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#pounditMonday, September 28, 2020

NBA and other leagues should skip the fake crowd noise and let fans hear the game

As sports without fans in the stands looks set to be the norm for at least the foreseeable future, TV broadcasts are scrambling for ways to present the games as those at home are used to seeing them. That has led to some pretty interesting proposals.

One idea that has become fairly popular is to use simulated crowd noise to try to fill out the broadcast. This is often done by turning to video games; the NBA has proposed using sound from the popular “NBA 2K” video game in the absence of fans. In England, things are even more elaborate, as soccer’s Premier League is working with programmers from EA Sports’ “FIFA” series to create team-specific crowd noise for broadcasts. That will be an optional feature, and viewers will be able to watch a telecast without the artificial crowd noise on a separate channel. The discussions have even extended to the NFL; while we still don’t know if there will be fans at football games this fall, the notion of using artificial crowd noise has been brought up there, too.

The major sports leagues to return to play thus far, however, have gone against the grain. The KBO, Korea’s baseball league, and the Bundesliga, Germany’s top soccer league, are showing games without any artificial add-ons. The experience has been interesting. Though the language barrier in both countries prevents English-speaking fans from getting the full experience, players and coaches can be heard yelling and cheering each other on. Interactions are there for all to hear between everyone on the field.

This adds a neat dynamic that is absent from regular games. Referees are mic’d in many sports, and there are microphones to pick up the sound of the action, but in general, the crowd noise drowns out the bulk of the chatter. There’s something deeply interesting, though, about hearing players talking to each other. When they score, we can hear their excitement. When something doesn’t go their way, their frustration is there for all to hear. Interactions with opposing players or referees can be seen and scrutinized. None of this is possible with fans in the stands — or with fake crowd noise obscuring it.

To be clear, there are definitely issues that need to be addressed if no crowd noise is being used. Players may be prone to using strong language that typically goes unheard on TV broadcasts, which could pose a problem for networks and may require some sort of tape delay. At least one referee has voiced some concerns over officiating in an empty arena, where every one of his interactions with players, coaches, and fellow officials has the potential to be picked up by a TV broadcast.

These are valid concerns, and should absolutely be considered and addressed before sports are put back on U.S. television. That said, the benefits outweigh the risks. These games could function as something like a behind-the-scenes look at how the game is actually played and what everyone on the court hears and experiences in the heat of the moment. That could be good for the product. It could allow players and coaches to show some personality. It could also humanize everyone involved, particularly referees, who are typically ignored unless they do something controversial.

There should be ways to address any concerns raised by those on the field or the court about their discussions being heard by an unintended audience. In the end, though, as long as those concerns are addressed, leagues and TV broadcasters should skip the fake crowd noise and use this opportunity to give fans a more unfiltered look at their favorite sports and players. At the very least, if they do insist on crowd noise, they should take a page from the Premier League and make those broadcasts optional. It would make the long-awaited return of sports even more interesting and intriguing.

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