September 19, 2021

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Are Sports Just Not the Same Without Spectators in the Stands?

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Students in U.S. high schools can get free digital access to The New York Times until Sept. 1.

Are you a sports fan? Have you been watching many games this year?

When professional sports resumed after their seasons were cut short or delayed by the coronavirus pandemic, there were few fans, or no fans, present in the arenas and stadiums. How much does this matter to you as you watch the games from home? How do you think the athletes feel about this change? What role, if any, do you think the audience plays in the sports you love?

In the essay “Trust Me, Sports Without Fans Is Not Sports,” Matthew Futterman, a veteran sports journalist, writes about covering the 2021 Australian Open, first from the stands and then during the “snap lockdown” when he watched the matches on television. The essay begins:

MELBOURNE, Australia — For roughly the past two decades, the analytics crowd has peddled the idea that sports is essentially math, that what unfolds on the field of play is predictable and intelligible if viewed through a proper algorithm. Occasionally that crowd has even been right. And in many ways the pandemic sports environment was an analytics aficionado’s dream, a chance for games to unfold in a laboratory, free of the noise, both literal and figurative, that can turn an expected outcome into a beautiful mess.

Now, nearly a year into the coronavirus pandemic, we really do know the roar of the crowd is as vital to sports as a ball or a net. The artificial crowd noise that Major League Baseball, the N.F.L., the N.B.A. and the N.H.L. have piped in, both for those in the stadiums and arenas and for people watching at home, is a terrible facsimile that makes the spectator-free games feel nothing like sports at all. What stage actors refer to as the “fourth wall” — the metaphorical barrier between performers and spectators — doesn’t exist in sports. A crowd’s passion can seemingly help power comebacks. Its scorn can smother one, too.

For five glorious days at the 2021 Australian Open, I got to experience that noise again, because government officials allowed up to 30,000 fans, about 50 percent capacity, to attend the tournament each day. It was both a joy and a revelation to rediscover the power of what quantum physicists call the “observer effect” — the fact that any observation, however passive, alters an outcome — even in a half-capacity crowd of tennis fans. Sports felt like Sports once more.

Then on Friday, the coronavirus did what it has done so relentlessly for the past 11 months: It shut down the party. A recent outbreak was what much of the world would consider a nuisance. But in Australia, which has managed the pandemic more effectively than any other major economy, it qualified as a critical mass.

The cluster of coronavirus cases grew to more than a dozen, and the state government of Victoria, where Melbourne is, declared a “snap lockdown” of five days, beginning at midnight Friday.

Everyone, except those deemed essential workers, must stay home, though two hours of outdoor exercise and one hour to go to the grocery store or pharmacy are permitted. Players and people considered essential in running the Australian Open will be allowed at Melbourne Park. Spectators, sadly, must stay away until perhaps the singles semifinals, scheduled to start Thursday.

The essay concludes:

So, here is one big reveal of the past week: All those star athletes who have always insisted they are so locked in that they do not hear the crowd? Well, it seems pretty clear they have been lying.

Here was Novak Djokovic, who has won this championship eight times. He has described Rod Laver Arena as his backyard. He was getting ready to play a game the other day, when a clump of women with a Serbian flag stood up and serenaded him with the “Ole-Ole” tune, culminating with, “Novak Djokovic is hot, hot, hot!”

Djokovic gave up on trying to play cool. He stepped back from the court, started giggling, then shook his head to regain his focus.

Here was Ajla Tomljanovic of Australia, trying to serve out the third set for what would have likely been the biggest win of her career, an upset of Simona Halep, the No. 2 seed. She was in front of a hometown crowd that carried her all night but couldn’t will her to victory.

“I felt that rush of people just cheering for you,” Tomljanovich said, her voice breaking following the loss. “I’m afraid to say it, but it could be the highlight of the year with the atmosphere and the crowd.”

She is not the only one. I do not know what I am dreading more about the end of this assignment — the last freezing month of a winter in the Northeast, or the largely empty version of sports that the pandemic has wrought.

It’s something, yes, but it is not sports.

Students, read the entire article and then tell us:

  • Mr. Futterman writes that “the roar of the crowd is as vital to sports as a ball or a net.” Do you agree? Are sports just not the same without spectators in the stands? Do you miss the screams and boos and the roaring of the crowd? Or is the thrill of the game still a source of comfort and joy during these difficult times?

  • What do you think about the use of artificial crowd noise or cardboard cutouts of fans in the stands to recreate the feeling of packed stadiums and arenas? What other creative ideas would you recommend to sports leagues and teams to bring the excitement of crowds to live events?

  • Mr. Futterman mentions the “observer effect”: Any outcome will be different if there is a person or people present and watching. When have you experienced this? Was it in athletics or a performance of another kind? What do you think would have been different in your experience if there had been no audience present?

  • The essay states, “All those star athletes who have always insisted they are so locked in that they do not hear the crowd? Well, it seems pretty clear they have been lying.” What do you think about that? Do you think athletes play differently when the crowd cheers them on — or tries to get under their skin? Have you ever experienced this? Can fans give their team energy, or it that wishful thinking?

  • Do you have a favorite memory as a sports fan — either cheering in the stands or watching on television? What stands out and why? How does that memory compare with sports spectating during the pandemic?


About Student Opinion

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Students 13 and older in the United States and the United Kingdom, and 16 and older elsewhere, are invited to comment. All comments are moderated by the Learning Network staff, but please keep in mind that once your comment is accepted, it will be made public.

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