I liked it better when March Madness was just a sports metaphor. To prevent the spread of COVID-19, the NCAA basketball tournaments will take place in empty arenas. That the games are taking place at all without the fans shows how sports that have value as media properties can survive as show business, which will have to reorient its storytelling perspective when it comes to televising public events during this pandemic.
On Wednesday, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19, or the coronavirus, a global pandemic, but the bigger news this week for some American sports fans were the bombshell about college basketball’s biggest draw would take place in empty arenas and the NBA and MLB would suspend their seasons.
This situation is evolving so quickly that it has become hard to finish this piece. In fact, I was halfway through a draft when the NCAA announced its move. And, after I turned in the first draft, the University of Texas stopped allowing fans at all home games while I was at dinner, and the NBA suspended its entire season on the ride home. During editing, the baseball season was put on hold and March Madness was cancelled.
Right now, the number of infected is more than doubling every day in the United States, and, on Wednesday, Congress’ in-house doctor told a closed-door hearing that he expects 75-150 million people to get the coronavirus. That’s a third of the country, and, on the low end, it’s easily more than those who attended Major League games in 2019. To enforce social distancing, some U.S. cities are following the leads of some European countries and banning large gatherings. If every big-league city followed suit, only the Tampa Bay Rays would be able to sell tickets without fearing that too many fans would show up.
As the sports world accepts that it has to adjust to a posture of social isolation during this pandemic, the best fans can hope for is that spectator sports will be turned into made-for-TV events played in cavernous, echoing arenas filled with thousands of empty seats, existing only as television shows, fundamentally changing how we experience sports and how it is presented on screen.
We have precedent. In 2015, a protest against police violence in Baltimore turned violent during an Orioles homestand. The first two games were postponed – they were made up for in a double-header I skipped work to attend – but the third game was played in front of an empty stadium “to minimize safety concerns.”
They called it the Ghost Game, and it was, wrote Wired, “the strangest MLB game ever.” I stayed home to watch it, and I cannot disagree. (Also, I used to skip a lot of work to watch baseball.) Without a crowd to announce to, the PA announcer dutifully noted the proceedings with a complete absence of showmanship. Foul balls rattled against the seats. Dugout chatter was so distinct that you could hear exactly what they were saying. The few fans cheering at the gate beyond right field somehow made it sound even lonelier. It had all the atmosphere of a junior varsity high school game.
Television networks hoping we’ll tune into March Madness or the upcoming baseball season to take our minds off the troubles in the world need to learn from this experience—or, for that matter, what it must be like to follow the Tampa Bay Rays, whose games an enochlophobe could attend peacefully without the threat of encountering crowds. Normally, a sporting event is portrayed on television much like a live concert or a political convention (another event that should worry network executives). The crowd is part of the show, and we are meant to know that we’re looking in on an exchange between the actors and the audience.
Taking away spectators changes this dynamic by making the television viewer the primary audience. Television crews are going to have to figure out how to dampen the sound of an empty stadium, which induces in viewers the Zen-like awareness of watching an event no one is watching. They are going to have to do something to fill that sound of hollowness, perhaps providing an opportunity for musical accompaniments. Heck, bring back the corny organ music, but instead of hearing it play in the ballpark, play it directly into living rooms.
The visual aspect will also likewise have to cut out the middle-man who is not there. The camera angles are going to have eschew traditional perspectives that replicate what it’s like to watch the action from the stands and instead make the action immediate, like a good sports movie. And perhaps, by focusing on facial expressions, the television broadcasts might save baseball itself by telling the human stories behind the Moneyball and banging trash cans.
Sports is often used as a metaphor for broader social commentary, but in this case it’s a little on the nose to say that how sports is broadcast without audiences will be one of the first ways our society adjusts to social distancing. It’s inevitable that we’re going to be confined to quarters to some degree, which is going to increase our dependence upon screens for connection and entertainment. How successfully we translate analogue experiences to virtual ones will tell us a lot about how society manages the next few months.