‘A big, big Zoom meeting’: Has Danish soccer solved our sports-without-fans dilemma?

·7 min read

Employees at Danish soccer club AGF Aarhus experienced the coronavirus shutdown just like you did. On indelible days in March, they were told to stay home. Some have been furloughed. Those still working have been meeting via Zoom. And one day, at one of many virtual meetings, to discuss one of many thorny issues, one club official had an idea.

The Danish Superliga, like most sports leagues worldwide, had been suspended. When it and they resume, stadiums will be empty for the foreseeable future. Executives everywhere are searching for solutions: How can we recreate gameday atmospheres? How can we engage our fans? How can we drown out soulless echoes with the chants and cheers that typically fill arenas every weekend?

AGF Aarhus’ answer is the most ambitious yet: Hundreds of Zoom calls and a “virtual grandstand.”

In early May, the club began offering “tickets” to its first game back, a rescheduled rivalry match against Randers FC on Thursday. The tickets, which are free, will get you a Zoom link and a rotating spot on a 44-yard-long sideline video board. When players take the field, they’ll see your face and hear your voice. Fans will watch on TVs at home. Players will feel their support at Ceres Park.

There has been talk throughout the sports world, from the NFL to the English Premier League, about artificial crowd noise and CGI. In Germany, there have been visual depictions of fans in seats. But nowhere has there been both the sights and the sounds of normalcy. Aarhus will attempt to change that.

And while there remain logistical challenges to overcome, creative minds in front offices around the globe will be watching and wondering: Could we replicate this? Or, better yet, could we take the concept and run with it?

AGF Aarhus will try to replicate fans in the stands with a giant video board and one big Zoom meeting. (Illustration courtesy of AGF Aarhus)
AGF Aarhus will try to replicate fans in the stands with a giant video board and one big Zoom meeting. (Illustration courtesy of AGF Aarhus)

AGF Aarhus’ Zoom plot

Inspiration came last month from a Danish TV show. With the country on lockdown, Denmark’s public broadcaster dreamt up a special singalong program. A well-known artist performs. Ordinary citizens record themselves singing the same song and, thanks to the wonders of technology, they perform alongside the celeb.

“And that gave us the idea,” says Søren Carlsen, AGF Aarhus’ media officer. “Could we do something similar in a football stadium?”

They reached out to Zoom, which said yes, and the club has been working with the California-based video conferencing company ever since.

Of course, one Zoom meeting can’t accommodate 10,000 participants. But 556 separate Zoom meetings can. That’s the thought at the heart of the plan. There’ll be 18 fans each in bunch of virtual meeting rooms. They’ll be able to communicate with one another throughout the match. And for much of the 90 minutes, that’s all the “virtual grandstand” will offer.

But on the side of the field opposite broadcast cameras, AGF will erect a three-piece video board. It’s over 9 feet tall and 131 feet wide. It can fit 200 fans’ faces at once. In a control center, around 50 moderators, or “digital stewards,” will monitor the Zoom rooms, toggle between them, and choose 10 or 11 of the chat rooms to display on the big screen for short stints at a time. Throughout the match, each fan should get more than two minutes on the video board — unless they act up.

“If you’re behaving not according to the rules,” Carlsen says, “then you will be thrown out of the Zoom meeting.”

What fans won’t be able to do is actually watch the match as if they were in a stadium seat. That’s the one part of the connection missing here. Fans will see one another. Players will see fans. But fans will still have to watch on TV or a stream as they normally would. And that’s where the setup becomes problematic.

Problems with the ‘virtual grandstand’

What fans see on TV isn’t live. Even if they’re watching on cable, there’s a several-second delay between on-field action and television picture. That, for one, means the explosion of noise after a goal, or the groans that greet a missed chance, will bombard players six or seven seconds after the goal or miss happens.

The bigger problem is for those streaming the broadcast on a computer or mobile device. They’re another half-minute behind. Assuming at least one of the 17 other fans in their Zoom meeting is watching on cable, streamers will know about everything before it happens on their screen.

The other big in-stadium challenge is acoustics. “When we started out the project, we didn’t think we could use the noise,” Carlsen admits. “You can imagine, if you have 10,000 people in a meeting and they all have their microphones on, it would just be like white noise through the speakers.

“But we tested it. We had a closed friendly [exhibition match]. We had 50 people on a Zoom meeting, and we tried to put their sound in the stadium, and we tried to make them sing at the same time, and chant at the same time, and actually that worked quite well.”

It’s unclear if sound will come only from the 200 fans featured on the video board at a given time, or from all 10,000 at once. Heck, it’s unclear if any of this will work smoothly. The video boards, which the club is renting with a sponsor, won’t be up until Wednesday. It’s all a massive one-match experiment that could be brilliant, in which case the club will run it back on Monday. It also could fail spectacularly.

Either way, it’s an A+ for creativity, and a precursor of what’s to come elsewhere.

Each fan will receive a ticket to attend the "virtual" game. (Courtesy of AGF Aarhus)
Each fan will receive a ticket to attend the "virtual" game. (Courtesy of AGF Aarhus)

Could American sports replicate Aarhus’ plan?

JerryWorld, also known as AT&T Stadium, the home of the Dallas Cowboys, cost $1.2 billion. Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the home of the Atlanta Falcons, cost $1.6 billion. Each has a gargantuan video board that spans tens of thousands of square feet. Each is owned by a franchise worth multiple billions of dollars. Those franchises belong to a league that makes over $16 billion per year, that swims in excess, that has deep ties in Silicon Valley.

In other words, if you think the NFL, its 32 teams and its broadcast partners aren’t deep in discussions about how to replicate fan experiences and contributions in the age of coronavirus, you’re sorely mistaken.

They’re thinking about what AGF Aarhus will do Thursday. They just have a biiiiit more time and money to play with. They have uber-advanced technologies at their disposal, and months to deploy them. In some form or fashion, they will.

The question is whether they, and other teams in other sports, follow the Aarhus model or focus on TV presentation. Joe Buck said this month that the NFL will underlay TV broadcasts with faux crowd noise. He also said they’ll use computer-generated imagery to fill the stadium seats that appear on your television screen with fans. Both stunts would enhance the living-room viewing experience.

What they wouldn’t do is bring fans closer to players, or to one another. They wouldn’t give players anything other than a hollow colossus to stare up at. They wouldn’t break the auditory monotony of screaming coaches and clashing helmets.

The Aarhus plan addresses all of that. NFL teams, presumably, could take it multiple steps further. They could offer fans a unique, virtually immersive experience. They could sell “tickets” to watch virtually from the 50-yard line, with the chants and shrieks of other “ticketed” fans accompanying standard TV commentary. They could put those ticketed fans on Aarhus-style video boards around the stadium, and pump their audio feeds into the stadium for players to hear. The possibilities aren’t quite limitless. But the limits are far less restrictive than you’d think. (And sponsors, by the way, would be lining up to help.)

Thursday, when Aarhus and Randers re-kick-off the Danish Superliga, will be the first test case. It’s a step beyond cardboard cut-outs in stands. Beyond external video boards and fans watching from cars in parking lots. Beyond artificial broadcast gimmicks.

It’s real, albeit virtual, community connection. “Even though we will have empty stands,” Carlsen says, “the players will be very much aware that the city’s behind them.”

More from Yahoo Sports: