s football takes tentative steps into its new normal, the Bundesliga continues to lead. Germany’s cavernous stadiums being emptied of fans took some getting used to and there have been subtle changes to the actual football. Home advantage barely exists, there has been an increase in the rate of injuries and the ball stays in play for a higher proportion of the 90 minutes.
BT Sport audiences in the UK were treated to a further innovation over the weekend: the piped-in crowd noise that had been available in Germany and the US since the Bundesliga’s reboot in mid-May. Judging by a social-media straw poll, the reaction was largely positive. As enlightening as it has been to hear players and coaches barking at each other, the sound of the crowd, faked as it might be, added a warmly familiar ambience.
Those watching Borussia Dortmund’s 1-0 home defeat of Hertha Berlin were treated to the greatest hits of the Westfalenstadion’s Yellow Wall. The sound mixer, operating from Sky Germany’s studio in Munich, conducted a knowledgeable if partisan crowd.
As Dortmund’s Emre Can stepped from defence to clear up some first-half danger, he was the recipient of applause, and when Hertha’s defender Dedryck Boyata appeared to have handled in the penalty area, the “fans” bayed for VAR before booing when the claim was denied by the officials.
For the viewer, there was the comforting embrace of context. Watching a behind-closed-doors game requires an extra level of concentration. The ebbs and flows of crowd noises can tell the viewer when they need to be paying closer attention. During Dortmund’s first game back, their 4-0 defeat of Schalke, the most audible sound in the Westfalenstadion was the throb of the electrics required to power a stadium built to hold 81,000 people. The Hertha game, though it produced a far less satisfactory performance from Dortmund, felt a superior viewing experience.
The return of the Premier League will see a similar service offered for viewers of the remaining 92 matches. For those interested in which of James Milner or Jordan Henderson does more talking or how much invective Chris Wilder launches at his Sheffield United players, there will be the option to hear the sound as it’s heard in the stadium.
Otherwise, there’s the option of a sound mix produced in an outside-broadcast truck or from a TV studio gallery if a game is ‘off-tube’ because health and safety measures mean it must be covered remotely. The broadcasters have league-approved use of a system that means audio can be weighted in favour of the home team to try to give a more “authentic” feel.
Sky, showing 64 matches, promises “a range of bespoke and team-specific crowd noises and chants to bring the vibrant atmosphere of the Premier League” as part of a package that includes an interactive revival of Fanzone, where groups of pals have “the chance to chat about the match and influence the crowd noise they hear on screen”.
On BT there will be a “dynamic noise feature” available via the red button. The BBC will offer audiences “crowd or no crowd” noise to suit individual taste via red button or a different iPlayer stream. Amazon Prime, showing four matches, is expected to offer something similar.
The pressure, then, is on, for the broadcasters to try to produce accurate replications of the Anfield atmosphere, the Emirates Stadium’s indifference or Goodison Park’s groans.
It is unlikely to be a perfect viewing experience, and is not meeting full approval in Germany, where certain ultra groups are dissatisfied that a “pandemic league” is being played without them, let alone broadcast using fake crowd noise. But, like so much else during the coronavirus crisis – conducting social occasions via Zoom, or takeaway pints – it will have to do for the moment.