Most major sporting events for the majority of the past 12 months went on without fans in attendance. And guess what? It was just fine. I hardly noticed.
Well, I did at one point. Just thinking about the early days of the NBA playoffs in the bubble still makes me clam up. “Where are the dads on the dance cam embarrassing their kids?” I asked myself aloud in my living room. I now realize that statement indicates that I may have been losing my mind last summer.
Gone are the days of Boston Celtics head coach Brad Stevens goading the crowd into a frenzy before finally bringing the 7’5” Tacko Fall into the game. Gone are the days of West Ham fans chanting “It’s happening again” to Tottenham fans at the new White Hart Lane in the final minutes of yet another win over their despised London rivals.
But after the initial shock subsided, fans, including myself, adjusted to the new normal.
Allow me to rephrase — I succumbed to a stupor.
I stopped following college football as closely as I had in the past. Premier League games came and went without incident. I hardly took notice when Devin Booker hit a fadeaway game-winner against the Los Angeles Clippers in the bubble.
By no means had I lost interest in sports. Would a man who has lost interest scroll through Twitter comments under nearly every ESPN tweet? Would he follow the recruitment of nearly every high school football player Cal has offered? No. Although, it might suggest something entirely different about myself.
But something was missing. And I knew that what was missing was fans in the stands. But I refused to admit that the absence of fans was affecting my enjoyment of sports.
And I don’t just mean about the fan noise or the energy provided by the crowd. I’m talking about the vital importance of seeing fans on the same TV screen as the players — mere mortals next to demigods.
I realized that what is missing is the contrast between two-time NBA MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo on the court and Alicia, a 47-year-old insurance agent from Milwaukee, Wisconsin sitting in the stands. It often feels as if professional athletes at the very top of their game are not playing in stadiums and gyms hundreds of miles away, but on another planet altogether — one where the normal lives of sports fans mean nothing.
That distance between the fan and the player is what has driven avid sports fans up the wall. When Dennis from Seattle watches his Seahawks play at a packed Lumen Field from his couch on a Monday night, he feels like this professional football universe is true and happening in real time. It’s not some hallucination he’s having after downing one too many and accidentally hitting his head on the door jamb on a trip to his garage minifridge.
In short, the lie that every sports fan tells himself about his favorite team, even if subconsciously — “They are playing for me. They want to win for us.” — was proven to be false with every fan-less game. Without fans in the stands, it became painfully clear that the professional athlete is not necessarily spurred on by our chants; he will play hard and get paid no matter what.
That is the magic we, as fans, have gone without. Sure, we can still cheer when our favorite teams win and use sports as an escape. We can and do still allow close games to transport us to new worlds where all that matters is hitting game-tying free throws.
But sports are not magical for their ability to remove us from reality for a few hours at a time. They’re magical because they are not so far removed from reality. Sports are not meant to operate in their own separate worlds — nothing really is.
So I anxiously await the day when fans are allowed to crowd the stands and shout at the top of their lungs. But until then, I’ll hold fast to the days when sports were real.
William Cooke covers men’s soccer and is a deputy sports editor. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.