Athletes During the Pandemic Are Learning What Fans Have Always Known

As players return to empty arenas, they are discovering a basic truth: Live sports is an act of social imagination.

Adeshola Makinde

This past weekend, the most resonant sound in the world of sports, heard by hundreds of millions of people, was a rattle: the soft, metallic clinking of a soccer ball ricocheting off the back of a goal net at Westfalenstadion in Dortmund, Germany. It was the first live goal the Bundesliga, the highest level of soccer competition in Germany, had seen in more than two months, gently shepherded in by the 19-year-old Borussia Dortmund star Erling Haaland in a match against FC Schalke 04. The two teams share a deep-seated rivalry dating back nearly a century, and the Bundesliga is renowned for its fan support, with the highest average stadium attendance in the world. What would have once been an inconspicuous sound lost amid a monolithic roar from one of the sport’s great fan bases instantly became a historic artifact of this present moment.

Geisterspiele, or “ghost games,” has been the nomenclature adopted to describe the fan-less matches held as the Bundesliga resumed its 2019–20 season, 66 days after it was suspended due to the spread of COVID-19. The name feels apt in more ways than one. Ghost game eerily describes the auditory experience of watching a Bundesliga match now, both at home and at the arena. “There’s no noise,” the Dortmund coach, Lucien Favre, said after the match. “You create a chance, you play a top pass, a goal and … nothing. It’s very, very weird.” Instead, the stadium amplifies only the shouts of the players on the pitch, stretched and homogenized by endless layers of echo. Geisterspiele as a term captures the sense that the communion kindled by live sports in a past life cannot fully exist in this one. Westfalenstadion is built to house 81,365 fervent fans; on Saturday, there were 213 authorized attendees.

What the Bundesliga match shows is the extent to which sports is a dance of social imagination—with many partners. Michael T. Stuart, a researcher who investigates the philosophy of imagination at the University of Geneva, told me, “Cheering and playing hard are expressions of the same social imagining. Without the cheering, the team lacks evidence that the fans are imagining the same thing they are, and the power of the collective imagining goes down. Without the fans being there to imagine with them, and the other team to imagine the opposite outcome, it’s not a real game.” The power of collective imagining can manifest physically. Professional wrestlers performing during the stay-at-home orders have noted that the hits and bumps they weather over the course of a match sting a bit more without the shot of adrenaline that a huge crowd can create.

As elite athletes, whose bodies and minds are steeled by repetition and regimen, return from quarantine to their professional craft, their training will include adapting to a new psychological reality. For those accustomed to playing in packed arenas, the absence of spectators is a big hurdle to overcome. “There’s a reason why people say fans play such an integral role in the process of the game,” Luke Weaver, the Arizona Diamondbacks pitcher, told USA Today. “When you don’t have fans and that atmosphere, it becomes flat. And it becomes a lot of forced energy and a lot of moments you are trying to create instead of [fans] creating it for you.”

Getting used to ghost games may be harder for athletes than for their fans. Broadcast media of all kinds have taught listeners and viewers to appreciate the game from afar. But the professional athlete has routines and rituals built around the energizing presence of crowds. Recently restored leagues such as Taiwan’s Chinese Professional Baseball League, the Korea Baseball Organization in South Korea, and the German Bundesliga have offered early glimpses of newfangled coping mechanisms, from “imagination training” for players to cardboard cutouts with the likeness of ticket holders lining the stands. The pandemic is occasioning a reassessment of the fundamental importance of fandom to sports. Live crowds aren’t just a by-product of athletic excellence; they’re also a context that helps to shape it.

Cutouts of fans, players, coaches, and staff of the Bundesliga club Borussia Mönchengladbach at Borussia-Park on April 28, 2020, in Germany

“I still think, like, having a game without fans is just—what is the word sport without fan?” LeBron James said in March, before the NBA’s suspended season presaged a national shutdown. “There’s no excitement. There’s no crying. There’s no joy. There’s no back-and-forth … I just don’t know how we can imagine a sporting event without fans. It’s just, it’s a weird dynamic.”

James’s sentiment gets to the heart of sports, which (even when played individually, like tennis or competitive swimming) is psychologically collaborative. Sports offer guidelines that allow humans to explore our physical potential, but the guidelines themselves do not mean anything. Meaning is generated in the space between the athlete and the spectator; meaning comes from the narratives that are born of witnessing the body do extraordinary things and having those actions validated and celebrated by others. The highest-caliber athletes might be self-motivated, but their drive is always in conversation with the expectations of those who watch them perform.

Uproarious fans in a stadium create a pressurized atmosphere designed to test the mettle and anxieties of an athlete. The most effective distractions assault the senses; arguably the biggest star of the 2010 FIFA World Cup was the vuvuzela, the South African horn that, in the hands of thousands of spectators, created an inescapable (and occasionally debilitating) wall of sound. But with enough preparation, that tension becomes just another fixture of the game environment, an expectation programmed into the unconscious mind. “It’s actually quite distracting to have that quiet an environment that doesn’t force you to focus,” Angus Mugford, the vice president of high performance for the Toronto Blue Jays, told me.

Empty seats at the Borussia-Park football stadium in Mönchengladbach, Germany, on April 16, 2020, amid the coronavirus pandemic

Of course, there is a very familiar scenario in which athletes perform without the benefit—or hindrance—of crowd noise: practice. Given that practice is inherently a simulation of potential in-game situations, it should provide a strong frame of reference for how to approach ghost games. But transposing one context to another won’t provide a perfect match, as early reactions are already showing. Players, fans, and team personnel who have described the ghost games as “weird” or “surreal” are reacting to that sense of incongruity, and to the uncanny valley that has formed in that in-between context.

As training facilities across North America begin opening their doors, athletes will have to build the emotional stakes of the game within those hollow practice environs, using their imagination to fill in the blanks. “I’ve actually been at practice where they pipe in noise to prepare for loud stadiums,” Taryn Morgan, the director of athletic and personal development at the IMG Academy, an elite prep school that also offers physical and mental training to college, professional, and Olympic athletes, told me. “So if I’m a team and I’m practicing, I would make sure it’s completely silent now.”

Morgan continued: “It’s going to be about who’s going to adapt the best. We always say: You want to have been there, done that, so many times before you ever are in the situation. So that you have thrown that winning touchdown in the Super Bowl thousands of times in your life before you ever try to do it. This is another opportunity to prepare [in that way] … Then when they get to the moment when they actually have to perform, it’s going to give them a much better shot to perform successfully. That would be a really weird thing, to walk into [a ghost game] with no preparation. I mean, I can’t imagine how empty it might feel.”

Sports leagues making plans to return are using the Bundesliga, the Korea Baseball Organization, and the Chinese Professional Baseball League as models for best practices. Mugford told me he’s been in contact with the KBO and other leagues to get a sense of how the logistics of hygiene and safety have been accounted for. “Not very sexy stuff at all,” he admitted. But the research helps to prepare the Blue Jays to act in accordance with the protocols that would allow games to resume, as outlined by the MLB—which have reportedly been documented in a detailed, 67-page (and counting) proposal. However, as the granular provisions and safeguards are hammered out to bring the games back, the reality of ghost games on the other side of that bureaucracy persists. In that relative silence—the game performed without in-person spectators—lies sports’ existential reckoning, and perhaps an answer to LeBron’s question. Can sports ever feel the way it used to without live crowds? Can athletes actually bring a stadium to life with their imagination?

“In theory, yes,” Michael Stuart said. While the sensory input from an empty gym will never reflect that of a raucous arena, a vivid, hyper-phantastic imagination can conjure fans and project a comforting image of support with at least some of the emotional resonance of the real thing. “There is a very well-known connection between imagination and emotion,” Stuart said. “And emotions are one of, if not the most important, motivator in the human psyche.” On Saturday, after their victory against Schalke, Dortmund players assembled in a row, staring at Westfalenstadion’s vacant south terrace—which, in another time, would have housed 25,000 screaming supporters—and, as they’ve always done, they applauded the efforts of what the soccer world has dubbed the Yellow Wall. It was a show of acknowledgment and appreciation for some of the biggest fans in sports, a ritual upheld even in a time of uncertainty. It was imagination at work.

That connection between imagination and emotion is a muscle that fans build their entire lives. And it reveals itself in different ways: as petty as engaging in greatest-of-all-time debates on Twitter, as sentimental as passing sports allegiances down to a loved one. Fandom is a sense of community held together by the power of collective imagination—the feeling of belonging to a greater whole, even if the individuals have no physical or spatial relation. Now, as ghost games temporarily unravel the live stakes of athletic performance, athletes will have to develop that muscle themselves, to bring sports back to the shared, ruminative landscape it has always been.