The crowd goes quiet: For sports, the psyche of silence

Plenty of good seats, unavailable: The psychology of sports is being rewritten in the Age of Coronavirus.
By GREGORY ZELLER //

You’ve been there, sports fan: bottom of the ninth, sudden-death overtime, one-point lead, two-minute warning, third and long, the odd-man rush, the alley-oop, the champ goes down, the kick is up…

And in every sport, behind every great play, around it and inside it and below and above it – the roar of the crowd.

Sports are back. In fact, after months of reruns and silence, fans are enjoying an unprecedented bounty of professional athletics, with the restarted National Basketball Association and National Hockey League seasons deep into their playoffs, the shortened Major League Baseball season approaching its own postseason and the National Football League, minus one preseason, kicking off right on time – plus a flood of pro golf and tennis tournaments, motorsports and more.

What’s missing, of course, is we the people: We can watch on television, but stadiums and arenas are largely empty of spectators, as dictated by the Age of Coronavirus.

This has undeniably changed the sports-viewing experience, and that’s not all bad. The sounds of the game – the crack of ball on bat, the gunshot pop of puck on pad, the exulted cries of triumphant teammates, “Omaha! Ohama!” – have never been clearer.

Steven Frierman: Sound effects.

But the silence can be deafening. Fans are conditioned to react, loudly, in real time – a near-miss elicits gasps, an enemy point brings boos – and also to expect those reactions from others. When you don’t hear them, you notice.

And canned crowd noises – in the case of Major League Baseball, repurposed from a video game – are just creepy, despite the best efforts of live “conductors” with iPads.

Broadcasters have gotten the message. This week, for instance, ESPN announced an empty-nest collaboration with NFL Films to liven up live broadcasts with “multichannel surround audio recordings” collected over the last four seasons from each NFL stadium.

But for the players on the field, even improved acoustics won’t match the juice generated by a live roaring crowd, according to Steven Frierman, associate professor of specialized programs in education at Hofstra University.

“There’s a lot of excitement going on,” Frierman said. “You’re hearing 80,000 people yelling and screaming.

“It definitely gets the adrenaline going.”

Fan favorite: The fans (Zeller included) loved Gooden, and vice-versa.

He ain’t lying: Back in the day, I had the pleasure of meeting childhood hero Dwight Gooden, when the long-retired New York legend was spokes-pitching for the good folks over at Melville-based philanthropy organization PinkTie.org. I reminisced about a Friday night at Shea Stadium back in 1986, when Dr. K struck out 16 visiting Chicago Cubs; three decades later, Gooden’s face lit up like a Diamond Vision.

“Friday nights at Shea were special,” he told me. “You guys were amazing. The fans were electric.”

The home-field advantage, the “sixth man,” the magic of a Friday night at Shea – whatever you call it, it’s missing this season.

Technology has tried to fill the void, with the digitized din and “virtual crowds” beamed onto huge screens strategically hoisted in empty arenas, something better to look at than empty seats or cardboard cutouts (Microsoft VP Jeff Tepper – head of Microsoft Teams, which produces the Fan Mosaic – acknowledges that “part of watching a game on TV is seeing fan reaction”).

Players in the NBA and NHL “bubbles” can see those virtual fans (and fan reactions), too. But for Alpha-types who’ve entertained packed houses their entire lives, nothing can replace a flesh-and-blood crowd, according to Frierman, who earned his PhD from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro’s Department of Exercise and Sport Sciences and teaches sports psychology at Hofstra.

“Imagine you’re running a marathon and you’re getting tired, but you hear thousands of people cheering you on,” the professor told Innovate LI. “Might that give you an extra burst of energy?

“When they’re screaming and cheering for you, it makes you feel good,” Frierman added. “And what about when you’re playing against a hostile crowd – could that also be an emotional advantage?”

Board stiff: Cute, but bloodless.

The potential effects of crowd-less competition run even deeper for professional athletes, according to Frierman, who notes that athletes are trained to turn up the cheers and tune out the jeers – but not necessarily to deal with silence.

“Take for example fans booing a player in the NBA, waving their hands … players know how to block that out,” he said. “But now there’s no crowd – and they may have to find a way to deal with that instead.

“The biggest variable to look at would be the level of motivation,” the professor added. “If the team is playing to nobody, can they get pumped up?”

Ultimately, Frierman predicts empty seats, canned cheers and other Age of Coronavirus compromises – including, for the bubbled, separation from family – will not have a large effect on player performance. Less crowd noise may make it easier for a quarterback to communicate with his offense, but “it’s not going to be the reason why a player misses the shot or a team loses the game.”

“[The crowd] can enhance [player performance],” noted the professor, who in the late 1990s created the Sport Psychology section for now-defunct American Football Quarterly magazine and was once the team psychologist for a New York-based professional sports team. “But they don’t necessarily need it – would you rather have 80,000 people there and lose, or nobody there and win?”

As for the emotional side effects of not sharing the thrills of victory and agonies of defeat with fellow devotees – of not hearing that crazed crowd hit that particular pitch – Frierman suggested fans simply sit back and enjoy their televised sports, after months of going without.

“Hopefully, they’re going to appreciate the fact that their team is in the playoffs and they can watch games on television,” he said. “During this pandemic, it’s very easy to get frustrated and depressed and angry, but I would hope we can focus on the positives … like being able to turn on the TV and watch your team.

“Just be happy they’re in the playoffs,” Frierman added. “It’s better than not being in the playoffs.”