By Eddie Gonzalez
The sound of turnstiles clicking can be heard at stadiums across the country again, as fans are beginning to trickle their ways back into sporting events in America. After the NBA, WNBA and NHL all wrapped up seasons without fans, the MLB is inviting 11,500 fans into Globe Life Park, home of the Texas Rangers, to watch the World Series live. In the NFL, 7 of the 14 Week 7 games will feature fans in the stadium, and California recently loosened their rules regarding fans at sporting events, opening the door for three more teams to join the fray.
So, gradually, crowdless sports are coming to an end, for the time being, thus ending one of the strangest eras of professional sports this country has ever seen, and providing a financial boost that each league desperately needs as they adjust to the post-COVID world. As health became paramount, fans were treated to a unique TV experience and athletes were thrust onto fields, courts, rinks, rings, octagons, courses and everything in between to ply their trade. The games remained the same, but the feel and look of each sport was altered in such a way that it seemed likely to have an affect on the athletes themselves. Even with the hyper focus required for pro sports, would there be an impact on the intensity of the game itself?
“It felt like it was playing the game closer to its purest form, backyard football,” said Chicago Bears running back Tarik Cohen about playing with no fans in the stands. Cohen played three games without fans to start this season before suffering a season-ending knee injury against the Falcons the first week they allowed 500 friends and family members into the Mercedes-Benz Stadium. “I don’t really feel like it affected the individual (play) honestly, but I do feel in certain situations crowd noise and fans do have an impact on the game, though. (No crowd noise) makes it easier on the offense in particular. We can use more cadence.”
But as the NFL begins the process of trickling fans back into their stadiums, other sports remain cautious. Combat sports, even with limited participants, continue to utilize “bubble” practices, with strict testing protocols and quarantine rules on the premises. For Top Rank Boxing, their bubble is at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, with fights staged in the smaller Grand Conference Center in the famed hotel and casino. This setup allowed the promotion to give the boxing world the biggest fight of the pandemic, Teofimo Lopez’s tense and enthralling victory over Vasiliy Lomachenko this past Saturday.
In MMA, the UFC has their own bubbles of sorts, one on “Fight Island,” their remote setup a bevy of events in Abu Dhabi. Fight Island has been the home of seven UFC cards, including UFC 251 featuring the clash between Kamaru Usman and Jorge Masvidal, which drew over 1.3 million pay-per-view buys, and it will be the home of UFC 254 this weekend, headlined by the return of Lightweight Champion Khabib Nurmagomedov. The promotion has also staged events in their own facility, the UFC Apex in Las Vegas. Originally built to serve as a studio of sorts to film series like Dana White’s Contender Series and smaller fight cards, the state of the art facility quickly became the home of major events. UFC 250, headlined by Amanda Nunes’ victory over Felicia Spencer, and UFC 252 featuring the epic rubber match between Daniel Cormier and Stipe Miotic both took place at the Apex.
Andre “Daii” Ewell had the pleasure of fighting in the Apex on the September 29th Fight Night card, picking up a split decision victory over Irwin Rivera. For Ewell, the reactions from fans fuel him, but ultimately a fight is a fight. “When I was in the cage, it didn’t bother me as much,” said Ewell. “Granted, I’m speaking for myself, someone who feeds off the crowd. I’ve been told and I believe my style of fighting is crowd pleasing. So what I’m saying is, (the) more that I think about it now I miss them.” For Ewell, in the moment it was the lack of a proper ring walk and music to set the mood that was the biggest missing piece of the puzzle. “Walking to the cage with the right music allows the audience to connect with (you). (It) lets them know a piece about you and know what you’re about. Picture walking into a club and everyone is dancing! The DJ did his job! He/she just connected them all with the right music. Now picture walking in a club and no one is dancing! Well that’s how it was walking to the cage. So yeah, it sucks.”
But, much like the Bears and Cohen’s ability to utilize cadence on offense without crowd noise, there’s a strategic advantage to less noise in the venue for both fighters. “The fact that your opponent hears everything they say and that gives the time to make adjustments!” said Ewell. “Then on the other hand your tricks can play a big part (in a fight), like in feints and fakes. Add (that to) your coaches screaming and their coaches screaming... Truly it can be Chaotic. Then that other side may need that type of chaos. Certain people can fight with people just screaming.”
But what about a sport where fans are mostly subdued and silence is key? The PGA Tour announced in July that it would play out the remainder of this season without fans, the USGA announced shortly after that the US Open at Winged Foot Golf Club in suburban New York, would follow suit. This created an odd set of circumstances for 7-year vet and former 2013 NCAA Division I Men's Golf champion Max Homa, a major that didn’t feel major. “The biggest difference I noticed was how the event felt like it had way less magnitude,” Homa said. “I wasn’t nearly as nervous as I think I would have been. It made me realize how much the fans impact the play and the feel of even our biggest tournaments.” While Max admits there were some benefits to a crowdless event, he did say there was one huge drawback as well. “I think it made the initial parts of every day easier,” he said. “I felt less uptight, which is always good. It’s not like it affected my play negative in any way but it isn’t as fun without the buzz. The fans bring a lot of life to the events, even the regular season ones.”
Fans felt the changes as well, even as various leagues and sports tried to involve them in new innovative ways. The NBA partnered with Microsoft and Michelob ULTRA for their virtual fan board, bringing local fans and celebrities together to join the party. Fox planted fans into seats virtually for their broadcasts of both MLB and NFL games, while teams simply propped up cutouts around their stadiums, charging fans anywhere from $25 to $500 to be placed into the stands in cardboard fashion. So, yes, these innovative ways to involve fans were to maintain some semblance of normalcy, and the fan involvement that Homa mentioned, but they were also avenues for teams and leagues to capitalize and hope to mitigate even a small fraction of the lost revenue of not having fans in stadiums.
Amongst one of the most unique periods in sports history, the recurring theme for Ewell, Cohen and Homa was the ability to lock in when needed and ply their trade at a high level, regardless of the circumstances. Homa stated his approach to the game didn’t change “at all.” For Ewell, “an octagon is an octagon,” whether fans surround it or not. “No matter where you place it, it’s my home.” And Cohen, in a game where collisions are constant, and a split second of hesitance can cost you a game or a season, focus was never an issue. “I was too locked in,” said Cohen. “At the end of the day it’s about respect from my peers, not fans, so I still came to the game focused.” Even without fans in the seats, the games must go on, and they did, all the way ‘til the turnstiles started turning again.