Fake Crowds: How Live Sports Broadcasts Have Changed

It has been a rough time to be a sports fan or a professional athlete over the last year. On top of all the other tragedy, disorganization, and other problems surrounding the pandemic, many games or sports seasons or cancelled, shortened, or delayed, and this led to both financial problems for the leagues and a lot of fans looking for something to do while they had to stay inside and away from most people.

And it was not as though sports leagues and broadcasters wanted or expected any of this. They were as shocked as anyone, and most were unprepared for the cancellations and down the road additional guidelines required to broadcast safely and protect talent and lives. Everyone involved had to deal with the fact that a single mistake could shut down a league for some time, and both travel and interactions were much harder. All of this changed not only sports themselves but how we talk about and view them.

Therefore, we thought it would be worthwhile to examine sports and sports broadcasts over the last year. While we are not entirely over the hill yet when it comes to COVID-19, things are certainly improving when it comes to sports, many broadcasts have returned to normal, and it can be safe to say the worst is behind us.

Here are some of the things we noticed in our research:

Still Providing the Crowd Experience

After a certain point in the pandemic, we gained a better understanding of the virus, how to best prevent its spread, and the best quarantine measures to keep the virus away from athletes, coaches, and other sports and broadcasting professionals. There was no real way to bring in the crowds, however, with most regulations expressly forbidding such a gathering (and wisely so). Sports could go on, but in mostly empty venues.

So, how do those sports venues keep people interested and still provide people watching with the best crowd experience possible, as well as a somewhat normal viewing experience for people watching broadcasts? How do they sell tickets or otherwise make money to keep things afloat while they cannot get people in the seats, given that ticket revenues are a huge source of income for most teams? They had to bring some of the crowd experience to people watching at home or create something just a bit special for the superfans who wanted to feel something special.

Depending on the venue and sports, this was done via a variety of methods. Some of the more common ones are:

  • Stadiums and venues setting up a series of cardboard cutouts in the stands based on people or in some cases whatever the fans fancied. While it can look a little silly at first (and some fans leaned into that), it does allow for some creativity, and it does look better than empty seats. It also gives broadcasts something to talk about during downtime in games, whether there’s an interesting pattern or a home run nearly decapitates a cutout in the outfield. Some stadiums charged for the privilege while others mostly looked for volunteers or superfans, rotating them out as needed.
  • If you are wondering, some of the more creative options people sent in were cartoon characters, pictures of themselves in creative costumes, pictures of pets (there were lots of furry baseball fans last year), and small clone armies of similar cutouts.
  • Setting up screens or virtual inserts of people watching from home on the broadcasts. Unfortunately, this cannot be completely controlled and can result in some relatively awkward situations, and can be a bit of a burden on some internet connections at venues or with broadcasters, making it potentially unreliable (though in most cases testing was done beforehand). For the fans in the screens, however, it provided a great way to feel like they were there and showing support for their team, and it might have been the closest thing possible for the players to know that people were watching and cheering them on.
  • Instead of anything being done in the stadium, some broadcasters used AR technology to effectively paint crowds onto empty seats during games, giving the illusion of a packed stadium and reactive fans. This was not always so successful, as we will explain in more detail later in the article.

And despite the strangeness of the times, perhaps the most effective method for broadcasters to keep fans in the fold was just to do as well as they could, continuing business as usual when conditions allowed and providing an excellent experience. There is something to be said about acknowledging the absurdity of the situation and moving forward.

Struggles in Silence

For many athletes and fans, the crowd is all part of the game, good and bad. It is part of a constant dull roar that is the game and if you ever managed to watch or listen to a game without it over the past year, you have to admit it sounds a little eerie. While many broadcasts can turn up or down the crowd noise, it rarely goes completely away, and can be outright unnerving if it’s not present, much like how people who have slept in creaky homes might be unnerved in a change in space. Silence often brings more attention than noise, and not in a good way.

The compensate for this, many stadiums and broadcasters actually added fake “crowd noise” coming from the speakers to make the athletes feel a bit more at home when looking at empty crowds. Whether it was stock sounds, noise from previous games, or generated by other means, broadcasters either used that feed or tried to add some of their own. In the NFL, sound engineers actually created sets of crowd noise for each stadium, in order to create a more authentic experience. Strangely, though, what people hear on the broadcast will be completely different to anything heard in the stadium, due to rules and regulations from the NFL itself. 

And of course, this was not limited to the NFL. Soccer, which generally has even more fervent fans and roaring crowds, also experimented with crowd noise and how to best simulate a “normal” game for fans watching at home. Fans at home might notice something off, however, as people controlling the noise cannot perfectly simulate the positive and negative reactions of the crowd to what is going on. They as one might, one or two people cannot predict the complete responses of a crowd, mixed as it can be.

Different Sports, Different Rules

Looking back over the past year, it was clear that some sports could accommodate guidelines for the pandemic easier than others, and broadcasting was relatively easy for some sports even with the ongoing pandemic. Nothing was going to change some sports, and others still had the benefit of time on their side.

For example, baseball was probably the sport hit the hardest by the pandemic, with the season’s start coinciding with the start of the spread of the virus in the United States, its reliance on travel and a generally long season, and further still by the need for negotiations. Baseball often requires player contact, teams are large, and there isn’t too much to be done that could make it COVID-safe.

Football would not fare any better (think about how much contact the sport has for a second) if not for the fact that the season ended just before the pandemic became a major issue, allowing the NFL to have more time to prepare and perhaps learn from the mistakes and successes of other leagues and sports organizations.

Conversely, sports which do not require much contact or are more individual in nature as opposed to team-based, such as tennis and golf, were able to go back to normal faster than other sports. Outside of maybe their caddy, a professional golfer does not need to come into contact with anyone else over the course of 18 holes, and cameras can keep watch at a distance as they always have. Furthermore, neither sport has as much crowd fervor and uproar to it as the arena and stadium sports many of us know and love, so the viewing experience doesn’t change much.

And while we would love to go over the effects on every sport out there, there are simply too many to list. You can generally intuit the effects of COVID on a sport, however, based on what the sport involves both on a game and on a league level.

On a broadcast level, however, it can be complex no matter the sport. Camera crews might not be so different from sport to sport in terms of what is needed, and remote work might be needed on those teams in order to comply with guidelines, if they can be complied with at all. And the general concern surrounding COVID-19 for some time meant that no sports could really be broadcast, no matter the potential fixes and precautions.

And while we will not focus too much on it here, the pandemic also provided a bit more of a trial run and interest in e-sports which do not necessarily require competitors to be in the same building, much less in close contact with one another. Commentators and analysts also do not need to be in the area, and practically all the broadcasting work can be done remotely. While e-sports is still a niche interest compared to most other forms of entertainment, the pandemic did give gaming a boost in general, potentially boosting interest in e-sports. Once some options emerge as popular so that the general public can take a try with them, it might find a greater mainstream audience.

Trying Out New Technologies

Given that people needed a better way to get to the game from home, so to speak, some sports leagues and broadcasters tried to get people more involved in the games with better camera setups and VR stations which allow for people to get a closer view of the action and view it at their direction. While nothing will replace the feeling, smells, and sounds of an actual stadium or sports ground, VR is closer than a TV screen and potentially getting more easily distracted.

While VR technology hasn’t caught on completely due to the fact that it is expensive, often requires a lot of space, and can still be disorienting to some, that has not stopped some broadcasters from trying to provide an “in the crowd” experience during the pandemic, allowing for people who have the proper gear to get a 360 degree view of the stadium, the field, and what is going on. There is still much to work on with the tech, but it could very well be the future of sports broadcasting, assuming headsets become advanced and accessible enough.

As mentioned, AR technology also saw a lot more usage, and more than just some of the onscreen displays used to help people keep track of the game (you might see them often in football). Networks inserted various aspects of the crowd experience into a broadcast to mixed results, and since the pandemic is lightening and we can expect more crowd attendance soon we can expect much less usage of this technology, perhaps back to the standard of helping provide guidelines and information, but nothing more.

Virtual Management

While there is so much front-facing involving sports and sports broadcasting, we also should consider what it must be like for the many people involved in sports broadcasting and sports programming who had to readjust to a new norm, on-the-fly in some cases. Fortunately for many of them, there was an adjustment period as live sports weren’t occurring due to the pandemic, and most of the technologies used existed but were just not used as often.

Additionally, there are many meetings and a great deal of organization when it comes to running a sports broadcast. Due to its live nature, people need to be tuned like clockwork and have a plan or contingency for any situation, lest the viewing public notice a problem or miss a great play. These meetings were often or always in-person before, but had to get switched to happen remotely. Managers had to adapt to having potentially dozens of Zoom calls per day and similarly organize schedules online while trusting that employees would be able to follow along remotely, with a skeleton crew on-site compared to what they were used to.

The silver lining from all of this is that there are now systems in place to help employees work from wherever they happen to be. Many managers and team owners are over their skepticism about letting many employees work from home, allowing them to lead easier lives yet be just as effective at their jobs. And in some cases, the talent pool for sports broadcasting professionals and some jobs in the sports industry has expanded, as people unwilling to move might not have to now.

Missteps and Miscalculations

Yet with all of the above being stated and there being so many attempts to make broadcasts feel as natural as possible, it is not as though there were not missteps and problems with trying to change over so many broadcasts and events to a pandemic-friendly and crowd-free model. Many people thought the crowd noise pumped into stadiums and arenas was a bit silly, and many people could not easily get over how odd or unnatural it sounded.

Similarly, some people watching games were not pleased by the virtual crowd being shown on screen during some broadcasts. Whether it was them flickering in and out, AR malfunctions, and the issues that can appear in real-time rendering, people were distracted in the wrong way. It was a similar reaction to some maligned uses of technology in the past, and sports networks quickly adjusted their usage of it.

Furthermore, broadcasters were affected by just how volatile most schedules were in comparison to normal. They could not necessarily rely on a game to move forward as planned, as a COVID outbreak within a team could shut down the team or eventually the league for a while. While there were quarantine rules in place for most leagues,

On the side of sports teams, there was some conflict on balancing the desires of the players and management, particularly with baseball, where it looked like we were not going to get a season at all. Whether money or safety was at issue, there were some tense negotiations that are certain to affect future seasons in one way or another and the negotiations themselves often stalled matters. While perhaps necessarily, much of this didn’t fare well by sports fans.

In terms of long-term effects, once broadcasts return to normal we do not expect too many negative consequences, as most measures that were implemented were out of necessity or can be undone (or are outright unnecessary once crowds return to venues).

Will People Go Back?

People had to go without live sports for a while during a time where they would have more time than ever to watch them, which makes us wonder if people got used to the idea of a life without sports, or at least a life with less sports. People likely tried new hobbies and other ways to fill their time, and might have found something they like more than watching sports. In short, if people go without their passion for a while, there is a risk they lose that passion. It is a problem found with most forms of entertainment, and while die-hard fans likely aren’t going anywhere and were ticking down the days until their team of choice played again, other people might just watch fewer games or not pay as close attention. There is a lot else to catch up on, after all.

Additionally, there might be other reasons people are moving away from sports, such as other distracting events, personal reasons, and general cord-cutting.

There are always people coming in and out of the sports fandom, sometimes for personal reasons and sometimes for reasons related to the game itself or a favorite team (some scandals can be particularly demoralizing), and it can be hard to keep up with incredibly long seasons some sports have. Being a sports fan is part of a lifestyle, and so many lifestyles have been upended. People want more flexibility from their entertainment, and sports are anything but flexible.

On the opposite wide of the argument, we may still have some new fans come in for sports as people want to head out more now that many pandemic restrictions are limited. A game can be a great time even for people who do not consider themselves sports fans, and one can be a great excuse to get out and see friends and family. Even people who do not like sports go to football parties just to see people. How much viewership is affected one way or another is something we will have to check on a year from now, when all the numbers are in and settled.

The Future of Sports Broadcasting

In some ways, last year just accelerated changes that were inevitable in sports broadcasting to begin with, and we aren’t going back. In other ways, however, we might see both some experimentation but only when improvements can be made and an emphasis on a return to normalcy, with people just wanting to go back to watching and enjoying sports like they have their entire lives. Players and broadcasters may change, but the fundamental sports experience cannot, and people will seek that out on any network that can provide it.

In parallel to this desire, sports teams, broadcasters, and professionals also want a return to normal, and likely have a lot of work to do to that effect, resetting systems that have not been used properly in a year. What remains and what gets left behind from those times will be interesting to watch.

Yet there is another thread to follow. What we are certain to see is an increase in accessibility for live broadcasts. We are already seeing that with some streaming apps or sites such as Mlb.tv, several sports-focused streaming services (or streaming services offering the occasional game), and FuboTV. With the lines between internet and television services blurring and the demand changing, we will also see how strong of a hold cable networks can have on the sports programming market.


There is little substitute for being at a live game surrounded by thousands of fans, but sports entertainment professionals, broadcasters, and athletes alike have tried to manage to adjust and help fans adjust to the best of their ability, with help from teams, the fans themselves, and professionals in a variety of fields. We saw new ideas, people and organizations making the most of the situation, and live sports evolve in real time into something more adaptable and hopefully better than it was just a year prior.

In some ways, things have returned to normal by now. But what have we learned from all of this? If a similar event happens in the future, will sports broadcasters be able to implement some of the positive efforts of this last year while avoiding some of the trip ups? We do not know for certain and hope we will never have to know. What we can be certain of is that the pandemic has changed the way both viewers and athletes think about sports, and the next generation of athletes and broadcasting professionals will have the lessons of the last year ingrained into them. In any case, we hope you know a little more about what went on in the world of sports and will look further into the subject if you are interested.

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