Live sports will return, but we won’t see fans in the stands anytime soon. That’s upsetting. As one sports journalist wrote, “spectators are necessary surrogates” who provide “adrenaline for the players,” while giving voice to the passions of viewers at home. But the absence of fans also highlights the inadequacy of the status quo. Fandom is too big for television to capture. Instead of striving to get back to normal, let’s use the “fan-less” stadium to imagine a future where everyone can be present at the game.

What does the crowd shot say about sports fandom?

When TV cameras pan the crowd at an indoor arena, or go to the blimp shot at a stadium, the broadcasters are acknowledging just how important fans and fandom are to both the athletes we root for as well as the games we love. But no matter how many fans attend live, that number is always a fraction of those watching at home. Quite simply, the vast majority of fans are “ghosts” who show up only as gross ratings points, digital media impressions and pay-per-view dollars.

This has enormous consequences in terms of how we think about fandom in sports. For broadcasters, athletes, and leagues, fans are reduced to a handful of telegenic memes. The shirtless guys in freezing weather who paint letters on their chests to spell out a rallying cry for their team. The screaming diehards decked out in wild costumes. A faceless sea of cheering fans waving colored towels. These representations are important, of course, but what, if anything, can they tell us about the ghosts cheering at home? Just as important, do the ghosts see themselves in these representations, or has invisibility become an unintended byproduct of television’s classic crowd shot?

The pandemic turns all fans into ghosts. That’s an opportunity to improve.

When baseball resumed in Taiwan, the Taoyuan Baseball stadium filled the stands with robot mannequins and cardboard cutouts. In the U.S., broadcasters and leagues are brainstorming ideas like pumping in crowd noise and putting mics on players and coaches. Seeing innovation is exciting, even if the ideas ultimately aren’t ready for prime time. But at a moment when all fans are ghosts, we should think about what we hope to achieve through innovation.

Do we want to focus on propping up a made-for-TV event that excludes the overwhelming majority of fans, or can we use this moment to innovate toward a new model that incorporates everyone, no matter where they’re watching? Broadcasters and sports leagues are certainly interested in the latter. Pleasing fans is the name of the game. But if we’re going to make the ghosts visible, we have to acknowledge that the pre-pandemic status quo never really saw the fans, nor did it make them feel seen.

We need to think about the ghosts with empathy, if we’re going to make the most of this opportunity to modernize the fan experience and transform it into something that’s both more inclusive and a better representation of reality. That empathy is abundant, but it’s also fleeting. Right now, everyone in sports, from the broadcasters, to the league executives, to the athletes, knows exactly how it feels to experience physical sports without wall-to-wall fandom. A year from now, that may be a distant memory. If we’re going to harness that empathy, we shouldn’t focus on making sports appear as if things are back to normal. Instead, we should prioritize ideas that speak to the ghosts that we’ve become in this moment.

Fandom is digital. Let’s bring the internet audience to the game.

When we watch sports at home, we express our fandom by gathering in the same physical space with friends, joining group SMS chats, and sharing on social media. These channels, while unseen by athletes and broadcasters, have their own language of comments, memes, GIFs and reaction videos. The question is how do we bring those internet audiences to the game?

One place to start is to rethink the crowd shot. Instead of the “fan cam” that’s dominated physical sports throughout the television era, screens inside the stadium could display images of fans rooting from home. In fact, one Danish soccer club already worked with Zoom to do just that. But there’s certainly more room for innovation when it comes to the “fan cam.” For example, OZ Sports and RVX Productions are working on a project that uses AR to bring fans into the stadium. A similar product from Vizrt also uses AR to fill the stands with fans, while giving audiences at home the option of listening to either the venue’s live audio feed, or a virtual audio feed of online fans cheering.

Speaking of hearing internet audiences roar, a Yamaha app called Remote Cheerer allows fans at home to make their cheers (and boos) heard at the game by tapping their devices. Meanwhile, a streaming service called FloSports takes it a step further by bringing at-home crowd noise to the venue and pairing that feature with a watch party function and player interaction tools. Along similar lines, Google has partnered with the National Women’s Soccer League to create virtual cheering sections using Google Meet. And my company’s platform powered a PGA Tour “multi-cast” on Twitter that allowed athletes and celebrities to create their own live, audio/video commentary of the event.

It’s great to see so many competitors, big and small, in the space. But the crowded field is also a reminder that the larger project of bringing internet fans to the game is roughly where television was in the 1950s in terms of bringing the game to fans at home. There are countless more innovations to discover. The more broadcasters and sports leagues experiment during the pandemic, the more they’ll have to offer fans in the future.

Mike Schabel is CEO of streaming platform company Kiswe.


How startups are scaling communication: The pandemic is making startups take a close look at ramping up their communication solutions. Learn how