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Should teams use artificial crowd noise?

In addition to fake fans, teams are experimenting with fake sounds

There is the sudden silence of the crowd

above a player not moving on the field

Billy Collins — “Silence”

★ ★ ★

“Our goal is to make it as realistic as we can,” said Kent Krosbakken, Rockies senior director of in-game entertainment and broadcasting. Making games “realistic” can’t be easy in a season that finds teams playing in empty stadiums while a pandemic ravages the country. Still, it’s a worthy goal, trying to give fans a sense of normalcy during a time that is anything but normal.

In addition to filling empty seats with cardboard cutouts and, in some broadcasts, virtual fans, sound is key to the experience of being a fan. This is true for fans in the stadium as well as those watching on television or listening on the radio. Usually, ballpark personnel have, well, relied on fans to provide the noise. Right now, that’s not possible.

In an attempt to generate a live-sounding experience, Krosbakken told Erin Powell, MLB provided teams with iPads preloaded with 12 tracks of crowd audio from MLB The Show 20. The selections include everything from “crowd murmur” and “small cheer” to “medium cheer” and “large cheer.” (No “boo” track was included.)

The staff, then, have to figure out what works at their ballpark. When the Rockies played the Rangers at Globe Life Field, the audio was unremarkable — or maybe I wasn’t playing attention as I tried to absorb the surreal experience of a new ballpark without fans (save some Doppel Rangers). The Athletics, however, caught my attention — and not in a good way — with a relentless crowd drone that sounded like an airplane endlessly circling the stadium.

“There’s not a rulebook,” Krosbakken said. “But there [are] expectations that you’re going to follow along to a game like a crowd would normally react.”

When describing his philosophy of crowd noise, Krosbakken said:

I think it’s a little bit eerie just hearing an empty stadium, so I like that we’re going to have some noise in there. Just makes it feel a little more natural even though nothing’s natural about this. I feel like it’s going to bring some energy to the players on the field and hopefully energy throughout the broadcast for the fans at home. We’re going to do everything we can. We’re not just going to play the crowd noise. We’re going to play the music like we normally play it, the handclaps in between pitches. We’ll play player pump-up videos throughout the game to help give the Rockies that home-field advantage.

But is it working, and should teams even try?

MLB The Show 20 and 1940s laugh tracks

Crowd noise matters at games. It’s how fans express themselves and communicate with players. Noise can also sway the energy of the game and allow fans to feel like they are part of the team. It’s an act of community.

In terms of broadcasts, there are two primary reasons broadcasts benefit from crowd noise. First, there’s the practical need to drown out profanity given FCC rules. Baseball players get caught up in the moment and, well, words are spoken.

Case in point: The Rockie who yelled a “Fuck yeah!” that was picked up by a field mic and made the broadcast when Ryan McMahon hit a homer in the third game of the Padres series. Listen carefully:

Second, sports need crowd sounds to provide context for the action. When the crowd roars, presumably, something good has happened (e.g., Trevor Story has hit a home run), and when a crowd groans or boos, the news probably isn’t good (e.g., Wade Davis is closing again). Think of it as a collective expression of fandom.

But there’s artifice to it as well.

In a history of the laugh track, Matt Schimkowitz explains the development of the laugh track in the 1940s to fictionalize an at-home theater experience. Before the widespread adoption of radio and then television, performance was communal, experienced with others. If you wanted to go to a game or a movie, you had to leave your house to participate. There were no other options.

Radio and television made that experience individualized. You could watch a performance at home by yourself. Companies selling radios and televisions didn’t want their audience to feel isolated, so programs began adding recordings of an audience that simulated the experience of being surrounded by others. The first laugh tracks were pieced together by engineers and added to the backgrounds of programs to make the viewer feel they were sharing the experience, not sitting at home. The laugh track also prompted the audience to experience a particular emotional response. (Laugh tracks became less pervasive in the 90s with the beginnings of self-conscious Prestige TV.)

A laugh track, like the crowd noises in MLB The Show, and now in MLB stadiums, attempts to enable you to pretend that you are existing in a reality that is not actually the reality you are experiencing — in this case, a global pandemic that has led to the loss of much we had taken for granted, including baseball.

Ultimately, though, those crowd sounds are no more real than the cardboard cutouts of former Rockies propped behind home plate.

MLB: San Diego Padres at Colorado Rockies Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Baseball in the time of pandemic

The need for escape is real as is the desire for normalcy. But what I found while watching the Friday night game in which the Rockies lost to the Padres (in spectacular fashion) was that it didn’t work for me. In fact, the attempt to create a Before Times “normal” was so self aware that it took me out of the game.

Here’s Charlie Blackmon walking to the plate while The Outfield’s “Your Love” plays. The staff has spliced in the crowd singing “TONIIIIIGHT!”

Most folks on Twitter loved it; while I appreciated the thought, I found it a bitter reminder of the fact that no one was at Coors Field. Throughout the game, the use of crowd noise was uneven, and by the time Wade Davis made his way to the mound to close, with the Rockies leading 5-4, the noise had all but disappeared.

I could hear the sounds of baseball, the ball hitting the glove, the foul balls clanging against the seats, and players urging on their teammates and taunting the other side. As the Rockies blew their lead, the lack of crowd noise was palpable. There was nothing but the sounds of the game.

When Davis left the game, he did so in silence, except for the Padres’ celebrations, walking back to his teammates in the dugout. It was a moment made more stark through the absence of boos from fans.

Think about silence in sports. It usually happens at moments of injury. Say, David Dahl falls in center field, grabbing his ankle, and the air is overwhelmed with a terrible silence as fans wait to see what will happen. The moment defies words, demands respect. Fans remain silent and uncertain.

Colorado Rockies vs San Franciisco Giants Photo by Andy Cross/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images

That moment is always followed by hopeful applause. But no one tries to hide what has happened with music or fake crowd noise because doing so would be dishonest.

Right now, at the moment in which we find ourselves, the game is enough. Cover the seats behind home plate. Let the sounds of the game and the players provide the only soundtrack. These are extraordinary times, and any attempt to downplay or normalize this experience is to devalue its worth. Rather, we should watch, unflinching, what is before us, appreciating both where we are now and thinking about ways to do better going forward.

(You can read my takes on cardboard cutouts here and here.)