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  1. Sports

Do athletes believe playing in empty venues will impact their performance?

Without fans, players prepare for a return to sports’ biggest stages with no in-house audience, or at least a limited one.

You often hear professional athletes say that they play for their fans. But as the sports world returns to play amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, professional athletes likely will return to cavernous empty stadiums, their fans kept out to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

All of Tampa Bay’s pro sports teams are expected to resume games over the next few months — from the Rowdies on July 11 to the Bucs on Aug. 22 (preseason), with the Rays and Lightning somewhere in between.

They’re all so used to playing in front of fans. At home, the cheers provide adrenaline. On the road, there’s always a competitive dynamic with a hostile crowd. The anticipation of a game-altering moment felt seat to seat in the stands carries over onto the field.

So what will happen when performing on the biggest stage comes without an in-house audience?

“I think the first game is going to be really weird for everyone,” said Lightning defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk. “It’s going to be just strange to think there are no fans in the stands. Even as kids, we’re used to having our parents in the stands, cheering us on, and you hear your name here or there. That, I think, is going to be the strangest thing: Not hearing all the noise during the game and not having that cat-and-mouse game with fans, whether you’re home or away, to help sway the momentum. After the first period, first two periods, we’ll all get used to it. Obviously the fact that we’re playing meaningful games right away will help you get over that.”

Still, players believe they might have to find new ways to get hyped.

“It does take a lot of the heart out of the game,” said Rowdies midfielder Zach Steinberger. “But with that being said, this is something we might have to do. And even if the fans can’t be there, just being able to follow the club will just have to suffice right now, and we’ll tap into that energy because we know they’ll be following us. We’ll have to try to manufacture that energy ourselves but we know our fans will be supporting us even if we can’t see or hear them.”

Tampa Bay Rays starting pitcher Tyler Glasnow expects a lack of fans to benefit some players, especially if they get too amped up. [ DIRK SHADD | Times (2019) ]

“It’s going to be like a trial run,” Rays right-hander Tyler Glasnow added. “Guys are going to have to get that internal adrenaline going. It could benefit some people, too. Maybe some guys who get amped up, maybe the slow pace will help them out. I think people just have to wait and see what happens because this is the situation we’re dealing with. Regardless of how you feel, you’ve got to go out and play.”

Bucs offensive tackle Donovan Smith suggested the lack of crowd noise could help some players, especially younger players who are still getting adjusted to the NFL game.

“Who knows at the end of the day?” said Smith, who played in front of nearly 107,000 fans in college at Penn State. “It could be a blessing or a curse. You’ve got guys who get distracted by crowd noise and guys who might shine with it. It can go either way. Trying to look at it positively, it’s an opportunity for a lot of people to really focus on what you need to focus on without having any extra (noise). You can just go out there and play.”

When players think about competing without fans, it brings them back to their first days playing sports. Rowdies defender Forrest Lasso thinks back to being a kid kicking a ball around in his backyard by himself.

“The first time I started playing was without fans,” he said. “As I grew, there were fans in the stands and they add a great thrill and energy. The professional game has so much energy, home-field advantage, away fans, chants, acoustics ... there’s a lot of elements to the game that will be slightly altered. But in terms of mentality and approach for a player, for us I don’t think it’s going to be anything different.”

Fans are great to feed off of, like when scoring a hat trick in a game, like Lightning center Carter Verhaeghe, center, did in a 9-2 victory over the Vancouver Canucks on Jan. 7. [ DIRK SHADD | Tampa Bay Times ]

Lightning forward Carter Verhaeghe said he played games in empty rinks many times as a kid.

“I feel like we could maybe get used to it,” he said. “But the fans being there is definitely something irreplaceable and hopefully we can get back to that as soon as possible.”

And Rays outfielder Austin Meadows likens it to his first days in minor-league ball, playing Gulf Coast League games on the back fields of spring training complexes, early afternoon games in sweltering summer heat that offer little refuge for the those who choose to watch in the bleachers behind a backstop.

“It’ll definitely be interesting,” Meadows said. “I have gotten a taste of that in rookie ball in the GCL, 110 degrees in the summer heat, no fans, only my girlfriend at the time (now his wife). It’s definitely going to be some getting used to. I think we’re at the point now with no fans or with fans or whatnot, we’re going to find a way.

“I think guys are hungry and they’re going to want to be out there, to see each other and to play with each other every day. I don’t know if its going to be too much of an adjustment, but it’ll definitely be a little bit weird.”

Staff writers Marc Topkin and Diana C. Nearhos contributed to this report.

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