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Bad Idea Time: Empty Stadium Solutions

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Boom goes the microphone

Photo by Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images. Banner Society Illustration.

In These Uncertain Times™, the best solutions to pandemic-adjacent problems have a set of elements in common. The first of these is common sense: It’s almost impossible for families and businesses and institutions to make even medium-term plans, so “whatever works” is doing some heavy lifting.

Take Notre Dame – a team not usually appearing in our common-sense data sets – up and joining the ACC. For 2020 only, they swear, and while that insistence may ring tacky, there’s a way to read it as pragmatism, even wisdom. Who on earth can reasonably claim the ability to look beyond 2020? The Fighting Irish put themselves on the stablest possible footing for the moment by just setting aside “BUT WE’VE ALWAYS” as any kind of argument for anything. I’m not saying there wasn’t any hand-wringing about how this jump and the return will ruin the flow of their Wikipedia page, but when it came down to it they went ahead and did the thing that made the most sense in the present. And if Notre Dame, the BUT WE’VE ALWAYS-est sporting enthusiasts in America, can swallow this pill, the rest of us should be able to toss it back lickety-split.

Another common element in 2020 lifehacking is carrots, in the metaphorical sense. “As a treat” is also shouldering more than its share of the load, in the name of getting to “whatever works” as smoothly as possible. I have devoutly rowdy nephews doing better in virtual school right now than they were in actual school last year, thanks entirely to the fact that they get to run around in the backyard for five minutes every time they complete an assignment, as a treat. Whatever works.

Everybody clear on the approach so far? Terrific. Now, let’s talk about all these empty stadiums.

The approach to seat-filling in the season of COVID-19 varies right now, from school to school and league to league. There are programs just placing a hard cap on headcounts in the stadium and calling it a day, programs limiting their audience to families of players, programs with ticket lotteries set up, programs giving students or donors preferential treatment.

For two weekends now, games have been played in front of audiences ranging from a few hundred into the low five figures, and the approaches to broadcasting these contests to a newly-captive home audience have been nearly as varied, with some venues shrugging and letting the vacant seats echo away and others piping in canned crowd noise to better simulate a “normal” Saturday.

And what do all these schools, us in the media, and you reading this all have in common? None of us have the first clue how long we’ll have to carry on like this. Impossible as it may seem to even attempt, some planning is in order, no?

Our sturdy pal, common sense, tells us the safest possible way to send fans to games is to limit crowds to skyboxes, but for a host of reasons, this really isn’t the year to fuck around and accidentally foment a capitalist revolution out of the college football crowd. (Unless it is. Just spitballing here!)

The next best method would be to place fans as far apart as possible within the stadium itself, using the natural barriers within the structure – in this case, aisles and handrails – to separate them. This will drastically limit the crowd size within even the largest football arenas, but it will also engender sky-high FOMO levels among the viewing public back home.

And here’s where those carrots come back in.

If you’ve been a college football fan for any substantial length of time, you’ve likely been exposed to ESPN’s megacasts, where the network runs big games on multiple channels that each cater to a different type of fan: homer announcers for each team, Spanish-language telecasts, groups of inactive coaches breaking down the plays live, and so on. If you’re a real diehard, you probably have experience creating your own multi-stream broadcast at home, watching your teams on muted television with your preferred announcers dialed up on the radio.

So we all see what the plan is here, right? Put one fan in each section of a stadium, dead center for maximum isolation from the surrounding sections. Split the number of available slots evenly between home and away teams.

And then give each fan a live microphone.

Don’t even tell me we can’t find 12 to 20 empty channels per football game that actually happens. Television networks are desperate for inventory right now, nearly as rabid as we at home are for entertainment. And just imagine the hometown heroes and hated-on local villains that might spring forth from a single football contest.