While private group sports activities have largely been impossible due to the closures of sporting grounds and gyms for the containment of the virus, organized sports had the privilege to ‘restart’ after a short hiatus.
Game days inside the stadium now look different for players and fans: The German Bundesliga was one of the first professional sporting leagues to return to schedule in May 2020 with the significant change that games now had to be ‘ghost games’ (Geisterspiele): matches without any spectators in the stadium.
For players this means playing outside their normal competition routine in practice-like conditions without the encouragement and immediate feedback loop of their supporters. They also face more scrutiny and criticism for their actions on the pitch, as regulations about socially distanced celebrations and recent controversies surrounding (racist) insults have shown. The loss of home field advantage to the stadium as a neutral zone, has already led to a downturn of success rates. From the beginning, players have acknowledged the absence of their supporters and shown their appreciation by, for example, cheering towards the empty stands during goal celebrations.
The introduction of ‘ghost games’ hit sports fans particularly hard, especially in Europe. There, this practice has long been established as a sanctioning measure to punish clubs and fans for what sport associations feel is inappropriate behavior regarding fireworks, chants, or conflicts. Fans, however, remain an integral part of the complete sports event inside the stadium. To still support their favorite teams, fans around the world in different sports came up with creative ideas to be present in the stadium either as cardboard cut-outs, with banners, or – very topical – on screens for zoom calls. Some of these contributions were heartfelt fan testaments to their clubs, some hit the nerve of popular culture, while others were rather controversial with a stadium in Taiwan placing sex dolls in the stands and cardboard cut-outs of Hitler and Bin Laden appearing in Australia and England, respectively.
As with many other aspects related to sports and fan culture, as well as the creativity script itself, fan initiatives were also frequently faked by sports organizations and broadcasters. While the absence of fans from the stadium makes little financial difference to (most) sports organizations, what does make a difference are broadcasting funds. Sports have become global, multi-media broadcasting events that would look and sound “flat” without spectators in the stadium. Therefore, many broadcasters have artificially added fan noises and songs to compensate for empty stadiums.
The increasing professionalization and commercialization of sports as a commodity more and more leads to a decoupling from fans in the stands. Sports for the masses frequently derived from urban working-class culture and stadiums became meeting points, melting pots, and places of dialogue and negotiation for all of society. While everyone involved sticks to the script of ‘[sports] without fans is nothing’, some feel that it suffices to replace fans with sounds and sex dolls for an ‘authentic experience’. With the limits on proper stadium participation “amputating a fan’s soul,” it remains to be seen if and when there is a return from this “new abnormal.”