The waiting was unbearable for the day to come. Finally, after almost 100 days, the Aston Villa v. Sheffield United FC match took place on 17 June 2020 marking the day that the English Premier League ultimately continued, following the suspension that took place due to COVID-19 pandemic on 13 March 2020. The world was finally at peace.
June 17 also marked the initiation of the project “Restart” as it was called in the English Football Association. That entire operation was carefully planned and developed in much detail, anticipating the remaining 92 games from this season’s Premier League to take place by the end of July. In other words, during the 6-week span there would virtually be a match taking place almost every day.
English Premier League was not the first national football cup in Europe to continue after the abrupt suspension of all national leagues due to the corona epidemic. Germany’s Bundesliga resumed on 16 May, the Spanish La Liga continued on 8 June and Italy welcomed its first game after the break in mid-June. Nonetheless, the restart of the Premier League – the most popular and most watched football league in the world – was a crown evidence that football has returned.
It goes without saying that all the matches until the end of the season will be “behind closed doors” – excluding spectators from the stadium, as it is only reasonable to prohibit large gatherings of people in one place as one of the key preventive measures against the spread of the COVID-19 virus. This was particularly important in Great Britain that was hit very hard by the pandemic.
Having in mind that English football fans and other spectators would not be in a position to watch the games live, one can reasonably ask what the fuss is all about and who the games are for? The question is even more pertinent in the light of the fact that players who are used to audience cheers and the energy that motivates them to be at their best would have to play in front of empty seats. As reasonable and logical as these arguments are, the answer is not so complicated, to be honest.
Football has already become a global sport phenomenon, with the Premier League attracting the biggest number of followers in the world. To translate this into business lingo – there is too much money in the game for the investors to give up their profits. Earnings for clubs that appear in the Premier League from TV rights constitute almost 60% of their overall revenue. When coupled with the value of sponsorships of the biggest global corporations that are proportional to the global visibility of their brands on the football jerseys and stadiums the calculation seems logical. In turn, this has also brought the biggest number of top players to Premier League clubs as these pay the highest salaries and premiums, which only drives the value of the entire business model up.
Today the Premier League is financially more valuable than Spanish La Liga and Italian Serie A combined, with over USD 4 billion payable in taxes to the budget of Great Britain on an annual level.
The EPL has become a world-renowned business venture due to the fact that this national sport league competition has turned into a unique global media platform that has hundreds of millions loyal followers around the planet. This fact alone enabled the League to come up with a viable solution for the problem and play “behind closed doors”. Therefore the solution had to adjust to the needs of the TV audience as it is the biggest and most essential target group of the venture.
Now it goes like this. Watching from the comfort of your sofa, you turn on the TV and as you follow a match you also enjoy the crowds cheering and fans screaming. It feels as if they are there, at the game, a wonderful amalgamation of variety. When the goal opportunity is near you will hear the excitement growing, the applause, the sound and the fury that follows. And when the opportunity is missed, you will hear the breath of disappointment and the semi-enthusiastic applause from the “all right, never mind, let’s try this again” repertoire. It feels as if the spectators are actually at the stadium.
Some clubs went a step further and over the empty seats threw the printed posters of the audience so as to appear as if the stadium is full. Everybody knows that the audience is fake – from the guy who had to position the prints to everyone watching at home – but no one is complaining as all those details, no matter how artificial they are, evoke a feeling that this is the real game, adding a false sense of normalcy to the event. You might even think at the very beginning “hold on, the sound and images of the audience are fake, no one is watching at the stadium” but you will soon forget about it and enjoy the match. In the end, you want to have the audio-visual experience that will reflect the real event. Being a fan of football myself and an avid watcher of the Premier League I echo this sentiment from personal experience.
The effects of creating this experience are not just for the audience, though. A consideration of players’ needs was also taken into account. All the cheers you hear while watching the game, the players can hear too. The entire mood you get on the TV is the one that players get in real time at the stadium. They also feel a bit better and lighter, encouraged to play a better game. Had it been different, they would approach every game, even a derby match, like this is nothing more than just regular training so you can never expect them to play with full capacity and passion. It is obvious that the players will need some time to adjust to the new setting, but it is only a matter of time before they do.
The pace of getting adjusted to the new circumstances will pretty much depend on the design of the sitting area of the stadium and sound control. The roles of the stadium designers and sound engineers will now be promoted to essential functions in football club management. It is to be expected that with every new game, their expertise will grow and once coupled with new tech and some AI program that will integrate electronic visual imagery of the audience while being able to recognize different situations in the game to adjust virtual audience reactions and create sounds in real time will make the experience better every time.
The fact that things are already progressing in this direction can be inferred from the following example. In June 2020, when the Premier League assumed the matches, Japanese tech giant Yamaha launched a new app for phones called Remote Cheerer. The app connects the users to the audio system at the stadium where the sport event is taking place and is being broadcasted live. The app contains different options that one can choose from – from applauding, whistling, chanting all other forms of cheering, allowing active participation in the event. App users can even pick a seat in the stadium from which their virtual cheers would echo across the place.
If we are still wondering how TV audiences and players will adjust to new circumstances, we shouldn’t worry for the advertiser. They are already winning. We could already see that on some stadiums empty sitting areas were completely covered by giant billboards with branding and advertisements. It almost seems like they are using the space in a rational manner – why waste resources, right? Imagine what happens when smart technology enters the game allowing different target groups watching the match to be profiled and segmented thanks to their user profiles and thus instead of the general, universal ads start seeing personalized ones.
We can make indefinite assumptions, guessing what is possible and what isn’t. But no need for that tight now, it seems we understand each other just fine.
It is still unknown when, but at a certain point people will return to stadiums. There will be no need for artificial recorded cheers to be played over speakers. Let’s hope this happens sooner, rather than later. But even when that happens, let’s not forget what we have seen in the present context and what we are going through now. It doesn’t matter if you are a star player in one of the Premier League clubs, a devoted fan of one the clubs regularly watching the games live, or one of a hundred million followers around the world watching the live broadcasts of the EPL games – embrace this rare privilege. What we are seeing right now is a glimpse into the future that was enabled by a set of circumstances beyond our control.
This test is just a new example of a transformation of another real-life segment into a virtual one. Watching the football match behind closed doors, with artificial images of the audience on screens and pre-recorded sounds of their cheering at the stadium has almost equated the game of football with a video game.
In any event, after this experience if something similar is to happen again, the world will be ready. It is highly unlikely that in that case we will wait for 100 days for our fav cup to continue. The question is whether we would even notice the next time that something is different when real switches to virtual.