Having actually witnessed a sporting event devoid of fans in the stands — last weekend's races at Atlanta Motor Speedway — I can report firsthand that it well and truly stinks.
No sport, not even one that supplies its own mechanical roar, is meant to play out in an empty arena. What you have is the cream-filled doughnut without the donut. What that leaves you with is the sterile workplace of a surgical operating theater when what is required is the messy mania of Woodstock.
Some pursuits are supposed to be conducted in studied silence, like taking the SAT and awkward first dates. Sports is meant to be raucous, performed to the background music of thousands of voices in wild disharmony.
As Kevin Harvick ran his reverse victory lap Sunday after winning the Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500, hoisting three fingers in the air in tribute to the late Dale Earnhardt, the gesture was lost inside the massively empty AMS. The honor went unappreciated inside a hollow track.
And what is a victory without a victory celebration? Victory Lane on Sunday might as well have been the rare-book research center at the Library of Congress. Harvick’s long service and 51st career win deserved the kind of throaty approval you just don’t get on a Zoom call with sponsors.
It was better than nothing, we suppose — but just barely.
If we take nothing else away from this slow sports restart in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, it should be a renewed gratitude for those souls who get taken advantage of every time they pay a ransom just to park outside a stadium, get soaked for a seat barely wide enough to accommodate a runway model and then, to complete the experience, take out a second mortgage because the kids all wanted hot dogs and drinks. Some may call you a sucker for not just staying home and watching in the overstuffed, big-screen comfort of the rumpus room. I call you heroes. If I had my way, you'd be Time's Man of the Year every year.
We’re talking the bringers of real noise, real emotion, not the faux stuff the Falcons pumped in a couple of seasons ago.
I never again will curse the stalled parade of SUVs, Bulldogs flags limp, as the traffic comes to a halt on highway 316 on way to see Georgia play.
Hurry back, live, on-site fans. Sports needs you the way Colbert needs a live audience.
Other games are coming back the same way, tentatively, without the risk that a crowd now represents. Whether that's German soccer or, as this week, a PGA Tour event in Texas. Could it be I'll even miss that fool who yells, "In the hole!" after the drive on the 600-yard par-5? OK, maybe not him. He can stay home every week.
There have been attempts to simulate the feel of an occupied stadium. Some of them quite humorous, as when the Korean soccer team FC Seoul mistakenly, so it’s said, scattered sex dolls throughout its stadium seats to give the look of a real crowd.
The German Bundesliga has tried adding fake crowd noise to the broadcast of its soccer matches. The Premier League, scheduled to return in a week, is said to be weighing a similar option for fans watching at home.
And the crowd goes wild — at the push of a button.
For its restart inside an Orlando bubble, the NBA is said to contemplating borrowing crowd noise from a popular video game, NBA 2K, they say, to gin up a little artificial excitement. It is official, then. The machines have taken over, and we're just now finding out.
Sports isn’t the only activity, of course, forced into major compromises by the virus. Just this week Hollywood reportedly weighed new guidelines for the filming romantic scenes, or “close-contact moments” as the industry put it, in the coronavirus era. According to a report in the British tabloid, The Sun, the film editors’ association has suggested that such scenes be cut or replaced by CGI (computer-generated imagery). That’s right, simulated canoodling.
There is a parallel to be drawn here between a game without fans and a steamy movie interlude without actors. Both involve passion minus the humanity, one big air kiss. If I want synthetic enthusiasm, I’ll go back and review any Super Bowl halftime show.
I think well all can agree, at least, that in sports and sex, there’s nothing quite like the real thing.