The year 2020 witnessed a paucity of live sport like we hadn’t seen in decades. For fans, it meant staying away from stadiums for a large part of the 12 months. For the writers at Scroll.in, it meant a chance to reflect on events in the past and take stock of what’s to come. This year-end series is a personal take on what watching sports in 2020 was like.
On March 8, 2020, the world witnessed an important chapter in professional sports. It was the day the Women’s T20 World Cup final was played between Australia and India at the iconic Melbourne Cricket Ground, which set a new record for crowd attendance in a stadium for a women’s cricket match.
While the biggest takeaway from that game was indeed the celebration of women’s cricket, there was another reminder for everyone watching: the undeniable importance of having fans in stadiums for their ability to elevate professional sports.
From an athlete’s perspective, having fans in the stadium doesn’t merely serve as validation for their position in life, it also directly affects every move they make on the court/field. They feed off the energy of the crowd, be it positive or negative.
Of course, there are those who may find it easier to zone in when there’s silence but for the most part, you’ll find that the adrenaline rush provided by fans in the stadium pushes athletes to go the extra mile. In the past few months alone, we have had icons like Lionel Messi and Virat Kohli talk about how the crowds help them give their best.
However, from a fan’s perspective, the months-long break for pro sports in 2020 provided an interesting insight. The advantage of having crowds fill up stadiums is obvious, but there are upsides to watching athletes battle it out in front of empty seats too. While the roar of the crowd is indeed uplifting, there is a certain joy in hearing the different sounds of sport in the absence of fans.
As a spectator, if you’re watching a match from inside the stadium itself, you get immersed in the festive atmosphere. And even if you’re watching on a screen, which is how most people watch most games, the viewing experience is taken up several notches because of the energy provided by the crowd.
Which is why when pro sports was making a comeback from its unprecedented and seemingly unending hiatus, a major concern was the impact empty stadiums would have on both – the level of play and the entertainment value for those watching.
While it’s impossible to say just how deeply the absence of crowds affected the players’ performances, as a fan one could say that the forced silence allowed us to connect with a different soundtrack that sport has to offer.
In cricket, the role of a stump mic has traditionally been to help viewers enjoy the banter between players out in the middle. But the quiet in the stands helped accentuate the echo of the ball hitting the bat; the clap of the fielders; the thud when a pacer lands his boot on the popping crease; the silence when a batsman takes guard.
While watching football matches, one is used to seeing players and coaches yell out at each other all the time but the raucous crowds ensure that we – the ones watching on screens – can’t hear any of it. But the forced silence in the stadium introduced us to those sounds and the sense of chaos on the pitch. The thumping sound that comes when a shot is taken or a long ball is played, the force with which players clash while chasing a loose ball – one could hear, feel and sense the sheer physicality of the sport.
The same goes for tennis. At the US Open, for instance, which boasts of the biggest tennis stadium in the world, it has always been thoroughly enjoyable to see the rapturous New York crowd dive into each match. But this year the Arthur Ashe Stadium was devoid of fans and that too provided a fascinating look at professional tennis. We’re used to seeing players on our screens look like animated figures moving from corner to corner pulling off jaw-dropping feats. But the empty stands led to a more intimate viewing experience. The echo of the “c’mons” and the solitude that players in individual sport have to deal with – one got a much more personal understanding of that.
The world may still be grappling with the pandemic but professional sports are slowly starting to see the return of fans in stadiums. The roars, the chants, the gushes, the waves may soon return in all their glory but as a lover of sports, one could say that the absence of them all made for a refreshing change too.