Is soccer still soccer without fans?

What is soccer without fans?

It’s a ridiculous question on the surface.  After all, soccer is a game played with a ball and a large patch of grass. And you don’t really need a ball or grass.  Just something that can be kicked and a place to kick it. 

I suppose, on a different level, soccer is a game with rules.  Even when not being played, soccer is an idea.  At its very basic level, you of course do not need fans or spectators for soccer to exist.  So in a sense, with or without us, soccer is soccer.

But I really want to ask something different.  In most of the “academic” literature on soccer, the point is made and re-made that fans are fundamental to the game.  Soccer is understood by everyone as having fans and fan culture as a fundamental element. Now, with COVID keeping us all away from the pitch while our teams play, numerous sports writers are making observations about what a difference fans make.  I have yet to watch a game when one of the commentators hasn’t mentioned how different the outcome might be if the home crowd was making its normal noise.  We all believe that soccer needs fans and, more, that fans make a difference.

In early July, the New York Times carried out a study of the results in the Bundesliga when games were played in front of empty stands.  There was a discernible and quantifiable difference in outcomes without a home crowd.  Indeed, home teams’ victory percentages dropped by 10 points after the restart.  That is, before the pandemic, with fans, home teams won 43 percent of their home games, compared to just 33 percent with an empty stadium.  Furthermore, there was a drop of about 0.31 goals per game by the home team.  To push things even further, home goalkeepers had a worse save percentage without their fans while away goalies performed better without the fans pulling against them. 

A handful of fans returned to Nissan Stadium on Saturday for the first time since the pandemic began. Photo by Casey Gower (Broadway Sports)

It was a fascinating study, going so far as to see that players even passed more often rather than go for big plays without their fans around.  It was a study that gave me comfort. I’m the type of fan that wants to believe that I am indeed part of the mix, that the crowd indeed acts as a metaphorical 12th player, meaning the game starts with the other team a player down.

That said, and I almost hate to disclose this (I certainly hated reading it), a further study, carried out by researchers at the University of Reading, found far less support for the necessity of fans for home field advantage.  This more comprehensive study suggested that while home field advantage dropped, it only did so a little. Moreover, as players got accustomed to the lack of fans and lack of noise, the home field advantage seemed to reestablish itself.  In short, once the weirdness of playing in empty stadiums dissipated, the team playing in their home stadium simply felt more comfortable, more in control.  While some aspects of home field advantage do require crowds (referees appear to be overtly or unconsciously persuaded to adjust stoppage time to the home team’s advantage by some period of time), for the most part, it goes away over time.

I’m a little given to mystical thinking, I grant you.  But I also believe in stats, so it makes me weirdly sad to think that perhaps we are not as important to the outcome of a game.  Perhaps our noise, our rituals, our superstitions don’t have the effect or influence that I believe—or hope—that they do.  Surely, we are important in terms of revenue, but there is no romance in that (I hear my friend Davey reminding me that it’s a business, after all, not a fantasy). 

So, is soccer really the same thing without fans?  Even if the outcome of the games would be exactly the same without the fans, I still think the answer is no.  Soccer is not soccer without us.

The fans–especially the supporter groups–are a part of the show, a part of the experience.  We can carry on for awhile by watching on our televisions, by hiding in our living rooms, but I don’t see that working forever.  Even if it did, it would be a different game.  The experience would be so different that it would map differently as an ontology of sports; it would be a very different type of being, one that is poorer for the lack of our irrational emotions, our untamed passion, our focused support. 

What is soccer without fans?  It’s a different, poorer version of itself.  Fans make Nashville SC and every other team something different than it would be on its own. They make it better.

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