Technology ensures sports fans never walk alone

The coronavirus pandemic is revolutionising the way sport is played and watched. Audio smoke and mirrors are blotting out the sound of empty stadiums and players are becoming gamers.

When you walk through a storm

Even the most casual football person knows what’s coming.

Hold your head up high

If, somehow, they don’t know, the internet will tell them.

And don’t be afraid of the dark

There aren’t quite enough recorded versions to assign one to each of the 54 074 seats at Anfield.

At the end of a storm
There’s a golden sky
And the sweet silver song of a lark

But many versions have been made since 1945 when it featured in Carousel, a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical.

Walk on through the wind

These lines have been ringing out wherever Scousers – actual and aspirant – have gathered since Gerry and the Pacemakers went to No. 1 in the UK charts in 1963.

Walk on through the rain

At this point, even non-Liverpool supporters pause to pay their respects. Because this isn’t any anthem.

Though your dreams be tossed and blown

It’s the sound of loyalty and belonging, and of knowing you are among comrades.

Walk on, walk on
With hope in your heart

This, surely, is the sound of love.

And you’ll never walk alone
You’ll never walk alone

But late on the night of 22 July, Liverpool’s players and staff were indeed alone. With each other. They had gathered on a specially constructed podium in the stands of their famous stadium’s even more famous Kop end, which was draped in banners and flags.

The dazzling football both teams played that evening, unhinged in the best way from having to take things seriously, in Liverpool’s 5-3 win over Chelsea was irrelevant. Nothing had mattered in the English Premier League since 25 June, when Chelsea beat Manchester City to ensure Liverpool would win the title for the first time in 30 years.

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As Jordan Henderson, Liverpool’s captain, thrust the trophy into the night sky, his players boomed their triumph behind him and lights, fireworks, music and confetti filled millions of screens around the world. But there was a hollowness at the heart of the scene that could only have been filled by occupants of those 54 074 empty, silent seats. The only witnesses, bar the functionaries, were Anfield’s ghosts of successes and failures past.

You’ll Never Walk Alone had, of course, swooned around the void before kick off. Lacking human embrace though, the music bounced back the unhearing hardness, cold in its rejection. But the first touch of the ball was accompanied, on television, by a warm cheer for the champions.

Fact’s petticoat slipped from under fiction’s ballgown at the start of the second half, when the canned noise kicked in a heartbeat too late to spare viewers the rippling echoes of the players’ shouting and clapping their encouragement to each other. For a moment, sad reality was all there was to hear.

‘A bit of whistles’

It’s the job of Adam Peri, a Sky Sports sound supervisor, to spare us that terrifying sound during televised broadcasts of games played behind closed doors. National Public Radio sought him out and found him twiddling knobs for West Ham’s match against Watford in a studio kilometres from London Stadium. “Making sure the West Ham chants are nice and loud,” Peri said. A West Ham player went down. “I’m just going to trickle in a bit of whistles, giving it a bit of a boo…”

He sees his role as “trying to anticipate what a player might do next, and in a way I guess I’m reading their mind. When you really get into the zone you’re living and breathing the game, feeling confident enough to use any sound that is available to help tell the story.”

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The sounds Peri edits into the viewers’ consciousness are from earlier matches. Electronic Arts, or EA Sports (EA), the makers of the Fifa football game, recorded them. EA sound designer Paul Boechler revealed some of the geekery at play: “There’s things like the ‘oooh’ reaction for a save, and the ‘ooooooh’ reaction to a miss.”

In football matches broadcast from Spain, a mosaic overlay is applied to camera shots that include the stands, to detract from the endless rows of empty seats. Another difference between the broadcasts will confirm the suspicions of those from sunnier climes that England’s unrelenting winter greyness seeps into hearts and minds. “The Premier League is doing negative reactions, but La Liga is actually not,” Boechler said. “La Liga is going with a much more positive reaction focus overall.”

La Liga head of communications Joris Evers confirmed as much, and added: “But it’s not the same. We want to try and get real fans back in the stands as soon as possible.”

And so says all of sport. If a wicket falls in an empty cricket ground and no one hears it, has it really fallen?

Peanuts and sex dolls

England and West Indies restarted cricket with three Tests played in Southampton and Manchester in England. Not a lot besides the murmur of a crowd, artificially added by Sky, could be heard on television.

Without spectators, the sound of major sport is of one hand-clapping. That may be no bad thing. Instead of Sky’s audio smoke and mirrors, we could hear managers chewing gum between barks at their players. In Germany, Bundesliga viewers had the option of tuning out the canned atmosphere so they could do exactly that.

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But it’s complicated, as the television audience discovered during an American baseball game between the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Houston Astros in Houston, Texas, played on the same day Liverpool raised the trophy across the pond. When Dodgers pitcher Joe Kelly lingered at first base after a confrontational play, Astros manager Dusty Baker, out of sight but not out of range of the microphones, was heard yelling, “Just get on the mound, motherfucker.”

Baseball has had an interesting relationship with empty stadiums. Alternative plans have had to be made for the millions of peanuts grown and roasted to be sold at games in the United States, what with each team’s regular season hacked from 162 to just 60 games. In Taiwan, cheerleaders smiled and danced at desolate stands. Down the road in South Korea, teams were in trouble after dressing up sex dolls and putting them in the stands. Bookmakers in the US have adjusted their odds to account for the assumption that, without spectators, home advantage isn’t nearly as influential.

‘Tweaking the tech’

Something similar happened in the Bundesliga, where teams achieved demonstrably better results than previously when they played away. And diving disappeared. What’s the point of trying to fool the referee by rolling like a freshly felled log for metres on end if thousands of one-eyed home fans aren’t howling in sympathy?

Will the seeming silence of the scrum, beyond the hit and heave, be shattered by the sounds of one pack of forwards trying to monster the other? Some of those noises come from strange places and are better left unheard. It seems SuperSport, the primary broadcaster of the game in South Africa, will spare us the gorier details once rugby resumes. A spokesperson said the network was “still tweaking the tech, but as a matter of principle, we will incorporate virtual sounds, crowds and fan interaction”.

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Even so, as long as stadiums stay empty except for players, officials and camera operators, a human-shaped vacuum will gape at the heart of sport. Heather Reid, a professor who is the philosophy chair at Morningside College in Sioux City, Iowa, sits on the boards of publications such as the Journal of the Philosophy of Sport and Sport, Ethics and Philosophy. Less extraordinarily, she’s a fan.

As Reid explained to the British Broadcasting Corporation: “I was in the bird’s nest stadium in Beijing the night that Usain Bolt broke the world record in the 100m [at the 2008 Olympics], and there’s this feeling that goes over the crowd that makes everyone feel like hugging each other. We transcend our partisan rooting for particular countries and a particular athlete, and we all start cheering just for what a human being is able to do.”

Unfortunately for all who know and cherish that feeling, another professor, bioethicist Andy Miah, the science communication and future media chair at the University of Salford in Manchester, is here to burst that bubble. “The big transition that people are coming to terms with is the idea that we are able to live within virtual worlds,” he said. “It’s really remarkable what’s happened over the last few months.”

Gamers go mainstream

Miah listed the Mutua Madrid Virtual Open Pro tennis tournament, which featured Andy Murray and Rafael Nadal squaring off not across a net but in front of a computer, holding gaming controllers instead of racquets, as an example. And the Australia Virtual F1 Grand Prix, which replaced the cancelled real-world version. Suddenly gamers were competing with drivers.

“Reality is going through a major upheaval,” Miah said. “Sport has always been a kind of unreality. We’re beginning to see a complete change of the relationship between the spectator and the player. People want to be part of the production of the sport, not just be spectators of it.”

Already, Formula E drivers’ electric cars go faster when they use a “fanboost”, a surge of bonus power available to the five drivers who win the most supporter votes. “We can imagine a future where you have crowds making decisions in the field of play in a much more direct way,” Miah said.

The fans, it seems, are no longer content to watch alone.

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