights. Star Sports bought IPL TV rights from 2017-22 for R16,347.50 crore.

Bundesliga would see a loss of 300mn euros from television rights if the season isn’t completed, a situation that could force many clubs into bankruptcy. La Liga, which is 1.37% of Spain’s GDP and employs 800,000 people, could lose almost 1 billion euros if the season is stalled.

Over 3.5 billion watched the football World Cup in 2018, according to Fifa. The average audience for the 64-game tournament grew by four million from the previous edition to 191 million.

Packed venues contributed to that. Cricket, Bijoor said, is also about 60,000 people in a stadium cheering a run or letting off a collecting groan. “What we are seeing now is 75% of that experience, but if you ask me whether I am happy, I would say, yes,” said Dasgupta.

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