Pro Sports Without Fans: A Psychological Game Changer

IMG_1171.jpegA shot from the 7/30/2020 Bruins v. Blue Jackets exhibition game, held with almost no spectators.

As economies start to re-open in the wake of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, the landscape is shifting drastically for one of the businesses hit hardest by the virus: professional sports. Social-distancing efforts to curb the spread of COVID-19 means large venues, including stadiums and arenas, are almost entirely closed to fans. Though athletes will be returning to their positions on the field, ice, and court, their dynamic fans won’t be coming to cheer, presenting players with an unfamiliar mental obstacle on game day. Those used to the cheers and jeers of the big stage will be forced to adjust to echoing silence as they compete, and many are worried about the psychological impact the lack of present fans might have on performance. Popular sports lore holds that the relationship between the fans and the athletes is mutually beneficial; the valor of the players generates cheers from the crowd, and those cheers inspire further valor (3).

Without the present support of fans, home-field advantage may virtually be eliminated, and the energy during competition could plummet. Jonathan Fader, former team psychologist for the New York Mets, views energy deficiency as one of the biggest obstacles athletes will face as they return to peak performance under unfamiliar circumstances (2). Comparing the arena to the workplace, he states, “We all require community… If you were at a meeting with your co-workers and only one showed up, you’d have a different energy level.” Fans provide supplemental energy when athletes are approaching exhaustion, giving an extra shot of adrenaline to spark vitality. 

As a result, crowds have proven especially beneficial in events that go on long enough for athletes to become quite tired, producing an effect referred to as ‘social facilitation’ by sports psychologists (7). Carrie Wicks, a sports psychologist who works with a few MLB players said one of her clients recently told her, “the audience is the drug (2) .” She also mentions, “It’s not just competition. It’s a performance. 

Many athletes have a schtick that brings them to peak performance, and that is brought out by the audience (2). ” For instance, some long jumpers and pole vaulters will encourage rhythmic clapping from fans before their pass in order to psyche themselves up, “[using] the energy of the crowds to feed themselves and push themselves,” explains psychologist Kay Porter (7). In other words, the fans’ energy acts as the athletes’ fuel. The presence of fans also pushes athletes toward their ‘flow state’, leading some psychologists to wonder whether athletes can reach their peak performance without the ‘collective unconscious’ backing them. 

In the upcoming months, players will have to learn how to maintain sufficient energy without the natural activation the fanbase supplies. Ultimately it will come down to which athletes are able to successfully strive for meaning, purpose, fuel, and motivation from within themselves.

However, for other professional athletes, a lack of fans and the background noise these raucous onlookers bring with them, could possibly lead to heightened concentration among players in empty stadiums. Fans present a distraction as the competition rages, and without distraction, pro athletes may be able to tap into a deeper focus. Porter states, “accomplished players who are skilled at blocking out noise might not notice a difference at all, while less experienced players might find it easier to concentrate in an empty stadium, especially as the game progresses and the initial weirdness of the situation fades away.” This suggests that ultimately, though an empty venue may not benefit business, it may aid the performance of players, especially inexperienced ones (4). 

Those who are more prone to anxiety under the eyes of a watchful crowd might also benefit from the silence, relieved from the pressure of the physically looming audience. Behavioral scientist Aaron Jeckell believes that the current circumstances will differentiate the player with mental resilience from those who only possess mental toughness (5). The players who can integrate this novel environment into their performance are the ones who will prove mentally resilient. Some expect that the athletes who already devoted time to honing their mental skills pre-pandemic will have an advantage over other players as they head into the upcoming matches.

Typically associated with turnout from fans, ‘home-field advantage’ might also be nullified by the new coronavirus precautions being taken by professional sports leagues around the world. Brain Scalabrine, former NBA player and Celtics broadcaster for NBC Sports Boston, thinks that for players who are rattled by lively road environments or emboldened by the support at home, performance may shift, especially in high stakes games like the playoffs (6). He expects a re-evaluation of each team based on how they play without fans to ensue, implying there may be a dynamic change among teams within each league. 

However, economist and Yale professor of finance Tobias Moskowitz argues otherwise. He believes home-court advantage’s combination of familiar location and zealous crowds has less of an effect on the athletes’ performance, but more on the game-time decisions of referees (6). Under the desire to relieve social pressure as masses of fans toss targeted outbursts, the referee is goaded into viewing plays from the lens of the home team. However, with no fans berating officials, calls may change; home-field advantage will essentially disappear along with the removal of this variable, ultimately affecting the outcome of each game held in an empty stadium.

It is difficult to determine how the lack of turnout for professional sports will generally affect the athletes’ performance. Adjustment periods and performance levels will likely vary among individuals based on experience, mental flexibility, and other factors. As the NHL and MLB are holding games flanked by completely empty seats, questions as to how the organizations might move forward with their seasons are arising, and marketers are hastily refining their creative ideas on how to cultivate a stadium environment similar to the one before COVID-19! 




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