On April 29 of the 2015 season, the Baltimore Orioles and Chicago White Sox made Major League Baseball (MLB) history: As protests following the death of Freddie Gray turned violent, the Orioles decided to play their home game with an empty stadium.
At the time, the eerie feeling at Camden Yards was merely considered to be a random blip on the Orioles’ schedule. Five years later, having no fans in the seats has become the new normal.
As MLB teams rush through an abbreviated season, players have had to quickly adapt to find a way to replace the thousands of screaming fans who are stuck watching from their couch.
“[Creating energy has] been a big thing here in our clubhouse,” Chicago Cubs shortstop Javier Baez said to the Chicago Sun-Times. “You know, we’re having more fun than anything,”
This renewed energy has worked well for the Cubs, not only for their team chemistry, but in the standings as well. The Cubs are 21-14 and have created the largest lead of any MLB division leader, ahead of the second-place St. Louis Cardinals.
The Cleveland Indians have also had success with empty stadiums. The Indians are tied for the lead in the AL Central with a 22-14 record.
“We’re grown men playing a little kid’s game,” said Indians pitcher Aaron Civale in a press conference. “At the end of the day, that’s kind of the approach we’ve been taking. Everyone’s just out there having fun with clear heads going to the plate, clear heads in the field, clear heads on the mound. That’s fun to be around. It’s fun to be in there.”
This type of environment is an adjustment for MLB players, but not new to baseball. “Honestly, it makes it feel like college,” Cubs star Kris Bryant said in a press conference. Indians catcher Roberto Perez agrees. “It probably looks like a high school baseball game,” he said to reporters.
But aside from enhanced team chemistry and a more enjoyable ballpark atmosphere, this player-generated energy and noise has had other consequences. Without the cheering of fans, practically every insult and chant said from the dugout can be heard by both teams, which makes for a chippy season.
In one heated game between the Cubs and their rival, the Milwaukee Brewers, the MLB increased the artificial crowd noise in order to drown out the trash talking and dugout chirping.
“Without any fans, you could hear every word from the dugout,” said Brewers pitcher Corbin Burnes. “[The insults] built up from the first pitch. Those things normally are unheard.”
The Brewers and Cubs narrowly avoided a bench-clearing incident (the last thing the MLB wants in the era of COVID-19), but some teams haven’t shown the same restraint. Tempers ran high around the Houston Astros, who controversially avoided punishment for a cheating scandal that led to a World Series victory.
This tension exploded when Astros hitting coach Alex Cintron chirped at Oakland Athletics outfielder Ramon Laureano, and, according to Laureano in a press conference, “[he] said in Spanish something you don’t say about my mother.” Laureano charged at Cintron, inciting a brawl that definitely didn’t uphold social distancing guidelines.
Laureano was suspended for four games, and Cintron, who was held to a higher standard as a coach, will be out for 20 games.
Animosity towards the Astros was high even before the COVID-19 pandemic, but there is no doubt the acoustics of the empty stadium played a role in starting the brawl. Laureano likely would never have heard anything from the Astros dugout if there had been typical crowd noise.
Five years after the Orioles and White Sox did not allow fans in response to social unrest, MLB players have used the absence of fans as an opportunity to minimize distractions. Numerous teams have made previously unprecedented statements in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. Twenty MLB teams decided to boycott their games on Aug. 26, postponing them in protest of the shooting of Jacob Blake.
“If we can change one person’s mind, have a conversation that changes one person’s thought process — saves a life — this was worth it for us,” Astros outfielder Michael Brantley told reporters.
Would MLB players have had the opportunity to conduct these protests if it meant stranding thousands of fans in a stadium without a game to watch?
The National Basketball Association (NBA), on the other hand, took a different route in their return to play. In March, NBA teams banned fans from their stadiums when the COVID-19 virus started spreading rapidly. The NBA then had a tough decision to make: oend the 2019-2020 season prematurely or come up with a COVID-free solution so that a champion could be crowned. They decided to create an isolated NBA campus at Disney World, nicknamed “the bubble.” The NBA strictly limited who could enter and exit the campus, with daily testing and social distancing protocols. Fans were not be permitted to attend games in person, but could still do so virtually via web-conferencing. Fans appear on screens behind the court and crowd noise is pumped in over the arena speakers. Without live fans, people across the NBA world wondered how the season would progress.
When the NBA season restarted, gameplay was noticeably lacking in quality. Players missed open shots, were clumsy with the ball and seemed to lack chemistry with their teammates. This was to be expected, however, as they hadn’t seen game action in over four months. Some hadn’t had access to a gym since March. As the regular season began to wrap up, though, players started to find their groove.
Certain players have shown significant improvement in the bubble. After being able to take time off to train and improve in all facets of the game, some players have transformed into superstars. Shooting guard Devin Booker led the Phoenix Suns to a 7-0 record in the bubble, elevating his game dramatically. Booker averaged 31.0 points, 6.1 assists and 4.6 rebounds per game. T.J. Warren of the Indiana Pacers transformed from a role player into an All-Star caliber one, boosting his scoring average from 18.7 to 31 points per game. Donovan Mitchell of the Utah Jazz and Jamal Murray of the Denver Nuggets also elevated their play, making NBA history with both players having two 50-point games in a seven-game series.
There are, of course, some downsides to the bubble. For one, it completely removes all home court advantage from NBA competition. This is a big loss for the higher-seeded playoff teams, who benefit greatly from playing the first two games of every series at home. However, beyond the lack of fan energy and player motivation, every team stands to gain while playing in the bubble. Teams no longer have to take multiple-hour flights for games, stay in different hotels and travel around to different facilities across the U.S. and Canada. Playing inside the bubble also limits the possibility of athletes getting distracted by their social lives: Players can only spend time with each other and with team personnel.
Due to a global pandemic, fans were forced to live with no sports for months. Now, sports have returned, with leagues employing different strategies as to how to play safely. Playing with no fans has certainly changed many aspects of the sports we love, but at their core they remain the same.