The sight of Borussia Dortmund’s young star Erling Håland sticking the ball away in near silence on Saturday against rivals Schalke heralded a new dawn for global sport. As the Norwegian and his teammates celebrated at the regulated social distance — unable to share the excitement of the goal and three points that took them to the top of the Bundesliga table as they ordinarily would with joyous fans leaping out of the stands — one might almost ask: who needs fans anyway?

Here, TheTicketingBusiness speaks to experts from academia and business to find out more about how ticket-holders and crowds play a central part in the standard of the sport out on the field…

Sports organisations the world over are looking at restarting their seasons behind closed doors in a bid to get back to the action however possible.

The COVID-19 pandemic forced the shutdown of some of the world’s biggest competitions, including all the major European football leagues, and the US’s MLB and NBA. These leagues have been forced to consider how to keep fans engaged and connected, and find new ways to encourage them to keep their money in their franchise.

Germany’s Bundesliga over the weekend became the first major European league to resume following the coronavirus outbreak, with hundreds of thousands of ticket-holders barred from attending games and empty stands creating an eerie atmosphere for players and fans alike.

Crowds create intensified conditions in sport, as key moments invoke incredible excitement and the shared experience of people in the crowd permeates to the energising of the players.

Prior to the pandemic, many athletes and owners would have said that live audiences were essential. Now they are perhaps having to accept that resuming competitions and enabling fans to cheer at home is arguably better than sport not taking place at all.

However, fans drive revenues for ticketing, merchandise and food and drinks. Ticketing alone is a major source of revenue and there are season ticket holders now who aren’t getting the games they’ve already paid for.

Fans attending games also deliver valuable data to organisations that are becoming more data-driven to optimise engagement, advertising, purchasing, rewards and incentives, and personalised experiences. The value of that data is increasing, but they just don’t have access to it right now.

How important are fans to the experience of sport and what is the price of playing in front of empty stadia and arenas?

Research by Rutgers University social psychology professor Dr. John R. Aiello on social facilitation has found that crowds and the presence of others improves performance for professionals who have perfected their craft.

‘Social facilitation’ refers to the finding that people sometimes perform better on tasks when others are around, with Aiello adding that it is those that have become masters of their skill who get better when there is an audience. Therefore, simply put, crowds impact professionals positively and the absence could therefore detract slightly from performance levels.

In addition to affecting players, the lack of crowd noise will have an impact on those watching on television at home. However, Aiello notes that fans are “very hungry” for sport to return and people will be “satisfied to receive the content, even if it is in a different context.”

Aiello told TheTicketingBusiness: “It will change the experience for fans if sports return only on TV. But it would be a novelty to get something you’ve missed for a while, even if you don’t have that shared experience that you usually would with fans in the crowd.”

He also noted how the “vicarious experience” of a person at home would be diminished without the fans in a stadium.

Former Tottenham Hotspur and England football star Chris Waddle, said on Twitter: “It’s not football more like pre season friendlies, the people’s game, no crowds – no matches simple!”

Borussia Dortmund’s sporting director Michael Zorc said: “It’s strange and unfamiliar, it makes your heart bleed.”

Broadcast firms in the UK, such as BT Sport and Sky, have said the product of football is diminished without supporters and clubs would have to payback more than £350m to broadcast partners, even if games return. A  Club Broadcast Advisory Group has now been set up to discuss proposals such as additional in-game interviews, and behind-the-scenes footage from the tunnel and dressing rooms.

Pete Giorgio, Deloitte’s US Sports Practice Leader, told TheTicketingBusiness that there’s a lot of anecdotal evidence that empty stadiums have a negative impact on the quality of broadcasts, but “little hard data to support it.”

He added: “Having said that, fans seem hungry for sports content and are willing to at least try to play along with these experiments. So, how fans relate to these new conditions may evolve. We really take it as a given that live sports have fans in attendance, so it’s going to be interesting to see how this moves forward.”

Giorgio noted that there could be increased innovation in the coming months as organisations experiment with leveraging technologies to deliver the more “visceral element” of live sports on air, for example creating virtual fans in the stands or some sort of telepresence capabilities. It has already been reported that Sky plans to make artificial crowd noise available on their red button coverage if and when the Premier League returns.

Giorgio added that another big aspect of sports events is the social element, so there could be more experimentation with leveraging these services or potentially bringing them closer to the broadcast channel.

He said: “All of this could boost more telepresence, social capabilities, and emerging tech like real-time stats on player performance from sensors, player-mounted cameras, and virtual reality.

“How ‘real’ could the game be at home? Could fans choose a camera on the helmet of their favourite player, for example? Maybe this is a premium experience or loyalty reward.

“There’s been this tension between a great couch experience and a ticket to the stadium – how to make them complementary without cannibalising one with the other. This crisis could accelerate how teams think about these experiences and capabilities, potentially blurring the lines between them while making the overall experience much more compelling, personalised, and flexible.”

Image: Валерий Дед