Watching a German soccer game on TV on a recent weekend afternoon, Andy Phillips, a soccer fan from Kent, England, was “aghast” to find that the TV network had layered artificial crowd noise over the live broadcast from the stadium, which had been closed to spectators because of the pandemic and was therefore mostly silent.
He listened as the fake crowd cheered for goals, booed for rough fouls and hummed with anticipation when a team moved into potential scoring territory.
“It was horrendous, to be honest,” he said. “Not because I don’t enjoy the sound of crowd noise, but the fact it was fake.”
As professional sports leagues in the United States prepare to resume in empty stadiums, the TV networks are wondering if sporting events without the accompaniment of crowd noise are simply too jarring, too unfamiliar and too boring for the typical fan to endure.
For every fan like Phillips, who finds the embrace of aural artifice bizarre and troubling — “Who needs people in the background, when you create your own atmosphere?” he said — there are those for whom the simulated noise provides feelings of comfort and normalcy.
“Anything is better than hearing the echoes around a quiet stadium,” said Hunter Fauci, 24, of Highlands, N.Y., a member of the American fan club of German team Borussia Mönchengladbach who appreciated the artificial noise. “Silence would make a lot of fans depressed.”
These sonic sleights of hand can be polarizing. And that could put the networks in a lose-lose situation in which no matter what route they choose, some viewers will be unhappy.
Joe Buck, the Fox Sports play-by-play announcer, said during an interview on SiriusXM Radio that it was “pretty much a done deal” that the NFL would use artificial fan noise for its live game broadcasts this year if games were played in empty stadiums.
Similarly, the Athletic reported that the NBA has discussed the possibility of using audio from the “NBA 2K” video games to enliven its broadcasts.
Reactions to having the quietude of real life smothered by manufactured noise have ranged from dystopian anxiety to resignation to relief.
Twenty years ago, CBS drew criticism when the network used taped nature sounds on a broadcast of a golf tournament; avian experts noticed some non-indigenous bird calls chirping out of their speakers. But today’s circumstances seem to have created a more welcoming environment for experimentation.
“We’re kind of in a try-anything mode,” said Bob Costas, the longtime sports announcer. “You just don’t want it to sound like the laugh track on a bad ’60s sitcom.”
Alessandro Reitano, vice president of sports production at Sky Germany, defended adding a soundtrack to the network’s broadcast of the Bundesliga soccer league. The “enhanced audio” initiative was to “forget a little bit that you’re seeing an empty stadium” and to elevate the atmosphere beyond the feeling of “kids playing in the park.”
Still, Bundesliga officials were hesitant about the idea. In recent years, anything that has appeared to de-emphasize the importance of live audiences, especially in the service of television, has drawn intense backlash.
But because of the unprecedented circumstances, the league went ahead with a system in which a soundboard with audio samples — as specific as a nervous crescendo of applause while a team chases an equalizing goal or lusty jeers for a call overturned by video review — sits at the disposal of an operator watching from a studio.
“They have this imagined sense of what the spectacle should be and how the consumer should experience it, and they manipulate the representations of it to produce that for the consumer, and it’s just taken to the nth degree,” said David Andrews, a professor of sports culture at the University of Maryland.
For some people, it’s about more than just a game. French theoretician Jean Baudrillard postulated that simulated experiences are replacing real life in postindustrial society. He described a media-saturated culture moving toward the realm of what he and other critics call hyper-reality, a state where the simulated can be more prominent than the authentic and where images and copies can be considered realer than real life.
“We can look at sports and see how close we are moving toward that model,” said Richard Giulianotti, a sports sociologist at Loughborough University in England.
Whether this is a good or bad thing is left to the observer to decide.
Two months ago, Ross Hawkins, 44, a software developer from Auckland, New Zealand, sat down to watch WrestleMania 36, the professional wrestling event, which took place this year without fans.
The absence of crowd noise, he said, “killed sports” for him.
Later, he tuned in to watch Australia’s National Rugby League, which restarted play with fake crowd sounds. The hum of the fake crowd washed over him, and his mind felt at ease. He forgot the world had been turned upside down by a virus. He could enjoy sports again.
“As a reasonably intelligent person, I knew it was fake, and I didn’t expect it to make such a difference, but it did,” Hawkins said. “It feels like it’s the brain clamoring for some normalcy in 2020.”