Believe none of what you hear and only half that you see.
Edgar Allan Poe
Poe’s admonition carries a new relevance today as America’s pro sports prepare to resume play in empty arenas and stadiums.
Joe Buck, Fox Sport’s ubiquitous play-by-play voice, this week described plans for artificial crowd noises during NFL games as “pretty much a done deal,” and the NBA may use sound effects from the popular “NBA 2K” video games to enhance the broadcasts when (or if) its season resumes from its planned “bubble” in Orlando, Florida.
Those insomniacs — or truly hard-core baseball fans — who have tuned into ESPN’s wee-hours telecasts of games from the Korean Baseball Organization won’t be surprised by such plans. The lack of background noise in the empty ballparks is noticeable and disconcerting.
Television revenue has long had an outsized influence on how and when our games are played, and by pushing the fans out of the arena the pandemic has made broadcasting virtually the only revenue stream available to big-time sports. The sense that American sports could just as well be played in a studio has never been stronger.
But we note that, as certain as everybody seems to be that the audience is desperately eager to have baseball, basketball, hockey and football back on their screens, the networks seem almost as certain that sporting events without the crowd will be too jarring and too boring for the audience to tolerate.
None of this is particularly new, of course. Television viewers have long derided the “laugh track” on sitcoms (particularly when the faked laughter follows a failed gag), but such augmentation remains standard practice in the biz. And for years sports broadcasters have inserted fake billboards into the arena, advertising signs that people actually present don’t see but the television viewers do. Ka-ching, ka-ching.
And so we will have not only fake crowd noise but fake crowds, too. The Oakland Athletics, for example, plan to put cutout images of season ticket holders in the seats; for a premium, any foul ball that goes to the specific seat will be sent to the ticket holder.
Athletes play with balls, the networks play with reality. And we the viewers may well settle for this illusion of community and interaction, at least as long as we can’t have the real thing.