Sporting events are slowly resuming across the world. But even as the drama unfolds on the field, the stadiums will remain empty as matches will be played behind closed doors. But what does that mean for the fans?
By Shriya Roy
The year 2020 was hailed to be the year of sports. With major sporting events like the Olympics and the UEFA European Championship (informally known as the Euros) lined up after a four-year wait, it was touted to be a busy year for sports and sports fans across the world. But then coronavirus threw a spanner in the works and everything came to a grinding halt. Wimbledon was cancelled. The NBA, Premier League, Champions League and other major football leagues were suspended. And the Olympics, French Open, Euros and Formula One were postponed. Closer home, IPL, considered to be a cash cow for the BCCI, was also dealt a sharp blow. Its 13th season, slated to commence from March, was first postponed and later suspended. The I-League tournament, too, was cancelled last month. The future of the league, in fact, looks uncertain, as the participation of foreign players is under deliberation by the authorities.
Fans have clearly been left disappointed. “I was really looking forward to the Premier League season. The match on March 12, where Atletico Madrid knocked Liverpool out of the UEFA Champions League was the last one I watched and it somehow feels like a year ago,” rues Guwahati-based football buff Uddinabh Mahanta, a third-year BTech student.
There is some good news now, though, as sporting events are slowly resuming across the world. But even as the drama unfolds on the field, the possibility of fans coming in to watch matches doesn’t look likely anytime soon, as most of the sports will take place behind closed doors as a preventive measure to stop the spread of the virus. With empty stadiums and indoor games, the face of sports will change forever. But what does that mean for the fans?
A new game
Sporting leagues and federations are grappling to restart proceedings with closed door matches. The English Premier League started this week on June 17 and is being played behind closed doors. The league will go on till July 26.
The West Indies cricket team also recently reached England to play a three-match Test series in July. Top players Darren Bravo and Shimron Hetmyer, however, refused to travel with the team, expressing concern over the spread of the virus in the UK. The matches will be held behind closed doors and players will be constantly tested to rule out coronavirus symptoms. There will also be a ‘no-touch, no-saliva’ rule in place once the game starts.
Interestingly, this will be the first time in 25 years that England’s cricket team will play a Test match without the chant of its iconic fans, The Barmy Army, booming from the stands. The Barmy Army, however, wants to make its presence felt and has asked the England and Wales Cricket Board to use the PA system to play out recordings of its famous chants and anthems to cheer up their team when they take on the West Indies from July 8.
Spanish football league La Liga also started on June 11 with empty stadiums. The lack of crowds is, however, being made up for by having virtual fans and crowd noise from a computer game. The league has also collaborated with Norwegian broadcasting technology firm Vizrt, so viewers watching from home will be able to see images of seated fans wearing the home club’s colours in ‘virtualised’ stands. When the game is stopped, these virtual images will be transformed into a canvas to display messages from the fans. Plus, for the safety of players, all common areas like changing rooms will be disinfected and aired before, during and after the games.
The German football league Bundesliga returned to action on May 16. To encourage players, cardboard cutouts of fans were put up in the stadiums for some matches. Piped applause is also being played through an app. Tennis star Novak Djokovic has, however, called the coronavirus safety protocols, planned in order for the US Open to take place, “extreme”—the protocols include a complete ban on travel to Manhattan, staying in hotels at the airport, players and staff being tested at least thrice a week, and only one person being allowed to accompany the players at all times. The Grand Slam tournament is scheduled to start from August 31 at Flushing Meadows in New York, one of the worst affected cities. Rafael Nadal, on the other hand, feels that even though the matches will be held behind closed doors, travelling will still be a huge risk for players.
In the many years of its existence, the sporting world hasn’t seen a time as grave as this. The virus has hit the idea of live sports straight out of the park. Surprisingly, though, there are some cases, where it has resulted in good news as well. Take, for instance, Spain’s bullfighting tradition. For long, animal rights activists have called for its suspension, calling the sport “outdated and cruel”. Today, the pandemic has left the sport, which relies on crowd participation in large numbers, rudderless. With strict social distancing norms, it’s hard to tell whether the bullfighting fiesta will be able to bear the costs and survive.
The fan chant
It is said that sports require a team spirit, but any sport is incomplete without its fans. If you do not have thousands cheering for you from the stands, you can be a Cristiano Ronaldo or a Roger Federer, but there will be something missing always. Be it thousands chanting as Dhoni hits a six or going berserk when Barcelona beats Real Madrid in an El Clásico match, fans can make or break the atmosphere of a match. It’s, therefore, hard to imagine an empty Wankhede Stadium, Eden Gardens, Stamford Bridge and Rolland Garros.
While fans can catch the action live on their TV screens, it won’t be the same as being in the stadium. There will be no chance to collectively curse the opposing team when there is a foul or a red card. No ‘ooohs’ in unison when Nadal bangs his racket on the ground. No collective tears of joy when your country wins an Olympic gold. It will be a world where the stadium will not burst with noise when Shikhar Dhawan makes a century or when Lionel Messi scores a hat-trick.
This new normal is certainly hard, especially for a fan. “I was used to the idea of live sports. If not football, it was tennis or cricket or even NBA. Sports was always there to rescue no matter how bad the day had been. It was like a beautiful escape. I am struggling to come to terms with this new reality where there is sports happening, but you can’t actively be a part of it. It’s not the same,” says 28-year-old Prashant Gupta, a Bengaluru-based financial analyst who is a die-hard Arsenal and Djokovic fan.
Talking about missing the iconic East Bengal versus Mohun Bagan matches at Kolkata’s Salt Lake Stadium, Kolkata-based media profesional Asmitabha Manna says, “I miss the banter between the fans… the Mexican wave inside the stadium.” He also admits to feeling worried about the future of sports. “Even though sports is coming back, there are a lot of changes taking place and things will not be the same any more. Social distancing in sports might be the worst thing that a fan can imagine,” the 26-year-old Chelsea fan says.
He is right. Spectator sports may be returning, but the fan experience has been altered. Who would have thought that one day an empty Signal Iduna Park stadium would host the German football derby between Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich with the yellow flags and the iconic yellow wall of the stadium replaced by glaring empty seats? It is quite evident that the world of sports is going through a major survival crisis.
Players weigh in
While the new rules have come as a big blow for fans, they have affected players as well. After all, the magic of playing in front of a full crowd cannot be matched. For players, fans add to the atmosphere, experience and the thrill. They also lend an emotional aspect to the game. In a stadium, it’s the stands that are oftentimes the source of noise, drama and colour. What makes sports stadiums special, in fact, is the history etched into their walls and the people that fill the stands, their voices echoing in unison. “Empty stadiums would be disappointing for players who are competing. There are a lot of times when players respond to spectators. If someone plays a good shot, the manner in which the crowd responds also brings in that energy. Similarly, if a bowler bowls a fiery spell and the crowd is responding to it, it builds a kind of pressure on the opponent team,” says cricketing legend Sachin Tendulkar, adding, “Spectators are integral to any sport. Their encouragement, vociferous chants for or against you is a necessity.”
Indian skipper Virat Kohli agrees, saying that cricket in empty stadiums is a real possibility now, but the magic would be missing. “I honestly don’t know how everyone is going to take to that because we are all used to playing in front of so many passionate fans. That feeling of the crowd connecting with the players and the tension of the game which everyone goes through in the stadium… those emotions are very difficult to recreate,” Kohli says.
Former England batsman Kevin Pietersen, however, says sportsmen will have to deal with playing in empty stadiums, as the world gears up for isolated sports events. “The new versions of sports will have to be played behind closed doors until we find a vaccination for coronavirus and the sportsmen have got to deal with it no matter how hard it is,” Pietersen says, adding, “Fans need a morale boost. Their morale at the moment is so negative, so down in the dumps.”
In an attempt to boost fans’ morale and stay connected, perhaps, many players are now turning to social media. While footballer Cesc Fabregas is trying his hand at comedy on Twitter, Aussie cricketer David Warner has taken to TikTok to keep his fans amused.
The suspension of the IPL left millions of fans who would flock to the stadiums in the scorching summer heat disappointed. With the fate of the league hanging in balance, fans have now turned to social media to see their stars in action in the virtual world. The various IPL teams have been keeping fans entertained by conducting daily live chats with players and putting out quizzes for fans. While Royal Challengers Bangalore have been posting daily fitness tips and videos by skipper Kohli, Kolkata Knight Riders have been engaging with fans through a Bengali ‘food fest’, wherein players rustle up dishes on Instagram Live sessions.
Hope for the future
There are some countries, however, that are allowing sports with spectators in attendance. Take, for instance, Vietnam. Soccer is back in the country and so are the fans in stadiums. Its top domestic league, V-League, resumed on June 5, with more than 1,000 fans in attendance at Hai Phong. Fans were, however, subjected to temperature checks as they entered the premises. “We are obviously happy to play in front of fans, as this is what makes football special,” said Jung Hae-sung, the coach of Ho Chi Minh, a football club part of the V-League.
The best news perhaps has come from New Zealand’s Dunedin, where a capacity crowd packed the Forsyth Barr stadium on June 13 to celebrate the return of professional Super Rugby almost three months after the tournament was stopped as a result of the pandemic. It was a momentous moment for New Zealand, as fans returned to the stadiums for the first time. The stadium had over 22,000 people in the stands before the kickoff between the
Highlanders and the Chiefs.
In Russia, too, authorities have reportedly chalked out a plan to allow 10% spectator capacity in stadiums during football matches, while in Hungary, clubs have been given clearance to hold games with a limited number of fans.
All this because players and organisers alike know and understand the critical role fans play in a sporting spectacle. Many a times, in fact, players have stressed that they didn’t lose because of the opposing team, but because of its supporters. Be it the intense rivalry among fans during an Indo-Pak cricket match or the ruthless English fans booing Australia’s players, it’s the fans who can at times make or break the players’ morale. They are the ones who can transform an ordinary street in Kolkata to resemble one in Argentina or Brazil as the two countries clash in the football world cup.
For now, though, fans will have to take a backseat. Twenty-five-year-old Chinmoy Sonowal, a Delhi-based filmmaker, gives it a funny twist, saying that at least now the Indian cricket team “will not lose overseas Test matches as they aren’t going to play one anytime soon!” His friend Priyank Singh, a 26-year-old tech consultant based in Delhi, adds, “I want to see a bustling stadium again… shouting fans intimidating the other team. I want to witness the thrill of an intense last-minute finish of a Champions League match, hoping for a referee decision to pull the match in favour of my team.”
Acknowledging that the world of sports has suffered a huge blow, Sonowal feels fans need to practise some patience now more than ever. “While I do definitely miss watching Kohli and Rohit Sharma bat together and don’t know when that is going to happen next, I also understand that the world is going through a rough time and we need to be patient,” he says.