I wasn’t particularly jazzed for Opening Day following Juan Soto’s positive COVID-19 test and Mookie Betts signing an extension every Boston beat writer insisted he would never take. But one thing did pique my interest: MLB’s decision to pump in crowd noise.
If you know me, you know that I’m a big professional wrestling fan. And if you’re an astute watcher of your TV Guide you’ll know that wrestling has been the only thing remotely sports-related that has continued pumping out new content during the pandemic. Crowds are absolutely vital to professional wrestling. It’s difficult to explain, but a hot crowd can make a good match great while a dead crowd can turn a good match into a mediocre one. Promotions have responded to this in various, creative ways, but the ones that have put fans in the crowd have generally received more favorable responses than those that haven’t.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, there’s UFC. I’m not sure what other MMA organizations are doing, but UFC has been running critically acclaimed shows during the pandemic in empty arenas. The crowd is missed, but it doesn’t impact the enjoyment of the fights nowhere near as much. It gives the product an edge. You can hear the fighter’s corners yelling advice and the sound of every punch and kick. It’s not optimal, but it can work.
MLB saw what we all took to be a binary choice and carved its own path by creating ghost fans, an abomination that serves no purpose other than to remind viewers that they’re not allowed in the park. The idea is sound on its surface: Bring life to a game that would be dead in comparison to previous years.
But the problem is that the phantom crowd noise does the opposite. We can’t be tricked into thinking people are there. Every game you turn to, you’ll see a swath of empty seats. This isn’t a stage production like wrestling where you can take the lights off the crowd and hide empty sections. It’s a fully lit park with some photographers and the occasional mascot and sideline reporter meandering around the stands. It’s inauthentic and accomplishes nothing but reminding the viewer what’s going on in the same way that someone telling you you’re breathing makes you conscious of it, even if only for a second. Most of the time, the fan buzzing will be background noise, but as soon as Nathan Eovaldi catches Chris Davis with a high cutter for a strikeout and the crowd doesn’t rise up, the illusion comes crashing down and your suspension of disbelief with it.
Baseball is not wrestling. A crowd is not vital to the enjoyment of the game. Much like UFC, they’re more supplemental. To be fair, as I alluded to earlier there is logic behind the idea. Everything is more exciting with fans! But the glaring problem that MLB seemingly cannot see or chooses to ignore is that it’s not noise the fans make that brings character to the game, it’s the fans themselves. You can’t duplicate the atmosphere they create and any attempt to do so comes off like something out of a Verhoeven movie. MLB would be much better off taking a page out of UFC’s playbook and present a raw, unfiltered product while acknowledging the situation we’re in. If they’re so concerned about a dead product, they should direct their focus to more consistently mic’ing up players as they’ve done in spring training and as they did with Jackie Bradley Jr. on Opening Night. .