Spokespeople for Madison Square Garden and the Knicks declined to discuss the genesis for the experiment, or comment further.
The professionalization of basketball has led to, among other things, an unusual convergence of sport and sound. More precisely, though, it is a convergence of basketball and broadcast technology. Broadcast television, in particular, has forever changed the game, such that even the smallest technical details shape people’s expectations about what a basketball game should be.
Technicians have come up with all kinds of workarounds to give TV viewers the sense of atmosphere at the actual game. One of the best, and simplest, is the addition of floor-level microphones aimed at capturing the sweet echo of a ball being dribbled down the court. Backboards are also outfitted with contact mics, to amplify bank shots and swishes. (Television networks have been strategic about their use of this technology. They want viewers at home to hear the ball, but not the trash talk among players.) Today, people take for granted these kinds of auditory enhancements—but they’re part of why revisiting classic basketball footage can make historic games seem even older than they actually are. (Also, those shorts.)
Then there are the ways that broadcasting bleeds back onto the court.
The rhythms of broadcast television are now built into the very game, most famously in the form of TV timeouts—those mandatory breaks in play so that viewers watching a televised game don’t miss any action during commercials. TV timeouts have changed coaching strategies, and changed the way basketball fans experience the game in-person, too. Major arenas have created new traditions around the necessity of these media pauses—features like kiss-cams, interactive guessing games, Jock Jams style music, and other team-specific rituals that are their own forms of broadcast.
People accept the game as it is now, because it’s what we are used to. But it wasn’t always so. In 1967, in the early days of TV timeouts, the crowd at an NFL game loudly booed in response to a television-prompted pause in play. The episode was described in newspaper accounts the next day.
Basketball games, too, were different back then. Listen to what a basketball game (a very, very exciting one) sounded like in 1962, for example:
If anything, the experiment at Madison Square Garden Sunday night was like a return to an earlier era of broadcast, when fans could listen to games on the radio, but before most games were televised. But the experiment also begs a deeper question: What is basketball in its purest form? Is the sport somehow more authentic when it is not broadcast, or when it is not being played professionally, or when there are no spectators at all? People often describe the purity of college hoops as something tied to the fact that the players are not paid. But there’s a strong argument that the lack of compensation for college players is instead what makes college basketball impure.