BIHUB PATH

30 September, 2020

Filling the void in games without an audience

Fan Engagement & Big Data

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For the 2020-2021 season, European football has suffered an estimated loss of 4 billion Euros, the NBA has calculated 500 million dollars, the NFL 1,300, and the MLB 200. These figures could even be higher, and all due to the loss of ticketing income. The absence of the audience in matches is a huge economic risk, and it also hides another threat: the lack of the show provided by fans in the stands. This absence has led broadcasts to be less exciting, so TV channels are asking to renegotiate their broadcasting rights, and sponsors also want to reduce their contributions. It does not matter which sport we analyse, because the coldness of the empty stadium still influences the pitch, as well as the tracks where car races are held. To mitigate this problem emerged due to the pandemic, different formulas have been implemented around the world, and we can start analysing their effectiveness.

 

The Bundesliga paperboard

The 4,500 paperboard spectators in the stands of the Borussia-Park stadium attracted the media’s attention, as it was the first time that the stands were filled without fans. Dynamo Brest did something similar in Belarus soon after, putting up real portraits of the fans instead of the mannequins that were on the seats. None of these two formulas worked, and actually, those still bodies turned out to be uncomfortable during the broadcast. What they did achieve was to strengthen the bond with their most passionate fans, who, in both cases, paid for their photo to be placed as well as for the fight against COVID-19. These were marketing stunts, but they were not even close to the atmosphere created by the fans in the stadiums.

 

FOX Sport virtual fans

The two most elaborated experiments throughout the summer have been carried out in the US. FOX Channel has filled the stands with virtual fans, using Augmented Reality (AR). Modelling in 3D morphological varieties of both sexes and with racial diversity, creating groups that react as a whole. In each game, these virtual models can wear the colours and T-shirts of the fans of the teams that are going to play. Together with their movements, FOX incorporates recorded library sound effects in the stadiums. Boos or cheer ups, depending on the play. It has been implemented in the MLB baseball league, as an experiment, although Brad Zager, FOX Sports executive producer, states that they want to perform this test in other sports, aiming to provide a normal appearance broadcast.

Artificial sound of the crowd in a Red Socks game. (MLB)

But the enthusiasm of the channel directors is not shared by MLB fans, who, in general, consider it a poor TV experience. The reason is that the image of most of the cameras keeps showing empty stands, and the virtual audience is seen depending of the cameras angle. For now, FOX has not explained if they will continue with this experience with other sports.

 

Video conference fans in the NBA

Undoubtedly, this is one of the most interesting attempts, carried out in the Disney bubble, where the NBA holds its competition this year. They have chosen to fill the stands with real fans, who connect from their homes, and whose reactions are broadcasted in a particular seat in the stadium, occupied by giant screens. This allows broadcast, as usual, focusing on a particular fan, who reacts by gesturing and waving live when they see themselves on the screen. This provides spontaneity, even when the fan is not sitting in front of his camera and it is their pet who takes their place. The surprise appearance of famous ex-players who digitally attend the match also helps, or even the families of team members, who have not seen them for a long time due to bubble conditions and greet them from their homes.

Another interesting contribution that comes out from this experience is that these digitally connected fans in the stand have led to an exponential growth in posts in social media. Fans tend to share more their experience of being in the stadium, because their faces are on a huge screen, making them visible. By sharing their experience, they turn every NBA game a trend within social media.

The problem is still that we do not react the same way when we are at home, alone or with the family, as surrounded by the fans of our team in the stadium. NBA virtual fans transmit a certain weird feeling, because they do not react to the plays altogether, and some of them remain still. One way of acting normal, if we think about our own reactions when we watch a game on TV. NBA states that the positive effect it provokes is limited, and for sure they have only done it to counteract the coldness effect of broadcasting without an audience. Although this feeling, the NBA states it is an extra element to use apart from those that already exist such as sound, screens, camera angles, pets, etc. and that they have in mind to go on with it, meanwhile the pandemic.

Shaquille O’Neal appearance in the stand

 

With all the criticism and improvements that can be done to these systems, the truth is that as long as the pandemic lasts, we will have to choose between this or nothing in order to recreate a stadium’s environment. This sports element, which hasn’t received a lot of attention in the past, is going to now help through new strategies the competition to make it economically sustainable. It is key for sport management professionals under these uncertain times, to acquire new knowledge which can help innovate and grow the business.

 

Martín Sacristán

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