As appearing in IOL Sport
On the 17th May this year, on these very pages, I wrote the following opening paragraph: Sport with no fans? Get used to it people. Make peace.
It was one thing to write it, another to quite believe it and it has proved impossible to live those words.
I can’t get used to professional sport’s ‘new normal’. I can’t make peace with it.
I want to go to the stadium and watch matches. I want the television experience of watching a match in front of crowds.
I have always considered myself blessed that my profession was watching sport and writing about it. I have travelled the world for the past 30 years to report on sport.
But in the past five months, watching professional sports on television has been painful.
Everything seems so mechanical, so calculated and so devoid of intensity.
England rugby coach Eddie Jones this week said a ‘no fans no fight’ mentality had contributed to some of the crazy scores in English soccer’s Premier League. Jones added that without fans, the players didn’t’ see the consequence of defeat as strong as they would when crowds were there.
Sports psychologist Michael Caulfield agreed with Jones.
“Football is a game based on threat and fear and that has disappeared with no fans in the stadium,” said Caulfield.
The Premier League is not the exception in how results have played out. It is the norm.
Germany’s Bundesliga was the first to test all theories of the ‘new normal’ and all the data proved that the fans are the home ground advantage and that the home fans influence referee decisions.
The data also showed a decline in the quality of performance from players. The physical effort wasn’t necessarily any different, as the data showed players were still running as much, but the mental energy was lacking.
Players thrive on entertaining, but without an audience there is no reason to put on a show.
Players, from various professional sporting codes across the planet, have all spoken of the lack of adrenaline when playing. They have spoken of the mental challenge to self-motivate and somehow put on a performance that justifies the salaries they get paid.
It was their job, they said. They simply had to adapt.
But, just like my opening paragraph of making peace with the ‘new normal’, it is proving easier for the players to speak the words than actually believe the words.
Basketball’s Le Bron James says he will never get used to playing in an empty arena. James has still produced influential performances for the Lakers and as of today is one match away from winning the Championship.
But the enjoyment of doing it for the fans and in front of the fans can’t be manufactured. It simply is not there.
The fans bring the emotion and the fans turn a match into an occasion.
In the continued absence of fans at sporting events, the profession of sport has become just another boring day job.
“It is like a stand-up comic performing in front of a camera instead of a live audience,” Dan Weigand told the New York Times.
Weigand, the former editor of the Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, said it was a unique situation that completely changed the nature of sport.
Psychologists quoted on the subject have been consistent that what defines sport is a concept known as ‘social facilitation’, which is the urge humans feel to be at their best in front of others.
American-based mental preparation coach Kay Porter spoke of sweaty palms, elevated heart rate and a surge of adrenaline that can only be present for players when there are fans cheering or jeering.
Players feed off the fans and they get a buzz that is palpable, said Porter.
I’ve read so many interviews of players in different sporting codes saying the enjoyment just isn’t there, which doesn’t mean the effort isn’t there.
A match plays out like a business transaction. It certainly isn’t being influenced by emotion and data from the Bundesliga revealed that the performances of home teams collapsed in front of empty stands.
The changes have been extreme, according to Lukas Keppler, the managing director of the data and analytics firm Impect.
Keppler speaks of a ‘negative home advantage’ and of it being easier for teams to be playing away from home.
“By almost every attacking metric, Bundesliga teams were worse while playing in an empty home stadium,”said Keppler.
The influence of a home crowd on the referee has also been confirmed because the data in the Bundesliga revealed that never before have home teams been that heavily penalized.
For the players, intent isn’t the same as urgency and the accountability of pitching up to play because it is a job isn’t the same as being accountable to fans for how that job gets done.
I can’t make peace with sport as a broadcasting business, played to a television audience in front of no-one at the stadiums or arenas.
Sport thrives because of the fans.
The silence of empty stands is oppressive.
Give us back our sporting freedom. Let us back in those stadiums and arenas to make some noise.