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Leagues scramble to replace the roar of the crowd as pro sports return

Fenway without fans cussing in the stands? Get used to it. (Veronica Benavides/Unsplash/)

It’s going to be a good while before fans can pack the bleachers and seats at sporting events again. But as teams mount their summer comebacks in empty arenas and stadiums, some leagues have found alternative ways to keep viewers from suffering awkward silences during the action. Here’s what you can expect to hear when you tune into pro games, starting this week.

Soccer

Return date: Already back, but the quarterfinals starts July 30

While several European soccer clubs opted to blast pre-recorded cheers in stadiums and telecasts, Major League Soccer decided to skip the fake theatrics and lean hard on improved camera technology for faster tracking and more granular shots. The results have gotten positive reviews so far: Sports commentators and writers say they like the natural soundtrack of players yelling across the field and coaches shouting spittle on the sidelines. Some even chided Fox Sports for layering white noise and chants on top of the games. But hey, that’s one way for the network to avoid fines for profanities.

Baseball

Return date: July 23

One of the features that makes the video game MLB The Show 20 feel so darn realistic is the ambient noise. Now, the line’s about to become even blurrier as the league stadium engineers pipe in the same recordings during live games. ESPN reports that baseball teams will have access to 75 sound effects from the simulation to use throughout the system. They’ve already tested the effect during exhibition games, and there’s some question as to how well it will be picked up by TV and radio broadcasts. But combined with walk-up music and announcer chatter, the pre-recorded crowd sounds should make for a more typical baseball experience.

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Basketball

Return date: July 25 for WNBA; July 30 for NBA

The NBA may follow the same route as the MLB by lifting crowd sounds from its premiere video game series. Last month The Athletic reported that league officials were working out the specs with the creators of NBA2K. No further details have been released, but all of the games will be contained to the basketball pandemic “bubble” in Disney World in Florida, which makes the logistics slightly easier. The arena itself looks similar to a standard NBA court, sans benches, open scoring tables, and a typical stats box and replay-monitor setup. Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban also floated the idea of using apps to blast fan sounds from home, but again, audio aesthetics seems to be a low priority for getting the season off the ground, given the rash of COVID-19 cases among players in training camp. The WNBA, meanwhile, is also playing in a tight-knit “bubble” in central Florida and hasn’t been explicit about in-game aesthetics. Some social media users have joked that the broadcasts will sound like this:

Hockey

Return date: August 1

How much muffled mask yelling can NHL fans handle during the Stanley Cup qualifiers? So far, the league hasn’t shared any plans to stream crowd noises in its two arenas in Toronto and Edmonton, Canada. This might seem like a missed opportunity, given how rowdy hockey games can get, but viewers can still expect their favorite broadcasters to liven up the airwaves from well-distanced perches. New camera angles and the sweet sounds of slap shots—well, those will be a pandemic bonus.

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Football

Return date: September 10

Given that the NFL’s big return is still a ways out, the league has some time to see how the faux soundtracks perform for other sports before weighing its options. As of now, all 32 stadiums will host games through the season, and some are considering putting a limited number of fans in the seats. So, it looks like the decision of noise making will fall to each team, even the ones that can’t be trusted to spin quality tracks.

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