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Silence will be the new soundtrack as sports resume during the pandemic

The Tampa Bay Times explores how fan-less stadiums and arenas will impact the players and the TV viewing experience as baseball, hockey, football and more make their way back.
When (if?) the NHL postseason resumes this year, Amalie Arena will sit empty as the Lightning attempts to clinch the Stanley Cup. Fans are likely to see similar views around Tampa Bay and the nation.
When (if?) the NHL postseason resumes this year, Amalie Arena will sit empty as the Lightning attempts to clinch the Stanley Cup. Fans are likely to see similar views around Tampa Bay and the nation. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Jul. 4, 2020|Updated Jul. 4, 2020

They are the background in every iconic moment. Extras adding breadth to our most memorable scenes. They are the crowds who have provided the emotional context to major sporting events for as long as any of us can recall.

And now they are being told to stay away from our stadiums, arenas and ballparks.

Welcome to the silent soundtrack of pandemic sports.

No one can predict with any certainty what baseball, hockey and basketball games will feel like in the coming months without fans in attendance, but we can be sure they will be unlike anything we’ve ever experienced.

Will home-field advantage disappear? Will athletes miss the adoration? Will games lose their sense of wonder for television viewers without fans shouting their approval from the rafters? The games themselves won’t change, just the world around them.

With that in mind, the Tampa Bay Times has put together a package of stories from the varying perspectives of players and fans about what sports might feel like in empty stadiums in the coming months. You’ll find links and descriptions below.

In the days to come, this will surely be described this as the new normal. Except there is nothing remotely normal about this.

The Rays as a TV-only production? Hmm, haven’t we heard that plan before?

Ah, yes. But will fans still love the Rays if they can't go to Tropicana Field during the pandemic? History suggests that won't be a problem in Tampa Bay, where fans have been pretty good, comparatively speaking, when it comes to television ratings.
Ah, yes. But will fans still love the Rays if they can't go to Tropicana Field during the pandemic? History suggests that won't be a problem in Tampa Bay, where fans have been pretty good, comparatively speaking, when it comes to television ratings. [ JAMES BORCHUCK | Times ]

Chances are, you will never get into Tropicana Field to watch the Rays play during the hottest months of this summer. Instead your devotion will be limited to following the team from afar. Watching on TV, listening to the radio, reading in the newspaper and online. You might as well be cheering for a team that was playing its home games 1,508 miles away.

Like, say, in Montreal.

Of all the consequences of the coronavirus on sports, this might be the most serendipitous in Tampa Bay. The proposed sister city plan with Montreal will get an unintended quasi-test run due to the pandemic.

Tom Brady is the hottest ticket in the NFL, but who can watch?

Flags wave at Raymond James Stadium during last year's Tampa Bay Buccaneers season opener against the San Francisco 49ers. What a crowd looks like this season at games, if there even is a crowd, remains uncertain.
Flags wave at Raymond James Stadium during last year's Tampa Bay Buccaneers season opener against the San Francisco 49ers. What a crowd looks like this season at games, if there even is a crowd, remains uncertain. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times (2019) ]

You don’t sign quarterback Tom Brady and trade for tight end Rob Gronkowski without visions of a sold-out, rollicking Raymond James Stadium on every sun-kissed Sunday.

After finishing among the bottom four teams in the league in attendance nine of the past 10 years, the Bucs are relevant again.

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Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic almost certainly will prevent the Bucs and other NFL teams from playing in stadiums full of fans, at least at the start of the regular season.

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

Lightning defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk says that even as kids, you're used to having people watch you play: "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."
Lightning defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk says that even as kids, you're used to having people watch you play: "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." [ DIRK SHADD | Times (2019) ]

Professional athletes are 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?

What NFL, NHL, MLB and NCAA can learn from auto racing without fans

The grandstands are empty overlooking pit lane heading to turn one during the opening day of the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on March 13 in St. Petersburg. The race has been rescheduled for the fall.
The grandstands are empty overlooking pit lane heading to turn one during the opening day of the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on March 13 in St. Petersburg. The race has been rescheduled for the fall. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

As the NFL, NHL, NBA, MLB and NCAA prepare to return in front of limited, if not eliminated, crowds, they’ll be following the lead of auto racing — the last major U.S. sport to stop because of the pandemic and the first one to restart.

Which means teams across the area and state can all learn something from the experience of Kyle Kirkwood, one of the 77 racers who drove at the fan-free Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg before the three-day event was called off halfway through Day 1.

Tampa Bay sports fans lament possible lost seasons in the stands

Cookie Gross, 72, and husband Steve Gross, 75, are decked out in their Tampa Bay Lightning masks as they show off a small portion of their Bolts memorabilia while pictured in their Valrico home. Cookie shows off a game puck as Steve clutches his Victor Hedman stick.
Cookie Gross, 72, and husband Steve Gross, 75, are decked out in their Tampa Bay Lightning masks as they show off a small portion of their Bolts memorabilia while pictured in their Valrico home. Cookie shows off a game puck as Steve clutches his Victor Hedman stick. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Cookie Gross knows exactly where she’s supposed to be when it comes to the Lightning’s home games at Amalie Arena. She’s always down by the ice at warmups, standing with a group of friends between sections 126 and 128 as the players skate around and music pumps through the speakers.

When Gross was gone for an entire month in February 2018, Brayden Point noticed. She talked to him after a practice in Brandon soon after returning. It’s a moment she’ll never forget, but one she thinks of even more frequently now as the coronavirus pandemic threatens fans’ return to the stands.

As pandemic persists, could tailgating be a template for safe social partying?

USF fan John Collins of Zephyrhills settles in for some chicken while tailgating outside of Raymond James Stadium prior to the Bulls' game against Temple last November.
USF fan John Collins of Zephyrhills settles in for some chicken while tailgating outside of Raymond James Stadium prior to the Bulls' game against Temple last November. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times (2019) ]

If football proceeds at the pro and college levels this fall, and if a limited number of fans are allowed inside stadiums, the tailgate scene — done correctly — could provide a social-distancing template as the sports world slowly re-boots.

But correctly is the critical word, says Dr. Jay Wolfson, senior associate dean at Morsani College of Medicine at USF.

This 2015 MLB game without fans was unforgettable

The Baltimore Orioles' Caleb Joseph is up to bat against the Chicago White Sox on April 29, 2015, in Baltimore. Due to security concerns, the game was closed to the public. A state of emergency was issued after riots erupted following the funeral of Freddie Gray.
The Baltimore Orioles' Caleb Joseph is up to bat against the Chicago White Sox on April 29, 2015, in Baltimore. Due to security concerns, the game was closed to the public. A state of emergency was issued after riots erupted following the funeral of Freddie Gray. [ GAIL BURTON | Associated Press (2015) ]

When Eduardo A. Encina covered the first baseball game absent of fans in 2015, he thought it was a once-in-a-lifetime event.

On April 29, 2015, the Baltimore Orioles and Chicago White Sox played a regular-season game at Camden Yards behind closed gates. No fans were permitted in, and with the exception of players, coaches, media, support staff and a handful of scouts, the ballpark was empty.

Now, sporting events in empty venues will be the new normal, at least for the time being in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic.

What happens to the home-field advantage without fans?

We'll learn a lot more about the home-field advantage in the coming weeks if fans won't be able to attend games.
We'll learn a lot more about the home-field advantage in the coming weeks if fans won't be able to attend games. [ Times (2019) ]

As leagues and teams continue to work through solutions to their complicated returns in the COVID-19 era, there’s one critical competitive question they won’t be able to answer until the games and matches resume.

What happens to the home-field advantage if fans aren’t in the stands?

Will fans lose connection to the game while watching from afar?

Rays centerfielder Kevin Kiermaier signs autographs for fans before a game vs. the Detroit Tigers at Tropicana Field last August.
Rays centerfielder Kevin Kiermaier signs autographs for fans before a game vs. the Detroit Tigers at Tropicana Field last August. [ Times (2019) ]

Duke professor Charles T. Clotfelter compares sports fandom to a learned behavior, like writing. It’s ingrained in Americans — something they can’t forget, and if they could, they wouldn’t.

But fans may be forced to put down the proverbial pen and pencil for the remainder of this year if they’re barred from viewing sports in person.