Photo: Harry How/Getty Images

When whispers of sports' fanless return first began, a cottage industry emerged to fill a need few knew existed: cardboard cutout fans.

Why it matters: Cardboard proxies have been a bright spot in an otherwise dark year, providing a better TV viewing experience, an opportunity for remote fan engagement and even financial relief for companies impacted by the pandemic.

What's happening: The trend began in Europe and Asia, where sports were first to return, and created an opportunity for companies, teams and leagues willing to think outside the box.

  • Pivot: When Lara Smedley's event production company was put on hold, she pivoted and launched My Fan Seats to help teams/schools create cardboard fan programs. Her first partnership with Wake Forest went live last week.
  • Adapt: AAA Flag & Banner is an L.A.-based print shop. Making and installing cardboard fans for the Rams, A's and Giants has helped the company rebuild after losing two-thirds of its workforce in the wake of the pandemic.
  • Innovate: The Premier Lacrosse League offered cardboard cutouts for its Championship Series in Utah and sold 50% of inventory in the first 24 hours, per the league. They also had celebrities promote their individual cutout images on social media, generating exposure for the two-year-old PLL.
Cardboard cutouts of Rams fans during Sunday night's opener. Photo: Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

How it works: Leagues and teams don't all follow the same blueprint, but the process looks fairly similar across the board. Take the Rams, for example:

  • Step 1: Visit the dedicated website about a week before the home game you wish to "attend."
  • Step 2: Upload a high-resolution photo of yourself (or your pet!) wearing either neutral or team-branded clothing.
  • Step 3: Pay $40 and AAA Flag will take care of the rest, including on-site installation in the stands at SoFi Stadium.

Highlights: Cardboard fans have played a role in some heartwarming stories at the ballpark this summer.

  • They helped Juan Soto enjoy his season debut with his family looking on behind him in left field.
  • They allowed a father and son — both former big leaguers who never knew the other existed — to finally catch a game together (subscription).
  • They gave another father one last chance to sit next to his son at the ballpark, eight years after losing him to cancer.

The big picture: Though cardboard fans sprung up purely out of need, there's no reason they can't carve out a niche once the pandemic subsides.

  • Where's the harm in reserving space for a few each game so fans can support their teams from afar or honor loved ones?
  • Why not let people pay to see themselves on the broadcast and feel like they're part of the experience?

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