The resumption of top-flight German soccer over the weekend didn’t just provide a glimmer of hope that North American leagues like the NFL and NBA can follow suit. The Bundesliga’s return also offered a sobering glimpse of what games will look like without fans in the age of the coronavirus.
And it was weird. You might even hate it. But if you want to watch live sports again, you’d better get used to it.
Because if professional and college football and basketball (and so many others) are able to come back this year at all — and that remains a significant if — this is what the games are going to look like.
“It was certainly different,” Robert Klein, the CEO of Bundesliga International, told Yahoo Sports on Monday. “No one is ignoring the fact that we would prefer the fans to be there.”
For the foreseeable future, that’s simply not realistic. Every North American league that is considering restarting over the next couple of months — Major League Baseball, the NBA, NHL and MLS among them — agrees that spectators will not be permitted initially.
Sports on this continent could look even more strange than the matches that are taking place in Germany. Bundesliga clubs are staging matches inside their own venues, while their USA-based counterparts explore plans to play in one (or multiple) centralized locations hosting many teams.
For those watching the Bundesliga from afar, the venues might have provided the only sense of normalcy. Coaches, trainers and even reserve players wore protective masks on the sidelines. Those on the field engaged in a hotly contested contact sport were warned against unnecessarily touching their opponents and even each other. On Saturday, Hertha Berlin’s players were reprimanded for hugging following a goal. In the absence of crowd noice, the sound of birds singing during Sunday’s contest between Bayern Munich and Union Berlin was positively disorienting.
“You shoot, you score, you make a great pass and nothing happens,” Borussia Dortmund manager Lucien Favre said following his team’s 4-0 win over Schalke.
It was still better — a lot better — than nothing. The world has changed over the last couple months, forcing all of us to adapt in ways we couldn’t expect. Any discussion about the profound impact COVID-19 has had on sports needs to be framed within the greater context of a global heath crisis, which has already resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths.
Against that backdrop, the return of any high-level sports at all should be considered a triumph, even if the cynics aren’t wrong when they point out that only money has moved leagues to reopen before they can guarantee the safety of everyone involved. Some players have even argued against resuming, while others contend that playing without paying customers in attendance makes the whole thing a farce.
But as French philosopher Voltaire famously observed, there is something to be said for not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. And after occupying a world without sports since mid-March, it’s OK to be grateful for getting a tiny slice of regular life back, rather than sad that it’s not exactly how it was before.
“A game without fans has no soul,” former U.S. soccer coach Bob Bradley told reporters last month. “But this is different.”
Among other things, the last 10 weeks have demonstrated how quickly humans are capable of adapting to massive change. People will get used to watching games without fans. Other leagues will learn from the Bundesliga’s approach to playing in empty arenas. Over the weekend in Germany, local broadcaster Sky added artificial crowd noise — including club-specific songs and chants — to its telecasts. They won’t be the last.
“We will continue looking at that, seeing what technology we can bring in,” Klein said. “One thing we’re mindful of is we want to remain as authentic as possible.”
North American leagues tend to be more innovative than their historically buttoned-up European counterparts. They’re made for TV, anyway. Could it soon become routine for players, coaches and officials here to wear microphones during play, putting viewers at home in the middle of on-field interactions?
This is uncharted territory for everyone. Even without supporters in the seats, it may not work. A spike in positive tests could shut it all down again. This grand gamble is at least worth a shot, though, even if it’s far from ideal.
Especially when the alternative is no games at all.
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