Empty stands, no fans.

A quiet so intense you can hear sounds you’ve never picked up during a game before.

Take your pick of major sporting events over the last few weeks. The Indy 500. The Kentucky Derby. The U.S. Open tennis tournament. Where there are normally fans, there are empty seats – and it’s not because of any boycott.

For the first time in recent memory, we are getting a chance to see sports take place without any home court advantage. Places where you expect roars of appreciation – or boos of disgust – instead there is silence.

It is both eery, and enlightening. In another life, I was a sports editor. I lost count of the number of high school basketball or football games I covered that turned ugly, either because the student sections were rude or because their parents were.

At the time, among sports writers, we always wondered if the fairest way to hold a contest would be to kick all the fans out and just let the kids play. Now, on a far grander and more extensive stage, we’re seeing exactly that happen because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In Flushing, N.Y., where many matches have hinged on players drawing support from exuberant fans, tennis players are instead playing for perhaps 10 people. That includes their coaches, the camera crews and the officials more often than not.

It is the same in the NBA, in Major League Baseball, and even in NFL and NCAA football, depending on the setting. In a world that seemingly relies on its fans to set a tone, there is suddenly no tone to be set.

The first time I watched an event with empty stands was the Indy 500, and it hit me like a punch in the gut when no fans rose to their feet after the national anthem. After the initial shock, though, I realized I enjoyed the event regardless. It was the competition that counted, not the fans.

As we delve into the fall and cooler weather, many questions have yet to be answered about the feasibility of crowds in the times of COVID-19. Already, loss of revenue  at the NCAA level has been catastrophic enough to see some institutions begin to cut programs.

That’s not my question, however. My question is: what can we learn about crowd behavior and its impact on competition in the absence of a crowd?

For years, sportswriters – and others – have wondered what it would be like to play a game without a crowd. In some sports, tragic incidents of fan excess have resulted in injuries and even death.

In the midst of so many other lessons we are learning amongst this pandemic, perhaps one of the unexpected educations can come from realizing the game can go on without fans.

And if that’s the case, maybe we can find a better place for our role within the game.

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