- Sports fixtures around the world are resuming after coronavirus lockdown – but without fans in the stadiums.
- An app trialled in Japan allows smartphone users to cheer – or jeer – remotely during a match.
- Technology innovation in sport will take off following the pandemic, predicts the COO of the National Basketball Association (NBA) in the US.
When the first J-League match kicks off on 4 July, Japan’s top-flight soccer teams will be playing to empty stands. But viewers at home may still be able to cheer – or jeer – remotely.
In May, a new app which plays fans’ claps, cheers and chants out loud into the stadium was tested at the 50,000-seat Shizuoka Stadium Ecopa – one of the biggest in the country.
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Developed by musical instrument makers Yamaha, the ‘Remote Cheerer powered by SoundUD’ app was connected to 58 speakers around the stadium to try to recreate the atmosphere of a normal match.
During the trial match between J-League clubs Shimizu S-Pulse and Júbilo Iwata, users in various remote locations sent cheers, applause, jeers and club chants into the stadium via their smartphones.
Fans could also choose the part of the stadium to which their audio was delivered, allowing them to support players after a goal, as if they were in the stands behind it.
“The shouts of the fans are an essential element of the match atmosphere,” said Junpei Takaki, from the sales division of soccer club S-Pulse.
“As a former professional football player myself, I know how emboldening the support of the fans is to players on the field. S-Pulse is eager to continue to make the most of the club’s resources in order to assist with the development of this system.”
The system could also be used when Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) begins its postponed season on 19 June, also without fans present.
When Germany’s top soccer league, the Bundesliga, resumed matches on 16 May, the lack of crowd noise meant you could hear the goal hitting the net and the conversations of players.
Engineers added “carpet audio” from earlier matches to give viewers at home a more realistic experience, dropping in roars after goals.
“This was the only idea that we thought could be most respectful to the fans,” Alessandro Reitano, vice president of sports production for Sky Deutschland, told AP.
“To be honest, it’s a major success.”
Sport goes hi-tech
The tech transformation of sport doesn’t stop there. As Japan’s 5G network is developed, it could enable a more immersive experience for fans.
With multiple cameras installed in stadiums, virtual reality video technology could allow spectators at home to control how they watch a match.
It’s something the SoftBank Hawks, the reigning champions of the NPB, are considering introducing at their Fukuoka PayPay Dome, according to Kyodo News.
“Our challenge is how to connect with fans without having spectators,” a SoftBank spokesperson told the news agency. “We want people in remote areas to experience realistic images by making use of state-of-the-art technology.”
When the US National Basketball Association (NBA) restarts its postponed season in late July in empty basketball courts, similar technologies could boost the home viewer experience.
Coronavirus has permanently changed the relationship between sport and technology, according to NBA deputy commissioner and COO Mark Tatum.
“There’s no doubt that technology has been incorporated into the sports viewing experience forever, whether that be broadcasting games in virtual reality, or 3D, and all kinds of different technologies,” he said in a recent interview with the World Economic Forum.
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As countries seek to recover, some of the more long-term economic, business, environmental, societal and technological challenges and opportunities are just beginning to become visible.
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“Coming out of this, we are continuing to explore unique and innovative ways to present our game… We are thinking about how we could use technology and innovation to create engagement between the fans who are watching at home and the in-arena experience.”
Why fans matter
Besides the huge economic benefits of fans paying to watch games live, having supporters in the stands actually helps the home team, according to a recent study from Reading University in the United Kingdom.
Researchers compared European football matches played behind closed doors and those with fans attending, and found there was less of a home advantage without supporters. Home teams won 36% of matches played in empty stadiums, compared with 46% when fans were present.
On 17 June, the UK’s premier league football season resumes, when Aston Villa take on Sheffield United behind closed doors. But it remains to be seen how the lack of fans in the stadium will impact the game.