Despite empty stadiums, empathy key to staying connected through sports

October 14, 2020
Ohio Stadium
by Darby Clark
The Horseshoe is going to be quieter this season. Much quieter.
Sandy Barbour, Big Ten vice president for intercollegiate athletics, announced Sept. 16 that the Big Ten would not be allowing fans in stadiums for the football season, with individual schools being permitted to make their own decisions about whether to allow in certain groups, such as players’ families.
But the question remains: now, with the Big Ten’s decision, will it ever feel “normal” to watch football games on television with no spectators in the stands?
Dr. Silvia Knobloch-Westerwick, a professor in the School of Communication at Ohio State, said the short answer is “yes.” 
“After a few minutes, when you get absorbed by the plays—who is getting the ball and whatnot, scoring—you, I don’t want to say you forget, but it’s no longer a hindrance to your experience,” Knobloch-Westerwick said.
Logan, a passionate Cleveland Indians fan, said now when she watches the Tribe on TV or listens to games on the radio, after a while, she doesn’t remember that there aren’t any fans. 
“For a moment there—for those three hours—I kind of forget that things are how they are,” Logan said.
It’s humans’ inherent wiring for empathy and our desire for connection that enables us to make that leap in our heads, Knobloch-Westerwick said.
“Even if you are watching with an empty stadium, you will still envision in your head how other people feel about it, and we all know that, in Buckeye nation, a ton of people will be watching, and we’ll know that tomorrow people will be talking about it,” Knobloch-Westerwick said.
That same automatic empathy response helps us to stay invested in a game even while we’re not seeing other spectators on screen, Knobloch-Westerwick said
“Let’s say [a player] gets hurt, you’re sort of cringing and thinking, ‘Oh my god, that’s terrible.’ But then the next second, thousands of people think the same thing, and you are aware of that,” she said.
In her research, Knobloch-Westerwick found that people who were not physically at the stadium but had watched a game on television still felt connected, while those who hadn’t watched it in any capacity showed a mood drop in the days following the game, which she interpreted as correlating to a feeling of disconnectedness. 
Ultimately, Knobloch-Westerwick said, since this feeling of connectedness adds to one’s self-esteem, the value is less in the particular emotions the game entails and more in the general feeling of togetherness it provides.
“Even if the team loses, you still feel like, ‘Oh, we’re in this together’—it still has that bonding effect, and connectedness adds to your self-esteem,” she said. “If it’s a blowout win it’s oftentimes not as memorable or as entertaining. You need to have that contrast of positive and negative emotions. Hopefully they’re in the end positive, but even if not, it’s still having that bonding effect because we went through it together.”
As far as the emotional function of having spectators in the stands, Knobloch-Westerwick said the presence of sports fans in a stadium is comparable to television shows with in-studio audiences. 
“That audience is essentially just there to sort of facilitate and strengthen that psychological representation of how we are supposed to respond, and how we are assuming how other people are responding to whatever is happening, be it laughing at a joke or whatever,” she said. “To some extent, we project from our own responses. So the stadium audience is along those lines, and they intensify the excitement.”
Without that emotional aide, Knobloch-Westerwick said, viewers will simply compensate on their own.
“Indeed, the physiological excitation is totally higher for the athletes if an audience is there, but for the audience at home, I think we quickly fill those blanks,” she said.
From her experience watching German soccer broadcasts, Knobloch-Westerwick said she sees some potential for a different level of emotional involvement due to the quietness in the stadiums, since the on-field interaction isn’t being drowned out by the fans.
“We might be able to empathize more with the players, because we’re suddenly able to hear them,” she said. “You hear when someone gets fouled, or is sort of screaming, you know, you hear those things that you had never ever heard before.”
Despite some of these unexpected silver linings, revenue is still based on money in, money out, and everything from ticket sales to sponsor dollars depends on bodies in the seats, Logan said. Thus, she said she hopes the current situation is merely temporary.
“This model is not sustainable. You can’t not have fans,” Logan said.
For now, however, we have to accept the environment we’re in, Logan said.
“Sports has always brought people together, but I think we still have our teams to cheer for and the camaraderie, it’s just different now in how we gather,” Logan said. “I sure hope that we still get to have those experiences of being someplace live, but for the time being I think we’re having to rely on our fandom in a different way.”
Sidebar: The Columbus Impact
The loss of a sports fan presence for so many months due to the coronavirus has had an impact on both college and professional sports, Linda Logan, executive director of the Greater Columbus Sports Commission, said.
According to data from the Greater Columbus Sports Commission, 41 Columbus sporting events (excluding regularly scheduled university events) have been cancelled to date, which constitutes a loss of nearly $100 million in direct visitor spending. 
“Think about the visitor touchpoint, the hotels, the restaurants, our retail community—that’s dollars and cents,” she said. “That not only means people’s pocketbooks, but it’s jobs that have had to go away, and their livelihoods. When times are good, that money is an engine, and right now, we’re out of gas.”
Logan said the same is true on the college level, especially for universities like Ohio State, where sports provides much of the economic fuel—a fact that doesn’t make it any easier for commissions to make decisions about how university sports will be played.
Nevertheless, sports—with or without the fans—hold a valuable position in our lives, Logan said, partially due to the sense of rhythm and routine it provides. 
“Being able to turn the game on and root for your team, you still have a little bit of normal,” Logan said.