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Sex dolls, audience cutouts, piped noise: new normal for sports

Gayatri Vinayak
·5-min read
(Photo by - / AFP) (Photo by -/AFP via Getty Images)
(Photo by - / AFP) (Photo by -/AFP via Getty Images)

When cricket boards were mulling restarting the game, back in May, India cricket captain Virat Kohli had said that with games possibly being played to empty stadiums in a post-COVID world, while it may not have any bearing on the intensity of the players, the magic may be missing.

Cut to Indian Premier League 2020, and, as the game goes on into its second month, while the same level of enthusiasm may remain for the game, conspicuous in its absence are the audience reactions, the cheers of excitement and boos and the general cacophony that create the experience that marks the game.

A large reason for what makes IPL and similar spectator sports as popular as they are are the crowd reactions - the hoots and taunts, roaring cheers, or collective disappointed sighs, the placards and random fans who streak through the field and the cheerleaders.

These noises and visuals, combined with the pulsating commentary and game, keep even those viewing the match at home, or in a sports bar, with the rhythm of the game.

With spectator sports being played amidst the pandemic and fears of the virus, organisations and leagues have had to make major changes to ensure that the games are played out in safe environments.

Hence, sporting organisations across the board have been looking to recreate some of the lost magic in the matches. We take a look at how they have tried to manage and the responses they have got:

Mannequins and sex dolls

Back in May, when FC Korea became the first major football league to hold a match since the start of the pandemic, their aim was to make the stands look at little less empty. They did this by inserting mannequins on various seats around the stadium. However, little did they anticipate the soup they would get themselves into.

Social media users commented on how the mannequins resembled sex dolls. As a tweet pointed out, what added on was the fact that several dolls were dressed in attire which had branding from an adult-themed manufacturer and some of the dolls were even holding up signs with the names of sex-toys.

FC Seoul apologised for the mix-up, stating that while the intention was to do something light-hearted in these difficult times, they had received assurance from the supplier that the dolls were not intended for sexual use.

“We will think hard about what we need to do to ensure that something like this never happens again,” they said in a statement.

Canned applause

Football, especially the Bundesliga, is known for its raucous fans, chants and roars. With the games being played behind closed doors when matches resumed in May after a two-month coronavirus-forced break, most sporting broadcasters added canned applause and crowd noises to boost the environment and give a feel of a crowded arena.

While some leagues have piped fake crowd noise into the stadiums, itself, others have left it to the broadcasters to add. America’s National Football League has been doing a mix of both, with those in the stadium hearing fake cheer noises, and those at home hearing the broadcaster’s fake noise feed.

The NFL had laid out a set of rules in terms of how noise can be used, including how music can be played out, and has set a maximum decibel level for music and other audio prompts at 75 dBs. The League also provided clubs with an audio file that contained a loop of pre-recorded crowd noise that is specific to a stadium.

To get a more authentic feel, the NFL used sounds endemic at each of the stadiums that host the teams and created sound modules based on these. The sounds were taken from a large sound bank that the NFL has from various venues over the last seven years.

Similarly, U.S Open sponsor and media partner, IBM used Artificial Intelligence (AI) to create the ambient noise in the arena during the matches.

Reactions from fans have been mixed, though, while some find the sounds jarring, others have welcomed the attempt at creating an atmosphere.

Audience cutouts and virtual fans

LOS ANGELES, CA - SEPTEMBER 01: An Major League Baseball authenticator puts stickers on the cutouts at Dodger Stadium Sep. 1, 2020, in Los Angeles. (Photo by Kyusung Gong/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - SEPTEMBER 01: An Major League Baseball authenticator puts stickers on the cutouts at Dodger Stadium Sep. 1, 2020, in Los Angeles. (Photo by Kyusung Gong/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

No audience? We will take care of it. Major league baseball (MLB) tried to bring their games as close to the audience as possible by offering the chance for fans to have their faces put on cardboard stands and placed strategically on seats that are visible to the TV cameras.

Fans could purchase their cutouts and decide on their preferred seat. Fans have been paying up to $150 get a chance to have their faces on the stands.

Fox Star went a step ahead by inserting virtual fans in the stadium using augmented reality graphics, rendered real-time for viewers of the baseball game on Fox Sports.

IPL, on the other hand, has virtual cheerleaders who appear from the electronic boundary boards to cheer whenever a boundary or six was hit.

It also has fan walls or LED walls, mounted in the stadium, including the commentary box, where around 96 chosen fans from across the world would get to be a part of the match on the walls.

The virtual cheerleaders did not go down really well with many fans, with a Twitter user commenting that even cheerleaders were working from home, nowadays!