Fanless games signal a new opportunity for how fans watch and interact with sports

The Bundesliga returned this weekend with fanless matches, broadcasts that could begin a shift in how we watch sports.

By Will Pankey

 

In many ways, the return of soccer resembled seeing an old friend after months of quarantine. From a safe distance, you recognized each other, but key characteristics were a little off. Masks on, they looked slightly shaggy, weathered from the quarantine toll, fundamentally changed, though for the most part, the same. 

So it was with soccer as the Bundesliga returned to the pitch this weekend for a slate of games that looked and felt normal yet abnormal. The soccer–which was at times fitful and a little ragged, to be expected after weeks off–was there, played like soccer always has, but the differences were glaring. Much has been written about the extra precautions that the German league has taken to bring soccer back and they were on full display. First off, the matches took place without fans in the stands while the personnel in the grounds exhibited social distancing practices, the most bizarre being the substitute benches with seats spread apart as players sat in masks and watched. There were no handshakes, no pregame pageantry, it was utilitarian and workmanlike; show up, let’s get the show on the road. 

If anything from this weekend was evident it’s that yes, sports can return sans fans. But the matches this past weekend also made it clear: Sports can go on with fans, but sports need fans. Though the Bundesliga will surely iron out some kinks in the presentation, there was a sense of hollowness to the spectacle (even beyond the hollow stadiums). After a first half of Dortmund domination over Schalke, the players retreated to the dressing rooms, only to leave viewers with a montage of empty stadium shots while bloodless pop music blared in the background. There were no highlights, no extra commentary, just Carly Rae Jepsen blaring in an empty Signal Iduna Park. 

Yet, it was enough. Soccer, (and sports) no matter how barebones it comes to us, can perhaps get by with the game as is. Once the initial shock of the social distancing measures wore off, all that viewers were left with was the game, and in a way it was refreshing. There were no distractions, no unnecessary add-ons, the focus remained squarely on the field. Bringing sports back in the U.S. will likely be a mix-and-match flavor. European soccer can return without injecting the game with any greater meaning, any more pomp, when in the U.S., the sport takes a backseat to the over-the-top presentation. When the major sports leagues start back up again (or get started) one can only guess that the games will come packaged with a considerable amount of demagoguery, breathless hot takes to make the games seem as normal as possible. 

But that’s the challenge that awaits every league. How do you take sports without an atmosphere and create one for people at home? Each league will have to get creative, using the access and nature of each sport to offer something different for fans. Forgive the cliche, but sports in the U.S. has always been more. Fans consume games in layers, between pre-game, commentary, the social media conversation, the aftermath, and the advertising, the “sport” itself is a second thought, a dish on a banquet table of entrees and desserts. 

The good thing about our current situation, then, is that sport will eventually return, but with the opportunity to tinker with the familiar format. Let’s throw in additional commentary, bolster in-game interactivity with fans, provide new angles that shake up the dramatic beats of a sports broadcast and bring something new to the table. If there was any time to experiment, it’s now.

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