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A Whole New Ball Game

If the NBA takes the court again this season, it will be without any fans in the seats. How will the lack of crowd noise affect players and the way the games are broadcast? 

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

On the morning of March 11, just hours before a positive test result would upend the NBA season and alter the course of the entire country, Warriors president and COO Rick Welts made a trip across town, up the steps, and through the rotunda to the office of San Francisco Mayor London Breed. Inscribed in the stone above his path: “San Francisco, O glorious city of our hearts that hast been tried and not found wanting, go thou with like spirit to make the future thine.”

The growing pandemic had other ideas. At that time, the Bay Area was more than a month removed from its first confirmed case of COVID-19 and beginning to institute dramatic counteractive measures. Welts arranged to meet with the mayor to better understand what that meant for the Warriors. A half-hour later, Welts left City Hall with clearance to continue hosting games at the Chase Center, so long as there were no fans in attendance. Shortly after, Mayor Breed announced a citywide ban on all gatherings of more than 1,000 people.

This was a monumental decision, though not entirely unexpected. The Warriors had been on alert since before neighboring Santa Clara County—home to the 49ers and the San Jose Sharks—had instituted a similar ban two days prior, giving the organization roughly a week to consider options and make arrangements. (Helpful in stretching that lead time: One Warriors executive is focused specifically on local politics and public policy.) Changes were made to the way the building was sanitized, but the spread of the virus had outpaced those preventive measures.

“The biggest problem we were having in the two or three games before this happened was people stealing the Purell out of the restrooms, because it was already starting to be a commodity in short supply,” Welts said.

During his more than four decades in team and league operations, Welts—who created the NBA’s All-Star Weekend and helped launch the WNBA—had seen everything but this. The Warriors would make history when they hosted the Nets on March 12 in an empty arena. To prepare the players, Welts joined Steve Kerr and general manager Bob Myers in addressing the team after practice. When told there would be no fans allowed for their upcoming game, the players fell silent.

“I think everybody is just trying to soak it all in,” Kerr said afterward. “This whole thing has happened pretty quickly and over the last couple weeks, just the severity of it, the enormity of it. So when we addressed our players today, this morning in the locker room, it was more everybody was just sort of trying to take it all in, trying to process it.”

The quiet held. Stephen Curry was the first to speak up.

“Does that mean,” Curry asked, “we can have our own playlist?”

Game ops were officially in motion. The rest of the day was spent deconstructing the NBA game experience. Was it necessary to announce the starting lineups? Maybe not, but the Warriors staff decided to go through their standard pomp for the sake of the local broadcast. Was there any reason to use the video board in an empty arena? At the risk of overkill, it was decided that those giant displays would be on for the game, albeit showing game information only. “DE-FENSE!” was dead. Long live “DE-FENSE!” Public address would be distilled to flavorless announcement. Shooting foul on no. 10, Dragan Bender, his second. With no crowd to play to, all prompts and activities were thrown out, and the Warriors dance team and other entertainment groups would be shelved for the time being. Music would continue during breaks in play, curated by Curry and his teammates. Someone on staff even suggested pumping in recorded audio of a crowd.

“Adding crowd noise is considered to be malpractice,” Welts said. “Would it actually kind of feel better if we had some sort of reaction that we could add to the game? I’m skeptical of that, but I don’t know.”

Behind all of this is a philosophical question: Should a team cater its game experience to an empty building? Or make every effort to treat its next, clearly unusual game as somehow normal?

The best chance the NBA has of completing the 2019-20 season floats on a bubble: a contained, carefully formulated space intended to reduce the rate of infection to a functional minimum. Maintaining that bubble—excuse me, campus—would require the league to safely house and feed thousands of people. It would demand its own healthcare apparatus, hinging on the ability to administer tens of thousands of tests. There would be no way to mount a potential playoff without stockpiles of the same equipment needed around the world: a trove of masks, for starters, and a reservoir of hand sanitizer. Preventing the spread of the virus in that setting would call for its own rule of law and, perhaps most improbably, some means of enforcement over the comings and goings of millionaire athletes. All in the name of a game, and the hundreds of millions of dollars at stake.

The incentives, at this point, should be clear. Less so is the product itself. No one knows exactly what the next NBA game will look like. Not the league, not its teams, and not the superstars lobbying to resume play. Sports are traditionally a kind of comfort food—closer to a multicam sitcom than prestige TV. But the world is changing in the shadow of a crisis, and dragging even our simplest pleasures along with it. The next NBA game we see will be unlike any we’ve seen before.

Our closest point of comparison is a game that never happened.

The Warriors didn’t get the chance to play against the Nets in the hollowed Chase Center. But for the better part of March 11, the organization planned as if it would. Putting on a game is a delicate business, in part because what happens on the court can be altered by the way a game is staged. Golden State’s stars know this all too well. In 2017, the Warriors stopped through Madison Square Garden for a game against the Knicks, their fourth in a five-game road trip. When they took the court for warmups, they were met by an eerie absence. An explanation was on the video board: “The first half of today’s game will be presented without music, video, or in-game entertainment so you can enjoy the game in its purest form.” Response from the participants in that game was overwhelmingly negative.

“It felt like church,” Kerr said—ironic considering MSG had muted its trademark organ. Curry wasn’t a fan. Multiple Knicks spoke to how the lack of music and presentation sapped the energy from the game. Draymond Green was, unsurprisingly, the most vocal critic. “That was pathetic,” he said. “It was ridiculous. It changed the flow of the game. It changed everything.” There’s more to his complaints than just Draymond being Draymond. A 2012 study published in the International Review of Sport and Exercise Psychology supports the notion that upbeat music has real physiological and psychological benefits during high-intensity exercise. (Exhibit A: Long-distance runner Haile Gebrselassie famously, and hilariously, attributed his Olympic success to “Scatman.”)

“All this stuff makes a difference in the game, believe it or not,” Green said. “You get rhythm. That’s why, say, if a guy go in and work out at night, you turn on music. It just helps you get into a certain area. It takes you to a certain place.” If that’s true, then changing a noticeable element of a game’s presentation can take an athlete to a different place entirely. NBA players are ruled by habit—insistent on taking a particular seat, eating a specific brand of peanut butter, or hitting a precise number of shots (342, in the case of Ringer staffer J.J. Redick) before completing their workout. To take music away from a game is to disrupt their routine, and thus their accustomed state of being.

“The music, the fans, it’s all part of it,” said Kelenna Azubuike, Warriors player turned color commentator. “It’s all part of helping you mentally realize that this is different. You’re here to perform and this is the event.” The presentation is a signal. If the NBA is able to make its bubble dreams a reality, then real, meaningful games could have the ambiance of a scrimmage. Yet if the league dials up the presentation by playing music or crowd noise, they risk drawing even more attention to the one unavoidable absence. Playing a game with all the production but no fans is the NBA’s uncanny valley—just close enough to the real thing to be a little bit unsettling.

“You don’t really think about it or focus on it when you’re playing when it’s there and everything is normal,” Azubuike said. “But when something’s missing, it’s definitely noticeable and it almost can throw off your mood as a player, just your intensity level. It’s just different.”

It’s easy to see why a team in the KBO, South Korea’s active baseball league, has been using a Sgt. Pepper’s gallery of cutout “fans” to fill the space behind home plate; or why a Taiwanese team, the Rakuten Monkeys, opted for creepy robotic mannequins. (Filling the stands with sex dolls, on the other hand, might be going too far. Or, if that’s what you’re into, maybe not far enough?) All it takes to throw off an athlete is a single flicker—a realization, for a pitcher in his windup or a shooter in midair, that something in their sight line is off. Basketball, at its core, is about making your opponent think. Coaches draw up elaborate offenses in the hope that an opposing defender might pause for a split second. That’s all it takes. And the stranger the environment, the more likely that a player will slip out of their rhythm. The context around a game will seep into the game itself, in ways even the best basketball players in the world aren’t accustomed to.

“What is the word ‘sport’ without ‘fan’?” LeBron James asked on the Road Trippin’ podcast in March. “There’s no excitement. There’s no crying. There’s no joy. There’s no back-and-forth. ... That’s what also brings out the competitive side of the players, to know that you’re going on the road in a hostile environment and yes, you’re playing against that opponent in front of you, but you really want to kick the fans’ ass too.” Four years ago, the Long Island Nets—Brooklyn’s G League affiliate—played a season of fanless matinees at the Barclays Center as a result of scheduling complications. “It was as awkward as you can imagine,” former Long Island forward Lazar Hayward told ESPN. “Maybe even a little more.”

Managing that awkwardness is now the charge of professional athletes around the world. In Taiwan, the Super Basketball League offered a glimpse of competition without the foil or encouragement of a crowd—an early trial of the bubble concept. “When I get a dunk, you want to scream, but you can’t,” said Charles Garcia, a Seattle University product who played in quarantined games for the Fubon Braves. “It’s pointless.”

In the two months that the NBA has been on hiatus, there has been no American sporting event larger than UFC 249—an 11-fight card held in an empty 15,000-seat arena. One of the victors in that event, former NFL player Greg Hardy, credited his win specifically to the fact that he could hear the advice of a television analyst. “Thank god for not having the crowd,” Hardy said. We could be two months away from ESPN’s Jeff Van Gundy inadvertently making one of the biggest coaching adjustments of the NBA playoffs.

“Well, here’s one scenario that I’ve thought about,” said Mike Breen, the preeminent play-by-play voice of the NBA. “If Jeff and Mark [Jackson] are bemoaning a lack of hustle or talking about how somebody didn’t cover on the weak side defensively, and getting annoyed because they’re not putting toward the proper effort on that end of the floor, is somebody gonna get mad? Or if they question a coaching move, can the coach across the court hear them doing it? There are a lot of dynamics like that that could come into play if there’s no music and we’re just there.”

There seem to be two distinct possibilities for the near future of the NBA broadcast. The safest option would have crews call the game from the safety of a remote studio, far outside the NBA bubble. To effectively work from that disconnect, commentators would need to overcome a fundamental imbalance. “It’s hard to summon the proper energy and the proper excitement when you’re in a sterile studio,” Breen said. “It’s not an easy thing to do. You really have to manufacture that.” The only time Breen has actually had to call a game off a monitor was when helping to audition new analysts—a simulation of what was already artificial. Soon it could be the crux of his job.

The alternative is to put broadcasters in the arena for some of the most bizarre basketball in league history—just as the Warriors had intended to do for their game on March 12. While the organization prepared to host an unprecedented event, the broadcast machinery around the team pivoted accordingly.

“After we found out, your mind starts drifting toward what can we do differently,” said Phil Pollicino, who produces the Warriors’ game broadcast for NBC Sports Bay Area. Plans were made to bring cameras typically stationed higher up in the arena down closer to the floor, some 10 feet away from the action. But even if all the equipment had remained in place, a game without fans would force a change in perspective. “How do you build up those commercial breaks where there’s no shots of the fans chest-bumping?” Curry asked during a recent podcast appearance. “It’s like a 2K simulation. You’ve just gotta have fun with it at that point, and try any gimmick to make it [work].” In practice, this brings viewers in closer to the action. Instead of a slow pan across a cheering crowd, the camera would find players and coaches in honest moments. There would be nothing to show but the interpersonal dynamics of the game itself: a superstar lobbying an official, a pair of teammates sorting out their coverage, or a coach in a moment of bare, unchecked fury.

There would also be nothing to hear but the authentic soundtrack of NBA basketball—”the game in its purest form,” as it were, only with more motherfuckers. “It would be raw,” Curry told Jimmy Kimmel last week. “Everybody has those mics on their jerseys sometimes, when they play the Inside Trax or whatever. This would take it a whole ‘nother level of just pure insanity of what we say on the court. That trash talk that happens, even myself taking part in it. But I think everybody, whether you’re on the court, on the bench, all the nonsense—that might be something that’s really appealing from a fan perspective to get real up close and personal with what we do on the court.”

Whether you consider that a feature or a bug likely depends on your concern with FCC compliance. For the Warriors’ planned broadcast, one crew member’s sole responsibility was to sit with a finger on the delay button, waiting for the next f-bomb. According to Pollicino, the league office had also intended to warn the players involved in the game of just how far their voices may carry.

Even with those edges sanded down, a broadcast from an empty arena would bring out elements of the game that go largely unheard. There is an instructive power in showing just how much coordination is required to maintain a professional-level defense. There is endless fascination in the ways that players and officials attempt to manage one another. “I think it will be almost comical, the communication with referees,” Sixers coach Brett Brown said on a media conference call. “And the back-and-forth with players and refs. I mean, think about that. So much of it, really, is drowned in 20,000 people.”

When the Warriors moved from Oracle Arena to the Chase Center, the team’s broadcasters were bumped from a courtside setup to the top of the lower bowl. Without fans to accommodate, however, they would again be able to call games courtside—and for the first time, within earshot. “That would have been pretty interesting,” said Azubuike, who calls Warriors games alongside longtime play-by-play man Bob Fitzgerald. “Almost like we were watching a practice, but then we were interrupting somehow because we keep yelling.”

The broadcast team also planned for a stretch during the broadcast when Fitzgerald and Azubuike would drop their commentary entirely—playing into the heightened reality of the moment. Over the years, audiences have gotten the occasional glimpse of this approach by way of technical difficulty:

Yet even cases like this are backdropped by the hum of a crowd. Those at home on March 12 would have had the chance to hear the unplugged NBA experience as it had never existed before. If it played well on TV, Pollicino said, the broadcast might have stuck with that approach for as long as a quarter. If it didn’t, they could always fall back on the familiarity of a two-person booth. The NBA broadcast is finely honed, iterated thousands of times every season. Experimentation, however, is now a requirement.

There was no use in pretending that Kerith Burke, who reports courtside as part of the Warriors broadcast, could do her job normally. To manage on-camera interviews, the broadcast team made new arrangements: a spot off the court where a player would sit on a stool wearing a headset, while Burke stood 10 feet away, conducting the interview through her microphone. “We were trying to actually figure out how we could shoot that,” Pollicino said. “Should we show the distance between them just because it’s so different? Or should we put them in a two-box to make it look like a somewhat normal interview?”

The broadcast team toyed with the idea of having Burke do a hit from high in the upper bowl, putting the game’s unique circumstances in full view. The scene would have been striking: NBA basketball vacuum-sealed in a shiny, new arena, cast against a sea of empty seats. It seemed the only way to meet this extraordinary moment was to meet it as it was. “Around noon on Wednesday after practice, we thought things were getting wild, but we were making a plan,” Burke said in an email. “About six hours later, it fell apart.”

The future of the NBA broadcast experience is tethered to hypotheticals—starting with a rough outline of makeshift gyms, big enough to sustain the gravity of a playoff but small enough so as to not swallow the action whole. There may never be a better time for innovation in the way basketball is presented. “People will give us permission to try things in an environment like that,” Welts said of a resumed season. “How we could do a television broadcast could be very different than what people are used to seeing.” There is nothing left to stand in the way of creativity—not even the inertia of the way that games used to be presented. Planning for the NBA’s return is a logistical nightmare with heavy stakes. Figuring out how to broadcast whatever games result is a puzzle box by comparison.

“There’s part of me that hopes that we’re there for a number of reasons,” Breen said. “But one of them is to see how to make it work.”

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