The Fan Factor


(Emily Stull)

By Samantha Nichols

Currently, no Tam sports teams are holding games, but when they do return, the uncertainty of this pandemic begs the question of whether spectators will be allowed. The patterns that have emerged in professional sports that are holding events without crowds may reflect how Tam athletics may differ without an audience.

As the sports world has slowly begun to reopen after shutting down to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus, one big component is still missing: fans. Although all professional athletes are dedicated to “the game,” spectators also play a large role in how players perform during sporting events, and can even influence the outcome. 

The physical aspect of sports is what makes them entertaining, but there is also a heavy mental element to any sport. In addition to being physically fit, athletes must be able to make split-second decisions and maintain complete focus even when there are distractions such as screaming fans, a rapidly blinking scoreboard, or intimidating opponents. This is known as the “mental game,” a significant part of which is confidence.

Confidence can determine how well a player performs and is influenced by both the player themself, but also the cheering (or jeering) crowd around them. In fact, 60 percent of NBA and NFL games are won by the home team. A study by Stockholm University also found that soccer referees have an unconscious bias in favor of the home team, and made fairer calls when fans weren’t present. 

At sports games, the crowd is mostly packed with fans from the home team, decked out in team colors, merchandise, face paint, and touting giant foam fingers. When the home team scores, the crowd erupts into cheers, which are much quieter than when the visiting team achieves a point. This atmosphere contributes to a sense of comfort and dependability for the home athletes, knowing that most of the fans in that stadium are invested in their success. 

It could be argued that one of the sports with the most prominent psychological aspect is tennis. Every aspect of the game is the responsibility of the player and no one else. Because tennis is a game where precision is so crucial, a minuscule mistake could make or break the match. But there is one outside factor in tennis and that is, you guessed it, the audience. 

One of the most famous and accomplished tennis players of all time, Serena Williams, has a strong fan base wherever she plays. Boasting the most hard-court open titles of any man or woman in tennis history, Williams’ long list of titles and records must be extremely intimidating to her opponents. But her loyal fans who cheer her on at every match could influence her game, something that became more apparent during the 2020 U.S. Open.

The US Open, one of the four Grand Slam tennis tournaments held every year, decided not to accept spectators at the event due to concerns about the coronavirus. This decision impacted the tournament in a profound way. Spectators from home witnessed the sport in its true form: no crowd, no noise, no distractions; essentially, there were no outside factors that could influence play. Just two athletes battling it out for the title. This is athleticism in its true form.

In the semifinals of this year’s unprecedented US Open, Williams went head-to-head with Victoria Azarenka, the two-time Grand Slam champion from Belarus who hadn’t reached a Grand Slam final in seven years. When compared to Williams’ extensive resume, Azarenka didn’t stand a chance. 

Under normal circumstances, Serena Williams dominates her opponents and comes roaring back even fiercer after losing a point, or even a game. But something stopped Williams from making a comeback that day, and Azarenka won the final two sets 6-3, 6-3 for the match.

There are many factors that contribute to the mental or physical defeat of an athlete during a game. For such a consistent player like Williams, a loss such as this is even rarer than that of the average pro athlete. But in this US Open, the only factor under abnormal conditions was the crowd, which was not there to lift Williams’ confidence and encourage her to fight her way back to victory. 

As spectators watching on TV from home, we often don’t notice the crowds at sporting events because they have become an integral part of the game. With the sudden absence of cheering fans packed into a stadium that seats 70,000 people, athletes have lost an aspect of their motivation to win. Some leagues have even incorporated fake crowd noises into empty stadiums to establish a sense of normalcy for players. Because athletes are unable to connect with fans in the stadium, the NFL has partnered with Microsoft to allow players to see fans’ reactions in real-time and even respond to them in a camera mounted on the stadium wall.

It’s difficult to predict what high school sports will look like when they start back up in the winter, but professional sports games have shown that whether athletes like it or not, spectators have become a crucial part of the sporting experience. As the emotional aspect of connecting with the crowd and sourcing motivation from their cheers has been taken away, it’s revealed a raw form of sports, unobstructed by cheering crowds, which has never been witnessed before in the history of professional athletics.