Ratto: Imagining a world with fan furloughs

The dangers of a socially-distanced fan base

Ray Ratto
April 15, 2020 - 8:46 am
Ratto on a world of fan furloughs

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports


Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins brought up the idea of playing games without fans in a conference call Tuesday, which is hardly an original thought. He said it could be "kind of refreshing," which is.

“Honestly, we practice every day in an empty grass area and pump in fake crowd noise for away games,” Cousins said on a conference call, via ESPN.com. “But more often than not, you’re used to it. OTA practices don’t have a lot of pomp and circumstance to them. So honestly to go out and just play the game would be kind of refreshing, a breath of fresh air, to just let us know that we don’t have to have all the smoke and the fire, we can just play football. So as long as we’re playing the game, I won’t have a lot of complaints, and hopefully if it’s still not returned to normal, we can find a way to make it work.”

San Francisco tight end George Kittle had limited his thoughts on fanless football to not having to play in hostile locales like Seattle and New Orleans, although the 49ers beat both the Seahawks and Saints away from home en route to the most glorious Super Bowl loss in history, but Cousins took it a step further, into a debate in which the very idea of a socially distanced fan base could be viewed as downright appealing.

He is correct in noting that football loves smoke and fire far too much. Pregame choreography long ago turned into a bad Wagnerian play, and it is an amazement that some lineman hasn't been inadvertently immolated trying to get out of an artificially constructed tunnel yet. The pomp and circumstance of bloated bands has been replaced by faux battlefield scenes that remind us mostly that people in game day operations have way too much time on their hands and need to stop watching war documentaries in their idle hours.

But Cousins also seems to imply that football only needs fans as walking wallets (a singularly popular notion with the owner class), and that not being there makes little difference to the playing experience. The notion that the game is in and of itself the reason for the season and that fans in the building are really extraneous to the process — well, that's a more radical notion. While the effect of fans on games except as noisemakers has long been overrated by the mythmakers, having none at all would render the game almost entirely metric and exceedingly technological, and coaches could change their titles to programmers, if that's your idea of sexy.

The game-day experience long ago stopped being the financial fuel of the game, replaced by media rights fees as the principal profit center. Ticket sales, concessions and parking are nice kindling, but the fire comes with a few fat checks from (forgive the imagery here) a few fat network executives. The NFL could more than survive if they closed their stadiums entirely and just played studio ball.

But only for awhile, I'd wager.

Part of the fan experience as powered by the messaging of the teams and the league is experiencing the fans. Sports are a powerful communal thing, and not being invited to a party is the best way to discourage interest in that party. The ratings for the NBA's H.O.R.S.E. event were brutally low even before people realized they were watching in low-def because, well, sports without fans aren't going to be all that interesting to fans. The indisputable necessity of playing games without fans speaks only to the medical situation, but the idea that the games can be an appealing experience in silence is a more dangerous construct for what it suggests, namely this:

That fans in the building are often considered merely moneyed props, not actually essential to the experience at all. In the short term, fanless sport is the stern reality, and for a few weeks a real ratings grabber for a desperate nation. In the longer run, though, we will all learn how we feel about cheering and booing and touchdown celebrations for ordered rows of plastic upholstery, and whether playing the game will be quite so much fun with nobody to tell you in the moment how well you did. It may, as Cousins suggests, be a refreshing change, but if it is an enduring one, we may start to wonder what the point of it is at all.

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