Tennis champion Naomi Osaka of Japan is cheered on by virtual fans during the US Open © Al Bello/Getty

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Have you been watching? 

Dazzled by Bayern Munich’s 8-2 demolition of FC Barcelona in Europe’s Champions League football tournament last month? Agape at the comeback victories of Naomi Osaka and Dominic Thiem in the finals of the US Open tennis tournament this month? Dazzled by LeBron James as he drags the Los Angeles Lakers towards yet another National Basketball Association title? 

The post-pandemic games, with big crowds largely absent from sporting arenas, are producing plenty of thrilling, can’t-take-your-eyes-off-it drama. I’ve been among the millions who are hooked, though without quite accepting the most jarring aspect of the made-for-television spectacle.

Viewers know about the social distancing requirements that are forcing fixtures to take place “behind closed doors”. Yet broadcasters and sports organisations insist that an essential part of the experience is the sight and sound of fans themselves.

The desire to fill empty stands has inspired wild solutions. Cardboard cutouts of celebrities were placed in the seats of a Norwegian track-and-field event. Robot cheerleaders have danced through Japanese baseball matches. Inflatable sex dolls watched over a South Korean football match. 

Games in Major League Baseball in the US or La Liga football matches in Spain are being screened with an overlay of digitised supporters swaying and waving flags. Across the world, TV companies are piping the pre-recorded roar of crowds over their broadcasts. Even the gentle hubbub and rustling of newspapers of English cricket grounds have been added to the screening of recent Test matches.

For some, this creates an eerie feeling. Artificial crowds sing when their teams are losing and boo when their own players commit fouls against opposition players. Despite these glitches, broadcasters say that most viewers, when given the option, prefer sport with the sensation of crowds — even if it is faked.

One theory for this is provided by Glenn Cummins, an associate professor at Texas Tech University. He has conducted studies on people watching football matches on TV and radio, finding people feel more excited by games when the sound of supporters is enhanced. 

That’s because crowd noise, in particular, reflects the cadences of a match and whether we perceive it to be drab or dramatic. Sport is a shared experience. Humans are social animals. We enjoy sport most when others enjoy it too. 

The US Open Women’s Singles final match 2020 © Matthew Stockman/Getty

Modern sport also inspires a collective loss of inhibition like nothing else. People who are wallflowers on a dance floor will gesticulate wildly through a big match. The lack of restraint among supporters at a stadium gives license to those who want to scream at their televisions. The effect of crowds is not lost on athletes. Marcus Rashford, the Manchester United footballer, told me that his team’s sluggish performances in the English Premier League towards the end of last season was partly due to losing the adrenaline rush that comes from playing in front of thousands. “I know it sounds stupid,” he said. “But with no fans, not having them behind you, it’s so difficult to keep on going.”

There’s another reason why players have reported feeling more exhausted. Research into German Bundesliga football matches that took place without fans in May suggested the ball remained “in play” for longer. Among the theories for this is that referees blew their whistles less often for fouls as they were less likely to intervene without onlookers constantly hollering at them. Fewer breaks in the action meant less time wasted by footballers feigning injury — and less time for players to catch their breath. 

These findings are consistent with research which suggests that the main cause of “home advantage” — a long-observed phenomenon that teams playing in their own stadiums are more likely to win — comes mainly from referees, rather than players, being influenced by crowds. In empty grounds, officials make more calls against home sides. A more level playing field is the result.

Even if the televised show is as enthralling as ever, sport needs its (real) fans back. Spectators have made a steady return to events in many countries, including the US, Japan, France and Germany. But in the UK, Prime Minister Boris Johnson this week paused plans to reopen stadiums because of a resurgence of the virus. 

The restrictions, which are likely to stay in force for at least six months, have led to warnings from British sports leaders that they face a battle for survival. 

Smaller groups, such as rugby union clubs and horseracing courses, are more reliant on income from gate receipts than broadcasting contracts. Many warn they will go bust without a government bailout or unless ministers reverse course. For months, the pandemic has forced sports clubs and competitions to fake it until people make it back into stadiums. The ruse will be hard to maintain much longer.

Letter in response to this column:

Is football too proletarian to merit state support? / From Martin Johnson, London SE1, UK

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