How the Falcons plan to stage games without fans in stadium

Renowned saxophonist Mike Phillips performed the national anthem, recorded to be played at Sunday's Falcons game, on the roof of Mercedes-Benz Stadium last week. (Photo by Jim Blackburn, provided by AMBSE)

Credit: Jim Blackburn

Credit: Jim Blackburn

When Mercedes-Benz Stadium was being designed and built, the Falcons planned for just about everything. But not for this: a game without fans.

That will be the reality Sunday afternoon, when the Falcons open their season against the Seattle Seahawks with all of the stadium’s 71,000-plus seats empty because of the coronavirus pandemic.

After hoping as recently as a month ago to open the season with a socially distanced crowd of 10,000 to 20,000, the Falcons have scrambled in recent weeks to put together a new game plan for staging games sans fans.

There will be artificial crowd noise piped into the stadium under NFL-imposed restrictions. Some season-ticket holders will be shown on the video board cheering the team from home. Tarps, many carrying the names of sponsors, will cover the lower rows of seats.

The Falcons' two home games in September will be played without fans, and the team is tracking COVID-19 data and deferring a decision on whether a limited number of fans will be permitted at games later in the season.

“The month of September will go by very quickly,” said Dietmar Exler, who oversees the stadium as chief operating officer of Falcons parent company Arthur M. Blank Sports & Entertainment (AMBSE). “A decision for what happens afterwards is still open, and it’s our job in operations to be ready for whatever we decide as an organization. We’ve done as much as we could to be prepared and be ready, whatever the decision is.”

That decision will depend on the course of the virus in Georgia over the coming weeks.

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“The situation is just so fluid,” Exler said. “So many things can rapidly change, and we have seen things change drastically within a week. You’re doing yourself the biggest favor if you wait with the decisions as long as possible.”

Meanwhile, here’s a look at some of the off-the-field changes you may notice if you watch on TV (1 p.m. Sunday, Fox) as the Falcons open a season like no other:

Artificial crowd noise

The last time the Falcons piped in artificial crowd noise at games, it cost them a $350,000 fine, a fifth-round draft pick and no small amount of embarrassment. At that time, 2013-14, it was a flagrant violation of NFL rules.

But because of the pandemic, the league this season is permitting the use of fake crowd noise to break the silence of empty stadiums and to enliven telecasts.

The Falcons, who have struggled against AFC teams (2-10) over the past three years, will play the AFC West, including the defending Super Bowl-champion Chiefs.

The Falcons, like the NFL’s other teams, received an audio file from the league office containing a loop of prerecorded crowd noise specific to their stadium. For “competitive equity” purposes, league directives call for all home teams to play the audio at a volume of 70 decibels whenever the play clock and/or game clock is running. That’s not as loud as a typical NFL crowd gets, but it will create what the league calls a “baseline murmur” that is intended to drown out some field-level audio that wouldn’t be picked up in a stadium with fans.

“You want to have some noise level there to give it more of a feel of a football field,” Exler said.

An NFL representative will take decibel readings from the sidelines during games, and any variation from the league protocols can result in fines, suspensions and loss of draft picks.

The crowd-noise audio incorporated into the TV broadcasts will be different than that played in the stadium. On TV, the artificial crowd sound, assembled by NFL Films, will be reactive to game situations, rather than a constant loop. But it, too, will be league-controlled, albeit in collaboration with the networks.

Remote fans

Unlike the Braves and a number of NFL teams, the Falcons don’t plan to have cardboard cutouts of fans at their games.

“We looked at it,” Exler said, “and we didn’t feel this was the right thing to do.”

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Instead, the team plans to bring some season ticket holders into the stadium via the cameras on their smartphones or other devices, showing them on the stadium’s halo-shaped video board as they cheer from home or wherever they’re watching the game.

“For the players, it’s a live view of the fans (supporting them) in their living rooms,” Exler said.

Other adjustments

⋅ Tarps will cover the first seven rows of seats all around the field, each tarp displaying team or sponsor branding. “We feel that has a better look, specifically on TV, than just showing seven empty rows,” Exler said. “Even if we bring fans back (later in the season), these tarps will stay to keep quite some distance between the players and the fans.”

⋅ The Falcons will be permitted to play music, videos and their “train horn” sound effect at the same times as they normally do during games. But they can’t crank up the volume on those elements above 75 decibels under NFL rules for this season.

⋅ The national anthem for Sunday’s game was prerecorded by renowned saxophonist Mike Phillips on the roof of Mercedes-Benz Stadium last week.

⋅ The cheerleading squad won’t be allowed on the field, but five members will be elsewhere in the stadium.

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