Playing for the Fans, Without the Fans

Commentary by Abram Erickson

COVID-19 may force sports leagues that are eager to get back on schedule to play their games for broadcast television, but without fans in the stands. However, many athletes seem apprehensive towards such a shift in their normal routine of playing in front of thousands of fans every night. 

I believe I can feel at least part of their pain. As a high school and college athlete, I’ve experienced the thrill of playing in front of crowds both large and small. One of the most exhilarating moments of my life came during my junior year of high school when I hit a buzzer-beating three-pointer to pull off an incredible upset victory in front of a packed crowd. The burst of energy the crowd released after my shot dropped through the net was unlike anything I’ve ever felt. 

While my moment came in a matchbox high school gym in West Michigan rather than a sold-out Madison Square Garden, I must have experienced a fraction of the collective energy that the pros do. The crowd was electric; I was in pure euphoria. I felt it. 

Professional athletes are lucky enough to experience this feeling every night. I say lucky, even though I know that some crowds are notorious for their ability to ruin a player’s night. Sometimes the cheers of fans can be motivating, at other times their jeers can be devastating. But removing a crowd entirely may be downright unsettling.

Getting Sports Back

The pros are fortunate in that they are given the ability to do what only a small number people in few professions can do. They are paid to do what they love, and what they excel at, in front of large groups of people. In fact, it is only because millions of people want to watch them do what they love that they are able to play their sport for a living.

The coronavirus has dealt a massive blow to sports as we know them. Measures we would have never imagined have been exercised to shut sports down, and similar sacrifices will be made to get them back.

On Tuesday, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading expert on the coronavirus, detailed a possible plan for resuming play without fans.

“There’s a way of doing that,” Fauci said during an interview with Snapchat’s Peter Hamby on Tuesday. “Nobody comes to the stadium. Put [the players] in big hotels, wherever you want to play, keep them very well surveilled… Have them tested every single week and make sure they don’t wind up infecting each other or their family, and just let them play the season out.”

With Fauci opening the door for sports to resume, fans may finally see light at the end of the tunnel of this sporting drought. With sports leagues eager to generate revenue again, the only thing standing in the way may be athlete opinion.

Athlete Pushback

There have been many strong voices against playing without fans. LeBron James, possibly the athlete with the most powerful voice in the world, is among them. 

In early March, well before leagues were shut down and stay-at-home orders were enforced, James was vehemently against the possibility. “We play games without the fans? Nah, that’s impossible,” he said. “I ain’t playing if I ain’t got the fans in the crowd. That’s who I play for. I play for my teammates, and I play for the fans. That’s what it’s all about. So if I show up to an arena and there ain’t no fans in there, I ain’t playing. They can do what they want to do.”

Since then, James has softened his stance on the issue, as the reality of the coronavirus has set in. However, his opinion of the safety measures remains less than glowing. “Having a game without fans — what is the word ‘sport’ without ‘fan’?” James said on the Road Trippin’ Podcast. “There’s no excitement. There’s no crying. There’s no joy. There’s no back-and-forth.”

In many ways, James is right. He, perhaps better than anyone, knows what it’s like to feel the adoration of thousands of fans chanting his name. When that happens to you on a nightly basis, you’re likely to be unable to imagine things any other way.

But what he, and other athletes, are forgetting to take into account is that the vast majority of fans don’t watch sports in the arena. For the average fan, the coronavirus hasn’t ruined sports because they can’t attend in person, it has ruined sports because they don’t have anything to watch on TV.

According to a 2017 study by the research group YouGov, 59 percent of sports fans would rather watch an event from home instead of attend in person. The combination of convenience, high ticket prices, and a superb at-home viewing experience means that for most sports fans, staying at home makes more sense.

Playing For the Fans, Really

James claims he plays basketball “for the fans”. However, he seems to only mean those willing to pay the ticket price. Due to broadcasting deals and cable subscriptions, it’s those watching at home who foot the bill for his contract and generate revenue. And not playing sports hits them the hardest.

Admittedly, to say playing games without fans would be an adjustment is an understatement. James is correct in saying that excitement would be diminished. Big moments will not feel so big, and home-court advantage will not be such an advantage. I’m sure the first couple of games will be awkward for players.

But in the end, fans need sports. NBA 2K tournaments, remote H.O.R.S.E games, and virtual races have done what they can to fill our sports appetites, but fans are hungry for more. For all the ways sports serve to unite people (emotionally, not physically), we need them in a time like this.

With Fauci’s blessing, and fans’ support, professional athletes should not hesitate to play without fans if given the opportunity. As soon as leagues have decided it is safe to continue play, athletes must lead the charge in supporting the idea. If they want to play “for the fans”, this is the way to do it. Show them how much you care by sacrificing your experience for theirs. 

Some say the silence of an empty arena could be deafening, but rest assured, fans will be cheering loud enough at home to drown it out.

For now, playing without the fans is playing for the fans.

#covid #sports #opinion

Photo Credit: Tuur Tisseghem from