The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Cardboard ‘fans’ can’t replace the excitement crowds bring to sports

Games in empty stadiums are better than nothing, but a lot of the fun is missing.

The Chicago Cubs’ Yu Darvish pitches against the Miami Marlins during a Major League Baseball playoff game Friday at Wrigley Field. Missing from the stadium were the usual cheering fans and the sense of fun. (Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

I miss the crowds.

Not the crowds at grocery stores or restaurants or the traffic on the Capital Beltway. I mean sports crowds.

The coronavirus pandemic has forced almost all sports teams — basketball, baseball, tennis, you name it — to play games before nearly empty arenas. Some football games are being played in stadiums that are up to one-quarter full, but it’s not the same.

At first, there was something curiously different about seeing so many empty seats. For example, the Indianapolis 500 car race was held with no spectators. The race usually has more than 250,000 fans packed into Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.

It was almost funny to see how various sports teams tried to make everything look and sound normal at the games: such as cardboard cutout “fans” in the stands or crowd noise electronically piped into the stadiums.

Perhaps I’m getting tired of the pandemic and all the phony fans and crowd noise, but last week I tuned in to watch a Major League Baseball (MLB) playoff game between the Miami Marlins and the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field in Chicago, Illinois. It was a beautiful fall afternoon. The Cubs needed to beat the Marlins to stay in the MLB playoffs.

And the stands were empty. It was sad.

I’ve been to Wrigley Field, and it’s a special ballpark with ivy-covered brick walls tucked into a city neighborhood. Years ago, my son, Liam, phoned me from Chicago and said, “Dad, I am calling you from the happiest place on Earth . . . the bleachers at Wrigley Field!”

I think Liam got it right: happy. When we go to a sports event, we are going to have fun. What other place do so many people — sometimes more than 100,000 people — gather where they are so happy?

As a sports fan, I’ve been lucky. I’ve attended games for baseball’s World Series, soccer’s World Cup, hockey’s Stanley Cup playoffs and the National Basketball Association playoffs. I’ve gone to the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s basketball tournament, as well as countless other sports events. I was excited and happy at every game.

But I’m not sure I would have been as happy if I had been the only person watching the games. It’s the crowd, and being part of the crowd, that is such a big part of the excitement at any sports event.

It’s good that sports are shown on television. We need the games to distract us from the sad and scary things that are going on in the world. And we have to be careful during the pandemic to wear masks, wash our hands and, yes, avoid crowds.

But until we can walk into stadiums and arenas with thousands of other happy fans, we won’t really have our sports back.

Read more Score columns:

Baseball may have hit upon a good idea with seven-inning games

With a shorter MLB season, it could be a whole new ballgame

Patriots’ longtime super duo seek success apart