New experience awaits viewers

This Saturday will herald the highly-anticipated return of live rugby, but the broadcast will be without ‘canned crowd noise’ in what will be a unique experience for viewers, writes CRAIG LEWIS.

Indeed, sport played without authentic crowd noise will take some getting used to. In many other sporting codes, the return of live action has been widely accompanied by the novel concept of simulated crowd noises at empty stadiums, which has provided a surreal insight into the ‘new normal’ of the Covid-19 era.

In Germany, the return of the Bundesliga was welcomed, but one of the biggest talking points was the broadcast offering for TV viewers to choose between live sound from the empty stadiums or a soundtrack of recorded fan chants. Alessandro Reitano, vice-president of sports production at Sky Germany, explained that the goal of the Bundesliga’s ‘enhanced audio’ was to ‘forget a little bit that you’re seeing an empty stadium’. 

However, TV channels broadcasting the games internationally often picked a feed with fake noise, without offering their local viewers the choice.

When rugby league’s NRL also made its comeback in Australia, they opted for a ‘virtual crowd’ to accompany play rather than subject viewers to the eerie atmosphere created by empty stadiums.

Meanwhile, video games company EA Sports supplied similar crowd noise, drawn from its archive of recordings, for broadcasts of Spain’s La Liga and the English Premier League. The reaction from supporters and players was largely mixed, with the ebbs and flows of the noise attempting to closely simulate the intensity of the crowd to match the action in the game.

Yet, it was inevitably an experience vastly different and, well, ’fake’ compared to the real deal.

Of course, the absence of fans was particularly noticeable on the football front, where English Premier League matches are renowned for their capacity crowds of faithful fans, who spend most of the match in full voice. How players can possibly lift their performance in the absence of this atmosphere is another debate altogether.

How this translates to a rugby context is also an interesting question. Yes, there have been the usual jokes doing the rounds that poke fun at a team like the Bulls, for example, suggesting they’d be used to playing in front of empty stadiums after the recent decline in crowd numbers. But, on the more serious side, one has to wonder how compelling a clash can be when it’s played at a massive stadium devoid of any supporters.

Rugby is renowned for the crowd swell that accompanies the kick-off and the cheers that come with linebreaks, massive tackles or tries. 

It’s believed local broadcasting giant SuperSport was looking at all options and considered the option of simulated crowd noise, but understands this will not be the case when Saturday’s double-header between the Sharks and Vodacom Bulls, and Stormers and Lions, takes place.

Interestingly, though, next weekend’s Springbok showdown trials match is set boast a fresh twist or two, including mic’d-up players and match officials, in-match commentary from team commissioners and live tracking of performance data such as heart rate and speed.

Teams will assemble in Cape Town next week, with a SuperSport crew on hand to document the behind-the-scenes buildup. On Friday, team coaches Deon Davids and Mzwandile Stick will choose their team with their commissioner in a live alternating draw that itself has some dynamic variations. This will be broadcast on SuperSport from 6pm.

One way or another, though, a surreal experience awaits fans when action resumes.

After an extended lockdown with no South African rugby to enjoy, there is no doubt sport fans will welcome whatever they can get, but for players and supporters, a period of real adjustment to a new stadium experience will be required.

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