Taunting the goalie.
Roaring for a last-second basket.
Singing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” during the seventh-inning stretch.
Fan reactions are the pulse of live sporting events, a soundtrack that’s as visceral to the games as the action itself.
But the return of the NHL, NBA and Major League Baseball could come with a record scratch — no fans at games.
“It would definitely be different,” Wild defenseman Ryan Suter said.
As leagues remain shuttered during the coronavirus pandemic, possibilities for reigniting play have taken center stage — including the potential of resuming hockey and basketball, and starting the baseball season, without fans in attendance.
While logistics could be complicated, scenarios continue to emerge to reintroduce pro sports during unpredictable times.
“It’s not something we want,” Twins third baseman Josh Donaldson said. “It’s not something we’re going to necessarily enjoy, fans not being there. But if it’s something we have to do, you have to pay that price.”
In the month since the NHL and NBA suspended their seasons and MLB delayed Opening Day, the futures of the leagues have only become more vague.
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman acknowledged in an interview with NBC Sports Network the possibility that the league won’t be able to complete its regular season but also said the NHL could play well into the summer.
“Nothing’s been ruled in,” he said. “Nothing’s been ruled out.”
That would appear to open the door for reconvening without fans in arenas or having neutral-site games.
“I certainly don’t want to leave the impression that the neutral site or empty building scenario is anything we favor or are zeroing in on,” Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly wrote in an e-mail to the Star Tribune. “We are looking at all options and possibilities [and] vetting them all thoroughly so when the landscape begins to settle into some degree of predictability, we are in a position to react and plan quickly.”
Like the NHL, the NBA hopes to salvage a regular season that was abruptly halted March 11 after Rudy Gobert of the Utah Jazz tested positive for COVID-19; the next day, the NHL and MLB also slammed on the brakes. But NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said Monday during an interview streamed on Twitter that he’s in no position to make any decisions on a return for at least the rest of April.
Moving NBA games to Las Vegas is a suggestion that’s been floated; Grand Forks has been mentioned as a possible NHL destination; and a similar concept is being broached in baseball that would have all 30 clubs play at stadiums in Arizona with no fans. Teams would live in a semi-quarantine, limited mostly to traveling between ballparks and team hotels, according to reports.
Publicly, though, MLB hasn’t endorsed the format.
“While we have discussed the idea of staging games at one location as one potential option, we have not settled on that option or developed a detailed plan,” the league said in a statement. “While we continue to interact regularly with governmental and public health officials, we have not sought or received approval of any plan from federal, state and local officials, or the Players Association.”
A USA Today story suggested MLB officials have kicked around the idea of realigning the leagues to form divisions based on training camp sites. Florida and Arizona are each host to 15 teams during spring training.
Plenty of questions
What stands in the way of all these variations are the guidelines outlined by the White House to slow down COVID-19 and the stay-at-home orders issued by most states.
If those restrictions loosen, games could become more realistic, but the leagues would still have quite a checklist to work through to stage them.
How many people need to be on hand looks like an elusive target.
Besides the players, coaches and support staff like trainers, equipment managers and clubhouse attendants, officials and umpires are also necessary. So, too, are those who help manicure the playing surface like Zamboni drivers and grounds crews.
Scoreboard operators are vital; same with statisticians.
But what about security for the building? And how many members of the media would be permitted? Do front-office personnel need to watch in-person? Doctors are probably essential, but are cooks?
Are any of these groups scaled back to make social distancing easier?
The size of the operation, though, isn’t the only unknown.
What, if anything, happens between whistles and during stoppages?
It seems unlikely there would be entertainment flashed on the video boards without fans to keep engaged during breaks, but would there be any music blaring from the speakers? Could applause be piped in? Are walk-up songs scrapped?
T-shirt tosses and programs feel irrelevant, but what about that seventh-inning stretch?
And there’s also the health of the players to consider, especially in the NBA and NHL where there is constant body contact. Teams have tried to play through pandemics — the 1919 Stanley Cup Finals were called off after five games when most of the Montreal Canadiens got the Spanish flu; defenseman Joe Hall died.
The sound of games would be dramatically different without fans, and that would have a profound effect on television broadcasts — which, under these circumstances, would be even more significant since they would show what’s happening in real time to the public.
“Imagine an NBA player. They do a tremendous dunk, and traditionally they feed off the crowd and all that emotion of the game. That’s not going to be there,” said Mike Dimond, Fox Sports North’s senior vice president and general manager.
“Every league is about entertainment and trying to create this entertainment. So, the structure of the atmosphere around, whether it’s a baseball diamond or a hockey rink or a basketball court, that dynamic is just going to change.”
While there wouldn’t be live cheers and applause, there would be an abundance of natural sound. The swish from skates digging into the ice, the squeaking of shoes on the hardwood and the smack of the bat would be clearly audible. So, too, might be the in-game conversations, forcing TV engineers to monitor open microphones.
Play-by-play announcers and color analysts would also fill the silence, but capturing any ambience would be challenging for the entire crew without an in-house audience.
“Dick Bremer, who calls a great home run, a lot of times when something like that happens, the art of what he does is to know when to speak and when not to speak,” Dimond said. “On a typical Nelson Cruz home run, he’ll lay out and let the crowd and emotion of that take it.
“… He’ll have to make some adjustments probably in those kind of situations.”
Other obstacles potentially facing TV have nothing to do with the action.
If all three leagues start playing again at the same time, manpower and resources could be tested — particularly if games are concentrated in one area. Typically, it takes around a 50-person crew to execute a broadcast for Wild, Timberwolves and Twins games on FSN, and Dimond doesn’t anticipate that number shrinking if the leagues returned without fans at games.
But the setup inside television trucks might have to change if social distancing rules still apply.
“You can run scenarios all day long,” Dimond said. “At some point, you just don’t know until you get an answer, a little bit of clarity of what it’s going to look like.”
On April 29, 2015, the Orioles and White Sox played in what’s believed to be the first game in MLB history without fans after riots broke out in Baltimore amid tensions between locals and police.
Music played between innings and the scoreboard was illuminated, but the kiss cam disappeared. The national anthem was a recording.
“It seemed rather odd, to say the least,” Donaldson recalled.
A watered-down version like that, however, could be on the horizon — even if players don’t like it.
Asked last month, Wolves players said they wouldn’t be in favor of playing without fans.
“I wouldn’t enjoy it at all,” guard D’Angelo Russell said before the NBA went on hiatus. “It would be hard to get up for that. I don’t even know what that would look like to be honest. I think you would hear the commentators over there the whole time. It’d be weird.”
Adjusting to the change would be tough, Donaldson said, but to get baseball back in front of fans, games might have to return this way.
“If that’s the route we have to take,” he said, “it is a route that may be necessary for us to start our season.”
Suter has never played a game in an empty arena, but he’s sure the vibe would be different. Still, he figures after a few games teams would adapt to the new environment.
“We’re willing to do whatever,” Suter said. “We want to play. Our team was really playing well down the stretch here, and we want to see if we can continue.”
Given the continued spread of the coronavirus and procedural hurdles the leagues would have to clear — on top of ensuring the safety of all involved — playing without fans could be a pipe dream at best, even if that’s what the White House is eyeing.
“I want fans back in the arenas,” President Donald Trump said at a recent news briefing. “Whenever we are ready. As soon as we can, obviously.”
What could be a trickier issue for the leagues is getting fans to show up if play resumes without a vaccination for COVID-19.
According to a Seton Hall poll, 72% of 762 respondents said they would not attend games if leagues restarted before a vaccine is developed. Only 13% said they would feel safe attending; 12% said they would attend only if there was social distancing.
Either way, the forecast for pro sports is uncertain.
That seems to be the only guarantee for now.
“The virus itself is going to dictate to us whether or not we’re going to play, and that’s a tough pill to swallow,” Donaldson said, “because ultimately a lot of us have put in a lot of time, effort, energy into what we do.
“It’s not something that we want to hear, that we aren’t going to be able to play, but obviously this is very common way of thinking [that] there are way more important things than that to the grand scheme of people.”
Staff writers La Velle E. Neal III and Chris Hine contributed to this report.