Every time a major tournament has been held after the world locked down for Covid-19, the sports
world has erupted over the issue of whether fans should or should not be allowed in stadiums. The Tokyo Olympics have sensibly decided to keep them away. That’s the way it should be till the pandemic abates. Of course, there’ll be rumbles of discontent from commentators, sports
industry execs and, occasionally, the players. Sure, fans in stadiums add an element of excitement, they buoy athletes — and they contribute handsomely to stadium revenues when they buy merchandise, food and drink. But are they really so vital to sport that the UK was willing to risk an explosion of Covid-19 cases so that mask-less (though vaccinated) fans could crowd into Wembley and Wimbledon? But away from these optics, are fans in stadiums so critical to the financial dynamics of any major sport?
The fact is that fans in stadiums account for a minuscule portion of the audience for whom athletes perform. It’s the global TV audiences (and, increasingly internet streaming) from which sports
bodies — whether it’s athletics, football, tennis, hockey, cricket, golf or Formula 1 racing — derive their revenues. Today, all these have become sports with worldwide following thanks to the global reach of TV. Nothing illustrates this better than the English Premier League
(EPL), the world’s most-watched sports league. Worldwide TV audiences transformed an essentially provincial club tournament into one of the richest sports properties that enables, say, an Egyptian striker for Liverpool to attract an adoring fan base in India. In the 2018-19 season, the last one before the pandemic, the EPL had a cumulative global audience of 3.2 billion, several orders of magnitude more than the number of fans at stadiums. In fact, as a savvy Indian TV executive once said, for a sport to work, you have to put it on TV. The Indian Premier League
is very much a made-for-TV event as is the Pro kabaddi League.
Formula 1 has become wildly popular among middle class Indians thanks to TV. There are studies that show TV audiences drop away when fans are missing from stadiums, but a deeper study of 2020 could well yield different results.
What about the athletes? Are fans integral to their performance? That’s hard to say. The surreal experience of watching sports in echoing stadiums for a year yielded no evidence of a drop in standards. In fact, a study of refereeing decisions in the 2020-21 Bundesliga season pointed to improvements on this head — without raucous home fans, refs gave away fewer free kicks and penalties to the home side (which makes you wonder whether Raheem Sterling’s dramatic decline and fall in the semi against Denmark would have been rewarded with a penalty had the match been played in, say, St Petersburg).
When asked, all sportspeople diplomatically say they miss fans in stadiums. But much depends on the nature of the sport. In disciplines such as athletics, gymnastics, shooting or swimming, diving or even Formula 1, fans are some distance away from the action to make a huge difference. It’s only when the winners are lifting medals or trophies that they need the high of human applause. In Formula 1, the drivers get to see or hear the fans only at the beginning and end of races; during the race, they’re communicating with their teams over the radio.
In tennis, the jury’s still out. One tournament introduced the bizarre practice of introducing canned applause, all the weirder because the stadiums were empty. Others did not feel the need to copy the practice. It’s become fashionable for tournament winners to gracefully thank the crowds. But the interaction is by no means clear cut. Asked about his growing popularity in the early noughties, a young and naïve Rafa Nadal truthfully answered that he didn’t really hear the fans during a match, a statement he was swiftly advised not to repeat. But Roger Federer appears to be in the same mode of fierce concentration on court. Only Novak Djokovic, intensely aware that he lacks the adoration of the Big Two, noticeably plays to the crowd. And Daniil Medvedev has been distracted enough to give a jeering crowd the finger at the US Open.
in Europe and South America, the historical symbiosis between cities/places and clubs have endowed stadium attendance with a disproportionate power, so that matches played at home or away hold real significance. But fans in football
stadiums can be a mixed blessing, the threat of rowdy behaviour remains a simmering issue, which social media only amplifies. British fans have become notorious for their hooliganism over the decades, and the European Championships offered ample evidence of it. Fans like that have no place in any stadium.
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