TV Sports Executives Warm to Canned Crowd Noise, but Give Viewers an Out

One weekend last month, James Sexton streamed a soccer game on his phone at home in the southwest of England. The German Bundesliga match was one of the first since the new coronavirus halted live sports around the world, as well as one of the first of what Germans call “Geisterspiele,” or “ghost games” played in empty stadiums and robbed of the roar of the crowd, amid social-distancing rules.

“It was extraordinarily bizarre,” said Mr. Sexton, an administrator for an educational resources supplier. “I had a continuous urge to look for an unmute button.”

Sports around the world are going ahead without live spectators, a result of social-distancing measures to reduce the spread of the new coronavirus. Teams have tried to liven up the atmosphere for players with tactics like cardboard cutouts of fans in the seats. But the games remain eerily quiet for TV viewers.

Some broadcasters are trying to fix that by mixing the sound of live games with noise from a prerecorded crowd. Now they are watching to see whether that does the trick for sports fans, who may consider authenticity as important to the experience as a lively atmosphere.

Not all fans will appreciate prerecorded cheers, said Lewis Wiltshire, a consulting partner at sports media agency Seven League. “There are very few issues in football that everyone agrees on,” he said. “Some people will think it’s false and artificial.”

For its Bundesliga broadcasts, Sky Deutschland GmbH unearths audio it recorded the last time teams faced each other. Audio engineers watch the new games and mix live noise from the field with recorded sounds such as chants, celebrations and boos.

The Hanwha Eagles wore masks before a Korean Baseball Organization game in an empty stadium in Incheon, South Korea, in May.


Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

NBC Sports, Sky Sports and BT Sport also are adding crowd sounds to their soccer broadcasts, including those of the English Premier League, which restarts play Wednesday. They are using crowd noise supplied by EA Sports’s soccer videogame series “FIFA.”

Pierre Moossa, coordinating producer for NBC Sports Group’s Premier League coverage, said using engineered crowd noise is “probably the best viewer experience during these conditions.”

Recordings controlled by audio engineers may not offer the same reactions to some plays, like near goals, that would come from a live crowd, but the artificial noise still can inject energy into what would be a hushed affair on TV, said Sara Collinge, a soccer fan and managing director at a London-based public relations firm.

“Whoever was controlling the sound behind the scenes did an incredible job of responding to the action taking place on the pitch. It passed for normal,” she said of a recent game she watched.

Walt Disney Co.

’s ESPN is carrying a feed of Korea Baseball Organization League games that comes with enhanced audio, said Mark Gross, the company’s senior vice president of production and remote events.

“My fear was it would not sound authentic,” Mr. Gross said. “However, we’re pleasantly surprised that it does.”

In baseball, additional audio prevents the telecast from sounding too hollow, given the size of the empty stadium, Mr. Gross said.

An additional benefit for soccer is the erasure of the racist and abusive chants that have long plagued the sport in Europe, said Seven League’s Mr. Wiltshire.

“It gives you those triggers—when to look up or when to feel that rush of excitement.”

— Jamie Hindhaugh, chief operating officer at BT Sport, on recorded crowd noise for games broadcast without fans in attendance

To appease viewers who may be put off by canned crowd noise, broadcasters are making recorded cheers optional where possible. NBC Sports, part of

Comcast Corp.,

will transmit games with enhanced audio on TV and with or without it on its streaming platform. BT Sport viewers will get games with recorded sounds but can use a button on their remote controls to switch to a stream without them.

“I’ve been converted, personally,” said Jamie Hindhaugh, chief operating officer at BT Sport. “It gives you those triggers—when to look up or when to feel that rush of excitement.”

Sky Sports will carry games on two channels, one with recorded fan noise and one without, and track which version viewers like better. Steve Smith, the group’s executive director of content, said he believes the version with recorded crowd noise will prove more popular.

Others are weighing recorded crowd noise. Major League Soccer said it is evaluating “a variety of technologies designed to enhance the broadcast experience” in preparation for its July 8 return. Major League Baseball, whose season remains in limbo, is deciding whether to enhance audio for viewers at home, a representative said.

AT&T Inc.’s

Turner Sports, whose TNT network carries many National Basketball Association games, is still working on its production plans ahead of the league’s planned return July 31, according to a spokesman.

ESPN, which also carries NBA games, said it is taking the question one sport at a time.

The network’s telecasts of Ultimate Fighting Championship bouts, where the action takes place in a much smaller space than for team sports, look to do “a nice job relying on the audio inside and outside the octagon,” Mr. Gross said.

“I don’t think one size fits all when it comes to prerecorded audio and the various sports,” he said. “We’ll continue to test what sports sound like with and without prerecorded audio in order to provide the best experience for our fans depending on the sport.”

Write to Katie Deighton at [email protected]

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