Not really classing myself as a team sport person, I find myself surprisingly interested this week in the tentative return of football and tennis to our screens. I am strangely reassured to see the return of Domino’s and Renault to our commercial breaks (I draw the line at Bet365 thanks to my Methodist upbringing) taking their presence as a hint that we are suddenly too busy to make our own pizza dough or build a kit car from scratch. We have sport to watch people, and it is unrealistic to think we can make our own pesto at the same time.
So, I have Stayed Home, I have Stayed Alert and now I will try to Do My Part by entering into the debate about how sports stars could perform in the absence of a live audience.
I have discussed before my mourning of the running events I had entered when Boris locked us down in March. At this stage, I was lamenting our inability to gather en masse as a group of runners to run the gauntlet of a half or full marathon. My pity party was based on my own personal sacrifice – all those hours of training and no line in the sand to see if it had all been worth it. However, although I would have been happy to have some spectator support at the event, I can not pretend that this would have had an impact on my performance – it would have just meant I would have had a loved one to hand me some clean kit and a coffee as I staggered across the finish line.
I find that this football malarky is so different. After months of lonesome gym training and downtime FIFA 20, each player eventually gained clearance for their team to train together – to the uninitiated this must have looked like Lucozade sponsored line-dancing. Footballers are well used to drug testing, but to be repeatedly tested for Covid knowing there is no drug to take if the test comes back positive – just a red card and some branded hand sanitiser to get you off the field – must feel like an own goal. As footballers returned to real stadiums this week, they then had to train in readiness for an absence of spectators. New rules. In my non-footballer head I can only compare this to an actor recording a ‘live’ show for radio without a studio audience and only the promise that some post-performance canned laughter might be pasted on later.
As you may know, I am ‘easing down’ in a house with Alexa infiltrating every room with TalkSport, so I unwittingly tune into a punter discussing the potential impact an absent fan zone could have on footballing performance. ‘blah, blah, blah…as the players wear GPS player-tracking software, over the next few weeks we will have a mountain of data to inform our current predictions, blah, blah’, I can’t remember the rest for I was distracted by looking at my overdue library books. However, I then found myself fascinated, wanting to know if the absence of real time, ‘who ate all the pies’ crowd involvement could increase the chances of a player placing an accurate penalty shot or being lack-lustre in their short duration sprinting. (#getmewithmyfootballspeak).
Surprising/irritating Favourite Man (FM) and his son with relentless questioning about my new specialist subject i.e. football, I find myself further intrigued with the new information they rather grumpily impart – admittedly they are preoccupied with preparing TV snacks in time for the first football match to be aired and do seem intent on asking me if I can hear my phone ringing in the other room. They tell me that fans watching on TV or listening on radio, can now decide how they would like to receive their football experience: no sound, real sound (i.e. very little noise, just some muttering from the coach and a few expletives from the players and chastisement from the ref) or canned sound. In case you are interested, if I did actually watch football, I would choose no sound at all, but regardless of that, I do want to know where this optional canned sound will come from.
Commercial break – I can only take football in small doses, so I will take this opportunity to remember a visit I once made to the Natural History Unit at the BBC. The group of media students I accompanied were fascinated to discover that sounds for Planet Earth were dubbed over the film to heighten the holistic experience for the viewer. To this day I still avoid grapefruit in the knowledge that tearing one of these citrus lovelies apart imparts the same sound as a lion ripping the flesh from a gazelle. (Fun Fact).
Anyway, hoping you enjoyed your comfort break, I am still not absolutely sure about the source of the canned crowd. I heard someone say the sounds were taken from FIFA, but I prefer the image of a couple of chaps in a van parked outside the stadium and linked by headphones to a fully PPEd commentary box. From there they can dub in a ground swell of approval from the Kop every time Liverpool scores – Favourite Son (FS) tells me this will surely happen tonight.
I find myself musing about the impact of sound delay or botched matching of sound to action – a player delaying putting his hand behind his ear as he looks towards an empty stand to see if they can give him more love, or a player who is a little previous in diving across the grass towards the corner flag – hands outstretched – only to suffer a long walk of shame back to his captain if white van man has got his teams mixed up. I love the irony of a player with his index finger to his lips, as if to tell the opposition crowd to be quiet while they allow his team to celebrate his goal, only then realising that there is no opposition crowd. I wonder if Fatboy Slim could join the mixing desk in the van and notch things up with an appropriate football anthem mash up to bring things home.
I have always wondered how football or rugby players are able to hold their nerve to take a kick in front of a crowd of, say 54,000 spectators (thanks man in the Wikipedia van) at Anfield. You rarely see a McEnroe ‘toys-from-the-pram-type- response’ to noise from the crowd in a football stadium as a player lines up a shot. In these days of home-viewing only, I can only imagine what a tennis player or golfer would give for some drunken singing – Cliff Richard even – when previously they would have relished silence from the crowd.
In this Do Your Part Part phase of easing (I might speak to Boris about #Playyourpart for the sports sector) there will be no need for the ‘Shhh’ sound to be played before a tennis serve or at an athletics match as we wait for the starting pistol. How will a long jumper or pole-vaulter cope without crowd-choreographed, over the head clapping as spectators count down for their run up? Can you even have a Mobot or Bolt signature lightening pose if you have no real time Mexican wave of participation?
My head is blown. So many questions. what are the chances of me daring to call in to TalkSport to get some answers? (#Fred? )
I am left with the irony that in the short term, if sports stars are to perform well they will have to ‘dance’ like no-one is watching, when in fact they know we are watching in our millions at home, fuelled with Dominos and frustrated that we don’t stand a chance against Ladbrokes because the data is not yet in for how athletes will perform without live spectators.
Anyway, thanks to my contacts in the sports industry (Favourite Son) I now have a Zoom booked in with a sport psychologist to find out if I could potentially run a faster time in the Newport Marathon next Spring (postponed this year) if I decide to invite some family and friends along. I have my people working on a Mama J signature move for some crowd participation but bets are still off about my sponsorship deal. Speak to my agent.