It was a taunt, dressed as a suggestion, that gave a football fan an idea whose time he didn’t know had come. “Why don’t you put your photo in the stadium?” was the innocuous jab from the wife of a German club Borussia Moenchengladbach’s die-hard supporter, who sat sulking at home during the lockdown, moaning about missing the electric match-day atmosphere on the terraces. But he followed his wife’s advice and many others followed him. The idea caught on and this led to 18,000 cutouts of fans in the stand for Borussia Moenchengladbach’s opening game as the German league restarted behind closed doors. In spirit, and cardboard, the loyalists were reminding their heroes that they were not playing alone. Not just in Germany, cutouts and mannequins are occupying prime seats of sporting arenas in Belarus, Taiwan and South Korea.
More innovations are coming up as sports organisers and broadcasters are thinking of ways to a create a “stadium atmosphere” while following the COVID-19 forced social distancing norms. Dummies and posters will soon sound quaint when compared to the dystopia being planned. Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality companies are being roped in to fill the stands without the fans. Broadcasters are looking to add simulated masses to the stadiums, and according to Fox Sports, fake crowd noise and virtual fans are “pretty much a done deal”. The players will surely miss the chants from the stands but will learn to with the silence around them. Besides, elite athletes have often reminded the world how they like to be “in the zone”, impervious to the audience.
But Basketball legend Michael Jordan Jordan was known to talk back to the fans to ensure that the game never felt “like a business”. Imagine Rafael Nadal fist-pumping to an empty centre court or Sunil Gavaskar breaching the 10,000-run barrier without the minutes-long ovation at Motera. Cutouts and mannequins are literal placeholders and virtual marketing gimmicks. Broadcasters will be happy to ditch both the second sports fans are allowed inside stadiums. Dummies are fine, but they are no substitute for the real thing.
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