Adding Virtual Fans and Fake Noise is a Mistake For Future Live Sports Broadcasts

Fake fans at KBO game.
Fake fans at KBO game. /

The image of cardboard cutout fans propped up in the front row behind home plate during KBO games this year is impossible to forget. Ignoring the fact that some appear to be holding dinosaurs and others advertising signs, the cutouts felt gimmicky and inauthentic to the moment and took attention away from the game. Worse still, they served as a frequent reminder that we're in the midst of a global pandemic that forces people to stay at home and resurfaced the question of whether we should be playing sports at all right now.

That's not the viewing experience I want when I turn to sports for a distraction from reality, but it appears sports broadcasters and leagues in the United States could be headed down the same road as the KBO.

According to Joe Buck and multiple other reports, the big sports broadcasters of the country (FOX, CBS, NBC, ESPN, Turner Sports) are considering superimposing digital fans in the stands and pumping in fake crowd noise to "improve" the at-home viewing experience if fans can not attend the games live. The thought process seems to be that view is better than one of empty seats and noiseless bleachers. This is incorrect.

Right now, most of us are stuck at home under quarantine and staying socially distant from one another. Outdoor activities, binge-watching shows, and The Last Dance serve as our primary outlets to forget about the new reality we face, one without an end in sight. Live sporting events, like the NFL Draft, provide another channel of distraction, but only if they embrace the situation we're in and not try to recreate a situation we once knew.

I'm all for sports coming back under safe conditions and reimagining the way they are broadcast without fans makes total sense. Things have drastically changed in the last few months and the way we consume live sports will have to as well. However, providing a false backdrop and spurious sound isn't the way to go.

With no fans in the stands and no cheering emanating from them, the most practical solution for broadcasters is to use both to their advantage. Place cameras in areas you previously couldn't and allow viewers to choose their own adventure, so to speak, by providing access to different views they may have never experienced before, like being court-side at a Lakers game or sitting directly behind home plate. Many Americans now have multiple devices to stream video from and watching multiple views of one game simultaneously would be an additive to the viewing experience. Networks might even be able to get more advertising revenue from the extra impressions they generate.

As for the audio, lean into the noise on the field of play and conversations in the huddle. It will have to be delayed by a few seconds so editors can bleep out curse words, but that's fine. In fact, it enhances the experience by giving us a better idea of what really happens when the game is being played. Players might hold back initially, but like reality TV stars, they'll eventually loosen up and be authentic.

There are a lot of other things broadcasters and leagues can do to limit the amount of time people focus on the empty, noiseless stands -- like playing in smaller venues, not showing as many wide-angle shots, going to the broadcast booth or studio more, or using full-screen graphics to provide deeper context. Putting digital fans in the stands and fake noise, however, will achieve the opposite of that. The Twitter world will explode with jokes and viewers will be distracted. If you need an example, remember the fans on the TV behind Roger Goodell (and the jokes that followed) when he announced picks during the NFL Draft. But at least that felt authentic. Fake fans wouldn't have.

Right now, we're in a once-unfathomable place as a country, but we can't run from that reality. We can only embrace the challenge head-on. Thinking about the past won't get us anywhere and trying to broadcast games like we're in the past won't help, either. It's about doing our best in every moment now, and the best broadcasters can do without fans in the stands is to focus our attention elsewhere. Better that then be disingenuous.