Now, let’s get something straight. I am not a particularly sporty person. I kidded myself that I was good at football for years, until I realised that I was destined for a life of second-hand sporting enjoyment, watching people younger than me earn hundreds of thousands of dollars per week. I also dabbled in motorsport for a couple of years, racing my go-kart alongside (or more realistically, far behind) the likes of Liam Lawson, who is currently racing in Formula 2, and looks destined for Formula 1 stardom. I, on the other hand, have reached the dizzying heights of writing this rather depressing piece of satirical journalism. To give the inaccurate impression that I have a rounded personality, in job interviews I commonly say that “I have a keen interest in sports”. This is what we call, in the biz, a “technical truth”. I do like sports. Even though I am mediocre at best, I really do enjoy them. So why does watching international sport during this god-forsaken pandemic suck so much? At first glance, the reasoning behind the problem is obvious. “Duh, it’s just the empty stadiums and the lack of a crowd”. Surely, the problem must lie deeper. As Eminem would say, “Something’s wrong, I can feel it”.
The Psychology of the Empty Stadium
Whether we like it or not, sports stars are essentially circus acts designed for our enjoyment. Clearly, without us there, something feels a bit off, and perhaps it begins to feel even a tad exploitative. In the Before Times, by watching on television, we shared the experience of the crowd. But now, sports are being performed to no-one, apart from a lone viewer eating cured meats while doom-scrolling Reddit. Just me? OK.
Of course, due to COVID-19, sports stadiums are merely glorified television studios. From football to Formula 1, there is a certain “dance, monkey, dance!” vibe to all international sports affected by the virus. This phenomenon was made crystal clear when Daniel Andrews, the Premier of Victoria, had this to say about the Australian Open, in light of Victoria’s latest lockdown: “There are no fans; there’s no crowds. These people are essentially at their workplace”. This is part of the problem. Who wants to watch someone who’s just doing their job? Andrews went on to say, “Large and small professional sport events… will function essentially as a workplace but they will not function as an entertainment event, because there will be no crowds”. Essentially, nowadays we are just watching a collection of people doing their jobs, rather than being performers. In my mind, it’s like watching a Netflix comedy special, but there is no audience – just awkward silence after each joke. Watching at home, are you more inclined to laugh along with the crowd? Of course you are, and this is why laugh tracks exist. The same psychology must apply to sports – if there is no live crowd to enjoy it, how can anyone? However, there is a reason that laugh tracks are falling out of favour with modern viewers – audiences no longer like being told how to feel, but they do like at least being given a suggestion of how to feel! As one YouTube user succinctly comments on a WWE video without a crowd, “It’s like FRIENDS without the audience laughter, feels weird lol.” I couldn’t have put it better myself.
WWE: The Funniest, Most Dystopian Example of the Phenomenon
Wrestling as entertainment is the sport many of us, including me, love to hate. I will preface what I am about to say with a disclaimer. As entertainment, for the right person, WWE is as valid as any other form of entertainment. However, any physical event where the result is predetermined cannot, in my mind, be classified as “sport”. It is, however, worth mentioning that, while the winner and the moves are pre-determined, the hits are real, and the injuries even more so. John Cena even broke his neck back in 2008.
However, with the obviously rehearsed nature of the fights, the “empty stadium effect” has absolutely decimated the “sport”. Without a crowd, the ridiculousness of WWE is magnified tenfold. Fact is, watching one buff guy slam the shit out of another buff guy is just kinda weird if it’s done in silence, and even weirder if you’re watching it alone and not sharing the experience with a WWE crowd, which is traditionally one of the most vocal and passionate in all of sport.
The Partial Crowd/Zoom World
In December 2020, by allowing two-thousand socially distanced fans in the stadium, the big football clubs in the English Premier League, including Liverpool, attempted to rectify the dystopian, although now alarmingly familiar empty stadium phenomenon. However, after the arrival of the more infectious UK variant of COVID-19, the partial crowd solution was no more, and the empty stadiums returned. At least, with a partial crowd, there was some shared emotion between the physical and television crowds – but the social distancing and masks made it all too weird a spectacle. Unfortunately, we probably haven’t seen the end of the partial crowd phenomenon. Football has tried, and in my opinion, failed at making empty stadiums work. Fake crowd noises, which replicate songs, chants, and general crowd murmurings, are truly horrendous, and the most analogous example to a comedic laugh track. However, it does avoid the awkwardness of the pure silence preferred by WWE.
We have all become familiar with one alternative – the weird Zoom collage of fans viewing and celebrating sports from the comfort of their homes. This, to me, is the weirdest, and most Black Mirror, of any of the aforementioned phenomena. Indeed, in the Black Mirror episode, “15 Million Merits”, the bizarre talent show featured in the episode is enjoyed by a virtual crowd of Wii-like avatars. The episode (spoiler alert) leads to the protagonist of the episode, Bing, bemoaning the artificiality of the world within which he lives, saying, “we’re so out of our minds with desperation we don’t know any better. All we know is fake fodder and buying shit. That’s how we speak to each other, how we express ourselves is buying shit”. Just look at the McLaren Formula 1 team’s car reveal from 15 February. Only around 3 minutes of the 42-minute event were dedicated to actually revealing the car – the rest was largely spent on promoting sponsors. Last year, McLaren’s car reveal event was only 21 minutes, suggesting that the sports industry is perhaps taking advantage of opportunities to advertise in times where audiences are truly desperate for entertainment. Maybe Bing had a point.
e-Sports: A Simulation or a Replacement?
After the Melbourne Grand Prix was cancelled in March 2020, the same fate met almost every sporting event in the world, prompting broadcasters and betting companies to focus on world-renowned events such as the Belarusian Premier League.
Formula 1 had a brainwave. “Why don’t we do a ‘virtual Grand Prix’ with a selection of Formula 1 drivers and a smattering of celebrities? Who doesn’t want to see One Direction’s Liam Payne racing against the best motorsport talent on Earth?”
Admittedly, this was the most entertaining and least forced solution to the pandemic’s problems, as the simulated racing created by the Formula 1 video game is very realistic. The races also featured several well-known racers, such as Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc, McLaren’s Lando Norris, and Red Bull’s Liam Lawson. Wait, Liam Lawson? The dude who used to
beat race against me back in the day? Now I’m definitely not on board.
What have we learnt, and why do we care?
Unfortunately, I have wasted everyone’s time. Of course, there is no true solution. Sports are designed to be enjoyed by a crowd of people, and understandably, in the midst of a deadly pandemic and one of the worst recessions of all time, filling stadiums is not high on the priority list. Sports, rightly so, are an afterthought during times like these. But when one of humanity’s favourite escapist activities constantly reminds us of an ongoing pandemic, is it any surprise that it isn’t much fun anymore?