The NBA still has a long list of considerations to parse through before attempting to relaunch its season — so many, in fact, that a final resolution plan may not emerge from a highly-anticipated Board of Governors call reportedly scheduled for Friday.
This should register as a relatively low priority for now, as the league navigates an unprecedented global health and economic crisis, but the question of game presentation is one that will eventually need addressing. Without fans in arenas, silent games are a prospect that would pose unique challenges to both athletes and broadcasters — even setting aside the financial ramifications of losing gate proceeds (which, according to a recent estimate, account for 40% of the league’s revenue) through the end of this season.
“I think it would take a little bit of competitiveness out, because obviously I think the fans and atmosphere make a big thing about the game," Zach LaVine said of the possibility of empty-arena games back on March 7.
"What is the word 'sport' without 'fan'?" LeBron James said on an episode of the Road Trippin’ podcast in March. "There's no excitement. There's no crying. There's no joy. There's no back-and-forth… That's what also brings out the competitive side of the players to know that you're going on the road in a hostile environment…”
Those grievances shouldn’t be quickly dismissed by the NBA or observers. A more engaged player population makes for a better product, and in a time of great financial strife for the league, setting a compelling scene (see: the litany of inventive playoff formats being floated) and attracting as many eyeballs as possible will be all-important.
From the broadcast side, the absence of a sonic wall separating those at home from those on the court also has the potential to soil an already precarious endeavor. For some, listening in to on-court verbal sparring could add a layer of entertainment. Sports fans, after all, are voyeuristic creatures — look to the atomic interest in “The Last Dance,” mic’d up videos and miscellaneous behind-the-scenes content as evidence of that. But to players, coaches, league officials, broadcast partners and many others, there’s potential for downside. The unfiltered sounds of NBA action aren’t exactly tailored to family viewing.
“I don’t know who I’d be more worried for, the players or referees at this point,” NBA referee Scott Foster said on NBA TV (via Tim Reynolds) when asked what challenges officiating without fans could pose. “I know I don’t want everything we normally say to each other going out.
“I think we’re going to need to really talk about and analyze what is OK for the public to hear and how we’re going to go about our business.”
For potential solutions to the latter, the NBA could turn to leagues that have already resumed play. FOX, for example, has experimented with piping artificial crowd noise into its broadcasts of the recently-returned Bundesliga, to mixed reaction.
I think if it's done right like this, adding crowd noise can make it feel like you're watching a regular game on TV (outside of the empty seats, of course.) This Bundesliga match on FS1 sounds much better than I expected it would. pic.twitter.com/yjtcD2KdSE— Arash Markazi (@ArashMarkazi) May 24, 2020
At a glance, it works! There are blind spots, of course. Even with a controller toggling crowd reactions to coincide with the tenor of the match (i.e. a groundswell of sound upon a scored goal), glitches in timing could come off disingenuous, as could robotic roars for a visiting team. Pans of the stands still reveal droves of empty seats. But it restores some semblance of normalcy for those watching while mitigating against rogue vulgarities leaking into television feeds.
What it doesn’t solve is the athlete gripe. As Raphael Honigstein of The Athletic reported on Twitter, Bundesliga has not attempted funnelling that artificial noise into actual stadiums. Some teams have experimented with cardboard fans in seats in an attempt to cultivate a less apocalyptic game-night atmosphere and recoup some funds (for one match, Borussia Mönchengladbach reportedly charged 19 euro for fans to have a cutout of themselves attendance). But it feels unlikely this would satiate James’ concerns.
As with all matters surrounding a return bid, the NBA will need to get creative in appeasing all parties. Perhaps that means flying blind with in-arena sound experimentation. But as Sam Quinn of CBS Sports recently noted, the acoustic capacity of Disney’s ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex’s courts (which contain approximately 20,000 seats) are likely ill-equipped to handle even simulated noise equivalent to an NBA arena.
Still, don’t expect the league to settle for totally silent games on television, of which the novelty could prove fleeting and the profanity jarring. Where they ultimately turn remains to be seen, as does both the format and safety of a hypothetical resumption.