The NRL wants to get fans back into stadiums as soon as possible, under strict biosecurity guidelines, of course. The rush is understandable – the financial benefits to the league of getting bums back on seats are clear, but what would a match-day experience look like in the Covid-19 era? And would it really be an enjoyable day out?
Picture this: you travel to the stadium, running a little late after having to wait until there were fewer than 12 people in front of you before you could get on a bus. Rushing in, you have your temperature taken by stadium security before meeting up with your friends, or at least waving to each other from a few seats away while you keep your distance from each other.
Not wanting to risk stadium food, presuming any will be sold, you unwrap your soggy sandwich and then wander around in search of a beer. After procuring one – once you get to the front of a long, socially distanced line – you traipse back to your seat and shout your thoughts about the team lineups to those within hearing distance.
The MC is trying their best to generate some excitement but your cheering sounds echoey surrounded by all the empty seats and you start to feel self-conscious. Your team scores and you turn to hug and high-five the people around you before remembering there is no one around you and even if there were, you couldn’t touch them anyway.
Your team wins and the team song rattles through the eerie half-emptiness as you await instructions for your departure. At last you’re able to get through an exit without being within 1.5 metres of anyone else, wait an hour to get back on the bus and finally make it home where you settle down with a beer on the couch to watch the replay and wonder if that might have been a better plan all along.
At the heart of what makes a match-day experience enjoyable is the feeling of being part of something bigger. No matter the size of the stadium, there is an unmistakeable magic about having every seat in the place filled and the explosion of colour and noise that comes from that. Whether it’s a united crowd who all rise as one to celebrate the home team’s victory or a divided one, who push and pull like a tug of war when each team scores, it’s a thrilling beast to be a part of.
Aside from the sport itself, a well-devised fan engagement program creates the feeling among those in attendance that they are more than spectators. Well-timed music, a knowledgeable and engaging MC and videos on the big screen work as a conductor, bringing the crowd together like an orchestra to lift the atmosphere and create their own kind of music.
This is important for those watching on TV as well – an empty stadium is just as strange to watch from your home as it is to experience in person. A full stadium with an engaged crowd makes for great TV, which is probably why the NRL is so keen to bring fans back.
With that in mind, there have been attempts to make that scenario more watchable – fill the stands with artificial fans (that didn’t go too well in Korea, sadly), and other innovative ideas being floated to make it a more “real” and therefore presumably enjoyable experience. In Japan, trials are under way for a remote cheering system that enables TV viewers to send their cheers (and, presumably, jeers) from the couch to speakers around the stadium.
Looking to the future, this may be a defining moment in how teams connect with their fans. Sporting organisations have had to be more innovative in devising connections through social media and ensuring fans don’t lose their loyalty to their teams.
Greg Bowman, the managing and creative director of Great Big Events – a company that specialises in creating match-day experiences at sporting events – believes this online engagement will become part and parcel of the way match days are planned.
“A lot of the online outreach, via apps and social engagement, will be more integral for sport,” he says. “Instead of just being about game day in the arena, it will become more about engaging with fans throughout the whole event experience, even when they’re not at the stadiums.”
So as you watch your team return to the field this weekend and start working on the cardboard cutout of yourself to stick on the hill at Campbelltown, consider what it is that connects you with your team and whether your “I was there” moment might be that much more enjoyable when we can all stand shoulder-to-shoulder once more.