As players return to empty arenas, they are discovering a basic truth: Live sports is an act of social imagination.
by DANNY CHAU
This past weekend, the most resonant sound in the world of sports, heard by hundreds of millions of people, was a rattle: the soft, metallic clinking of a soccer ball ricocheting off the back of a goal net at Westfalenstadion in Dortmund, Germany. It was the first live goal the Bundesliga, the highest level of soccer competition in Germany, had seen in more than two months, gently shepherded in by the 19-year-old Borussia Dortmund star Erling Haaland in a match against FC Schalke 04. The two teams share a deep-seated rivalry dating back nearly a century, and the Bundesliga is renowned for its fan support, with the highest average stadium attendance in the world. What would have once been an inconspicuous sound lost amid a monolithic roar from one of the sport’s great fan bases instantly became a historic artifact of this present moment.
Geisterspiele,or “ghost games,”has been the nomenclature adopted to describe the fan-less matches held as the Bundesliga resumed its 2019–20 season, 66 days after it was suspended due to the spread of COVID-19. The name feels apt in more ways than one. Ghost game eerily describes the auditory experience of watching a Bundesliga match now, both at home and at the arena. “There’s no noise,” the Dortmund coach, Lucien Favre, said after the match. “You create a chance, you play a top pass, a goal and … nothing. It’s very, very weird.” Instead, the stadium amplifies only the shouts of the players on the pitch, stretched and homogenized by endless layers of echo. Geisterspiele as a termcaptures the sense that the communion kindled by live sports in a past life cannot fully exist in this one. Westfalenstadion is built to house 81,365 fervent fans; on Saturday, there were 213 authorized attendees.
What the Bundesliga match shows is the extent to which sports is a dance of social imagination—with many partners. Michael T. Stuart, a researcher who investigates the philosophy of imagination at the University of Geneva, told me, “Cheering and playing hard are expressions of the same social imagining. Without the cheering, the team lacks evidence that the fans are imagining the same thing they are, and the power of the collective imagining goes down. Without the fans being there to imagine with them, and the other team to imagine the opposite outcome, it’s not a real game.”The power of collective imagining can manifest physically. Professional wrestlers performing during the stay-at-home orders have noted that the hits and bumps they weather over the course of a match sting a bit more without the shot of adrenaline that a huge crowd can create.
As elite athletes, whose bodies and minds are steeled by repetition and regimen, return from quarantine to their professional craft, their training will include adapting to a new psychological reality. For those accustomed to playing in packed arenas, the absence of spectators is a big hurdle to overcome. “There’s a reason why people say fans play such an integral role in the process of the game,” Luke Weaver, the Arizona Diamondbacks pitcher, told USA Today. “When you don’t have fans and that atmosphere, it becomes flat. And it becomes a lot of forced energy and a lot of moments you are trying to create instead of [fans] creating it for you.”
Getting used to ghost games may be harder for athletes than for their fans. Broadcast media of all kinds have taught listeners and viewers to appreciate the game from afar. But the professional athlete has routines and rituals built around the energizing presence of crowds. Recently restored leagues such as Taiwan’s Chinese Professional Baseball League, the Korea Baseball Organization in South Korea, and the German Bundesliga have offered early glimpses of newfangled coping mechanisms, from “imagination training” for players to cardboard cutouts with the likeness of ticket holders lining the stands. The pandemic is occasioning a reassessment of the fundamental importance of fandom to sports. Live crowds aren’t just a by-product of athletic excellence; they’re also a context that helps to shape it.
“I still think, like, having a game without fans is just—what is the word sport without fan?” LeBron James said in March, before the NBA’s suspended season presaged a national shutdown. “There’s no excitement. There’s no crying. There’s no joy. There’s no back-and-forth … I just don’t know how we can imagine a sporting event without fans. It’s just, it’s a weird dynamic.”…