While uncertainty still abounds about just how the NFL season will transpire in the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, assuming it does get played, some things are going to be different. Perhaps very different. One thing that looks more and more likely is that there will be reduced, or even zero, attendance at the games. We already know that at least part of the stands will be unoccupied for all teams.
The NFL informed its teams this week that they'll be tarping the first 6-8 rows of every stadium to ensure fan and player safety. Sources said those seats will be covered by tarps that could include sponsor logos.— Chris Porter (@ChrisPorterFCN) June 25, 2020
Taking this into consideration, just how would an empty house affect the games on the field?
The Dallas Cowboys are used to playing in front of packed and usually energized crowds, whether at AT&T Stadium or on the road. While their record may be up and down, with a prolonged drought of postseason success, their status as one of the biggest draws in the league has not changed. Their home games are in front of one of the largest venues in the league while almost all away games are sellouts. In Arlington, many of the seats wind up on the secondary market and in the hands of fans of the visiting team, while the Dallas fanbase is one that travels well and often adds a distinctly Cowboys flavor to those road games, especially if it is against a struggling team. With the exception of a meaningless late-season contest, games involving Dallas tend to be raucous affairs.
Now, even with the prospect of piping in fake crowd noise to try and preserve the atmosphere of the games, the audience is no longer going to have any effect on the game. The conventional thinking is that it could lead to flat performances or less intensity on the field.
However, Rich Ohrnberger, who played offensive guard in the NFL for six years, was recently on the radio. He was talking about this and offered a contrary opinion. He thinks having no fans will actually increase the intensity of the games.
His logic was that the players already tune out the crowd noise from the moment the ball is put into play until the whistle blows. Their focus is on the man, or men, they are trying to beat on the field. Now, that focus will only be increased without the reactions of the fans. It will become even more of a personal battle between the players. Those are their peers across the line of scrimmage, and no one’s opinion matters more to them.
That is an interesting thought, and just one way that things may get better. Communication would have to improve with no crowd noise to block the quarterback and defensive signal-caller from hearing what is coming over the helmet system. Audibles should be much easier as well. There will be no excuse for false starts anymore. Those should reduce mistakes, at least those that may be due to not being able to hear things, hopefully leading to crisper execution.
Depending on how the networks treat things, it could also be a boon for the viewers at home, as we could be able to hear the calls from the quarterback and defenders as they happen. It will force some quick reactions by the audio team to keep things from getting un-family friendly, but being able to hear the reactions on the field from the players in near real time will also be something we could experience much more. Likewise, we are likely to hear a lot more of what the coaches have to say during the game, which can be rather colorful, to say the least. Remember how the appearance on All or Nothing changed a lot of opinions about how cool and collected Jason Garrett was as we got to hear just how often he dropped f-bombs and other words you shouldn’t use in front of your children.
This might also lead to better officiating. The zebras are human, and it is impossible for them to be completely immune to the reaction of the crowd. There have been many times we all suspect a flag was thrown or stayed in the pocket because they didn’t want to face the wrath of the fans. Now that will no longer be a factor. It should lead to more impartiality during the game as well as just an overall better focus on the applicable rules.
Those are all things that might make the game more enjoyable for the vast majority of fans that don’t attend the games, but there are likely downsides as well. The excitement at home may be tempered a bit by not having real crowd noise, just as obviously canned laugh tracks tend to make some comedies less fun to watch. Some announcing crews may not be as good as others in conveying a sense of excitement and engagement without that crowd noise to feed them as well. It is interesting to note that the NBA is not going to have the announcers for their bubble games at the arena, but covering things remotely. The NFL may elect to do the same.
If the stadiums are empty, there will surely be restrictions or a complete elimination of post-game interviews, at least in person. The media may not be allowed in the stadiums at all and reduced to covering the games from their TV screens. Some kind of remote interview process will probably be introduced. We don’t know how that will go or if it will have its own effect on the coverage.
None of these things will have a great impact on the interest in the games, which will be very high if the NFL can just get the season started. It still promises to be an entertaining and welcome relief from the often distressing news of late. It is just going to be different.