May 13, 2020 - Sports

Sports leagues are preparing for an era without fans

Illustration of a camera above a stadium
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

At the turn of the century, futurist Watts Wacker predicted that sports stadiums of the future would essentially be sound stages optimized for TV, rather than coliseum-like structures built to seat thousands of fans.

Why it matters: Prior to the coronavirus, things were already moving in this direction, with teams building smaller, more intimate venues in response to declining attendance and changing viewing habits.

  • And now, as we transition from the No Sports Era to the No Fans Era, Wacker's prophecy has become reality — albeit under circumstances he could never have anticipated.

The state of play: Our sports-less odyssey is nearing its end, but fans won't be packing stadiums any time soon, meaning a return to normalcy is still months away.

  • According to a FiveThirtyEight/Ipsos poll of more than 1,000 Americans, only 24% of respondents said they would be either very likely or somewhat likely to attend a sporting event right now if government restrictions were lifted. 58% said they would be "not at all likely."
  • When asked what condition would make them feel comfortable attending a game, respondents overwhelmingly answered "the development of a COVID-19 vaccine," which isn't likely until 2021 at the earliest. And 27% said even a vaccine wouldn't do the trick.

The big picture: For athletes and coaches, empty stadiums will create a surreal environment that lacks the energy and noise that fans provide.

"There's a reason why people say fans play such an integral role in the process of the game. When you don't have fans and that atmosphere, it becomes flat. And it becomes a lot of forced energy and a lot of moments you are trying to create instead of it creating it for you."
— Diamondbacks pitcher Luke Weaver, via USA Today

As for the broadcasts, fanless games will likely accelerate changes already in development, sports media consultant and former ESPN executive John Kosner tells me. And some of those changes could be permanent.

  • "We will see the use of new technologies come to the fore, with things like augmented reality used to cover empty seats and actual crowd noise pumped in from fans watching remotely," says Kosner. "All to bring sight, sound and emotion to the otherwise drab proceedings."
  • "You already see elements of fan interactivity on Twitch and in gaming — now we could see that take hold on traditional sports telecasts. More trivia, social media integrations, the option to choose the next guest."
  • "What makes me optimistic is that we'll come up with some good ideas here that will be part of the 'new normal' once we get to the other side, and that we'll come out of this dark period with a greater appreciation for how important fans are."

Go deeper: How sports media is handling the coronavirus outage

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