You could say Tex Schramm saw this coming. Back in 1980, the NFL Hall of Famer, who had a hand in everything from the NFL-AFL merger to the popularity of the Cowboys cheerleaders to the use of instant replay in officiating, told Skip Bayless (of all people) that one day the league would play its games on a “made-for-TV soundstage” without fans.
Now, here we are. Or rather, there we aren’t. As sports have slowly returned to action without spectators, producers and viewers alike have seen what’s possible, and what’s not, when the stands are empty.
Europe went first, with Germany’s Bundesliga quickly realizing how hollow matches felt when played in an empty cavernous stadium. Now up to 10 people create artificial crowd noise that plays during the game, with technicians using pre-recorded sounds to fake reactions to a goal or penalty.
As ESPN’s senior vice president, production and remote events, Mark Gross was initially skeptical about piped-in noise. “I came all the way full circle,” he said, to the point where, while overseeing production of Korean baseball games, he would become alarmed when the crowd noise dropped out.
Some leagues went further, adding cardboard cutouts and graphical overlays or using large screens for massive Zoom calls to replace cheering fans. Everyone from robot manufacturer Boston Dynamics to Japan’s Yamaha Corporation to a 20-year-old Canadian college student has been asked to breathe life into empty venues.
But most American leagues have decided many of those solutions aren’t ready for primetime. “I’ve been pitched every technology in the world,” one league executive said. “I’ve seen the good. I’ve seen mostly the bad. And I’ve seen some things I can’t even believe someone is building a company around.”
Latency remains the biggest problem. The time it would take for video of the action to get to fans, for them to react, for that reaction to then make its way back to the arena, show up on a display, and then that display be routed back to viewers at home is simply too long, and shortening it too expensive. Instead, major broadcasters have stuck with pre-recorded audio and used fan reaction asynchronously, like after replays or before commercial breaks.
The solution for fans being stuck at home is not to virtually replace them in section 213, Kiswe CEO Mike Schabel says, but to bring a new stadium-like experience to their homes instead.
In a sense, that process has been ongoing since Columbia and Princeton faced off on a baseball diamond in 1939. NBC delivered that action to the 400 televisions capable of receiving its signal, electronically transporting the most important part of the stadium experience, the game.
So-called second screens brought more functionality to the living room this decade, with stats pages, fantasy contests, and social media all making the couch more attractive. But there’s still further to go, especially when it comes to integrating all those elements into a combined experience. That’s all the more important for younger consumers whose “second screen” has become their primary device.
In an increasingly virtual world, games can feel more like destinations than TV shows, even when they’re played on the other side of the globe. Google Meet’s partnership with the NWSL for virtual watch parties and Facebook’s Venue app are just two recent examples of the world’s biggest companies now getting involved in that transformation.
“Despite drawing large concurrent viewership, live broadcasts are still a mostly solo viewing experience,” Facebook said in unveiling Venue.
On a Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium, you can stand in line to spin a sponsor’s raffle wheel while overhearing an argument in the men’s room and feel like part of something larger than yourself. How much of that experience can be replicated online? Schabel—and others—have been trying to find out since well before COVID-19 accelerated change across the industry.
“Oh dear God,” Schabel remembers thinking when he heard the NBA, Kiswe’s biggest partner at the time, was suspending play in mid-March. “That lasted for 30 seconds,” he added. “Then we started becoming creative.”
As a live streaming technology company, Kiswe began pitching its remote production tools, helping broadcasters stay on-air from home and providing the back-end technology to have talking heads chat over re-airs of games. But the cloud-based platform is just the beginning for the company. Schabel is more excited about what it allows for.
PGA Tour fans got a taste during last month’s Charles Schwab Challenge, when Twitter hosted nine independent streams with a variety of commentators, ranging from Annika Sorenstam to Darren Rovell to former Bachelorette contestant Wells Adams, all watching the action and responding to comments.
The cloud-based tech made it easy (and affordable) for the PGA to involve all of the different streamers. “We want to work harder than ever to connect our fans to the event,” PGA Tour chief media officer Rick Anderson said at the time. The PGA registered over two million streams across its platform that day, with “a healthy share” coming from Twitter, SVP for digital operations Scott Gutterman said, adding that the Tour is hoping to do a similar event as it continues focusing on interactive options. “This is definitely an inflection point,” Gutterman said.
Kiswe’s virtual stadium philosophy was also on display during a recent BTS concert streamed to nearly a million people worldwide on the company’s own platform. Region specific rooms were set up for fans of the Korean pop group to chat in their native languages, and light sticks sold directly by the band pulsed to the beat on screen. Meanwhile, a world map in the app showed where fans were cheering from. Since January, Kiswe has gone from roughly 10 partners to more than 40.
LiveLike CEO Miheer Walavalkar has guided his company through a similar transition. For him, the “oh dear God” period lasted closer to two weeks. A year ago, the company prioritized its Watch Party toolset, which allows fans to videochat with each other while watching a game in the same app, recreating a bit of the social aspect of attendance from anywhere. But then a dearth of games threatened to halt Walavalkar’s momentum entirely. “No one knew where things were going,” he said.
Once Sky Sports debuted its Watch Party implementation with the return of the English Premier League, however, the ball started rolling again, this time faster than ever. Walavalkar estimated his number of potential partnerships has jumped six-fold. A recent deal with FloSports will now also see LiveLike’s tech used to experiment with athlete interactions and fan-generated noise.
“Everything that we’ve been proponents of for the past few years is coming to fruition as everyone is taking it seriously,” he said. “They see it as more of a necessity now than a nice-to-have. They’ve been forced to get outside their comfort zone and start looking from a product-development standpoint. And the pause in programming meant there was more time to spend on it. It’s not that they didn’t believe in it. It’s that they hadn’t had the time.” Along those lines, executives don’t have to worry about cannibalizing ticket sales either.
What we’re seeing, said Sara Zuckert, the NBA’s Next Gen telecast lead, is evolution rather than revolution. “We have been focused on innovating the broadcast for a long time now,” she said. Like in other sports, basketball fans should expect to see new camera angles, on-screen graphics and multiple broadcast feeds with different commentators. Many of those tools and options existed previously, but are just now getting their moment. And they aren’t likely to go anywhere.
Trying to serve fans at home isn’t a new problem. “Ninety-nine percent of fans around the world will never make it to a game in person,” Zuckert said. “We’re constantly looking at ways to engage that fan base.” Across sports, productions are evolving too, with more access to player audio and increased use of drones, but it’s the way we watch at home that is truly being disrupted as 99% temporarily becomes 100%.
A similar process has played out overseas. Producing and presenting in-stadium entertainment, Event360 founder Julian Marks has helped leagues and clubs make their matches feel as big as possible without packed stands. Massive physical banners have played a large role in that for Premier League teams.
At the same time, Marks has been exploring the digital space, working to provide clients and partners with a potential web-based version of the typical pre-game fan zone experience. Theoretically, they could include everything from trash talk and gaming opportunities to musical performances and trivia competitions. “A lot of clients are interested in that,” Marks said. “I don’t see it as a COVID-19 solution either. I see it as having much more longevity. They are happy to look at the investment for it because it will have a life beyond 18 months.” The key is not to transport fan avatars into the parking lot, obviously, but to bring the festivities to their home, virtualizing the event rather than the attendees.
“COVID reminded us all of the importance of that at-home audience to the health of the brand,” Schabel said, comparing those distant viewers who passively receive game telecasts to ghosts. “We don’t need to go back to the venue and the ghosts.”
All that said, teams won’t be eliminating seating anytime soon. “I don’t think that an event in anything without fans is better,” Top Rank president Todd duBoef said. Top Rank boxing matches resumed in June, and each week, duBoef has helped tweak the presentation, adding LED boards to give the shooting location depth, piping in crowd noise and playing with mic levels to pick up the sounds of punches without too much trainer talk. But there is no substitute for the excitement of screaming supporters. “I don’t think you can replace that,” he said.
Maybe though, you could add to it.