Sports News Without Fear, Favor or Compromise
Sports News Without Fear, Favor or Compromise
Adding crowd noise to empty stadiums is yet another blow to fans.
Adding crowd noise to empty stadiums is yet another blow to fans.
Photo: Getty

The first week of the Bundesliga’s return, the production on Fox Sports carried the action as is. Viewers heard every kick of the ball, the instructions shouted from the bench and between players, the rustling of the net as the ball hit it. It was surely a jarring experience, at once both a reminder of how much had changed and a fascinating look inside to the things we never hear during a match.

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Somewhere between there and this past weekend, Fox Sports decided to pick up the Sky Deutchland feed, which is using artificial crowd noise in its production. The reaction to that is no less layered and confusing.

At first, it’s comforting to hear what you’re used to. In fact, there’s barely any notice. Turning on FS1 or 2 at 8:30 a.m., that’s what I’m accustomed to hearing. Singing, stomping, drums, the roar of anticipation during every attack, applause for a defensive play, howling at any refereeing decision against the home team. It’s everything as it should be. It’s the normal soundtrack to my weekend mornings. As the effects are tailored to the action on the screen, it feels right, even (whoever is actually pressing the buttons for whatever the algorithm they’re using clearly knows what they’re doing).

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Of course, it doesn’t take more than a moment or two to remember where, and more to the point when, we are. And hearing the noise while seeing the empty seats on the screen, there’s a disconnect. It’s clearly something that’s not actually happening, and a prop to assure me that things are as I remember them — normal. It’s never a comfortable feeling to be told things are as they were when they’re clearly not. I can see it right there on my screen. No one’s there, this noise is coming from a hard drive. I’m hearing something that doesn’t actually exist. You can’t touch it, or at least the source.

At the same time, there’s the comfort, which is perhaps what the networks are aiming for. It is awkward to watch a silent soccer match, and soon we’ll see how awkward it is to watch silent hockey, basketball, and possibly baseball and football games, too. It’s not how we’re conditioned. Removing that oddity makes it somewhat easier to enjoy the action you came for in the first place. One less thing to notice.

And yet removing awkwardness and discomfort merely for the sake of it, especially when it comes from large corporations like Sky and Fox, almost never passes the smell test. Surely, this was some calculation that it would help hold or boost ratings. That the lack of crowd noise was just too weird for some and they turned it off. Whereas hearing what they’ve always heard will keep them tuned in. At least that’s what my punk heart immediately leaps to. And to have senses dulled by the familiar by Sky or Fox means something nefarious, no matter how small, is going on.

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To me, the overall effect is disconcerting. It makes the fan feel replaceable, and some have already commented on whether this is the future. We know some venues have in the past tried to boost atmosphere by piping in crowd noise when there are fans there anyway. It’s more soulless automation meant to replace something genuine. Cue Dusty Rhodes’s promo about getting a kick in the butt and being replaced by a computer. HARD TIMES, DADDY.

While it seems far-fetched that all sports could just be held on a stadium-as-soundstage, it’s not so much to envision networks fine-tuning their ambient noise to whatever they want for a more vibrant product. We already know we’re being sold something through TV sports, and it gets harder and harder to remain in a place where you can just believe that it’s the live experience through your TV beckoning you to the stadium one day in the future. We know we’re being sold Target and The Good Wife, but we can shove that to the side for the most part and focus on the stadium. But when you’re just full on creating that experience digitally?

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Being a fan has meant an increasing feeling of being replaceable for a couple decades as it is. They tore down the parks and arenas we loved in order to build bigger ones that shoved us higher and farther away to put in skyboxes. They pause the games more and more to show commercials to people who aren’t there. More and more lounges and greater food options are installed for the people we already had to move for. Our tickets get more and more expensive. In-game experiences get flashier and louder and more intrusive for those who aren’t as interested as we are. And now they’re just recreating the noise we make when we’re not even there.

It’s a personal choice. I know some really enjoy having the sounds they expect. To me, the idea of being placated or “comforted” by what I used to know rings hollow and underhanded. These are not normal times. It’s not a normal end to the Bundesliga season. I see the empty seats. I can see the players playing in a different atmosphere than the one I’m hearing. Games are being played in June, for fuck’s sake. It’s not natural. I already know that, and I don’t think we should be convinced by any means that anything is as it was.

Have you ever looked at a dollar bill, man?

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