Rob Oller: Sound of silence ending as sporting events begin to attract bigger crowds

Rob Oller
Buckeye Xtra
Some 25,000 fans were expected in the stands for Sunday's Super Bowl between Kansas City and Tampa Bay in Tampa's Raymond James Stadium.
  • Super Bowl attendance was expected to be 25,000.

Energy and atmosphere are increasing as crowds slowly return to stadiums, arenas and golf courses. Sunday’s Super Bowl saw about 25,000 mostly well-heeled fans socially distanced inside Raymond James Stadium. An estimated 5,000 spectators gathered over the weekend at the Super Spreader Phoenix Open.

As COVID-19 vaccinations increase, so will attendance at sporting events. Spotted in the distance, a full Ohio Stadium. Maybe even several thousand fans at the spring game, tentatively scheduled for April 17? We no longer need a telescope to locate a return to normalcy. The naked eye will do.

“I thought our guys handled it well, but certainly we’re looking forward to getting back to normal,” Ohio State coach Ryan Day said last week, reflecting on how the Buckeyes experienced nearly-empty stadiums in 2020.

As for the naked truth, going back to the future means the loud and not always so proud fan behavior last seen a year ago will take some getting used to for athletes who have adapted to piped-in white noise, minus the Bronx cheers and biting catcalls.

Having filled-to-the-brim sporting venues also means athletes who thrive on adrenaline-infused crowds will see their performance improve — or at least not fall off — while those who prefer to play their games in relative privacy could struggle.

PGA Tour players immediately come to mind. For every Rory McIlroy who can’t wait for galleries to grow, there is the golfer who, though unwilling to admit it for fear of social media retribution, would prefer the manicured parklands remain spectator-free. That 7-iron swings more freely without thousands of eyes following its arc in person.

Rob Oller

Lucky for them that golf is an outlier; even large galleries are expected to remain relatively quiet. The exception is Phoenix, where in a typical year as many as 200,000 pack the grounds during a single round.

Ohio State gets half that every Saturday in the fall. Or did before the coronavirus turned the ’Shoe into the Sandal, where in 2020 a bare-bones cadre of family members huddled to watch sons and brothers play.

“It was very different,” Day said. “There was definitely a point in those first six games or so where not having fans in the ’Shoe did have a little bit of an effect on defense, on not having the crowd on third down.”

Day especially sensed the lack of electricity during the second half, when games began to flat line because fans were not there to keep things energized.

“But we also did a good job of bringing our own juice,” he said. “You look at our sideline in some of those games, the way we played. It was really fun to watch. We had a really energetic group on the sideline. Guys played hard and brought their own energy. It was something that everyone throughout America has had to handle, in all sports.”

How will Ohio State handle it if stadiums remain mostly or even half-empty come September? Coaches always say they don’t know what kind of player they have until he is asked to perform in front of a full house.

The Buckeyes had 27 freshmen on the 2020 roster who have yet to experience the highs and lows of “hearing about” touchdown catches allowed and critical fumbles lost. Wait until the pressure to perform ramps up another 100,000 voices. Only then will we know if a 2020 playmaker was a playfaker.

“It’s been awhile since we’ve played in front of fans, and it did have an effect on our players,” Day said. “They haven’t seen the crowd and the faces. Typically, they get a lot of feedback for doing well after the games, or after they score a touchdown or get a sack, that feeling of that crowd roar. That’s a big part of why they go play college football, and that adrenaline rush wasn’t there.”

Neither were boos or epithets tossed their way when leaving the field at road games.

It’s not just younger Buckeyes who will need to adjust. Even older players have gotten rusty when dealing with ridicule. LeBron James recently got into an argument with a fan who was ejected by security during a game at Atlanta. Does that happen when every game includes similar spats?

“At the end of the day, I’m happy fans are back in the building," James said after the game, adding that he did not think the altercation warranted the fan being kicked out. “I missed that interaction. I need that interaction. We as players need that interaction.”

It’s coming, LeBron. But for some it is a case of be careful what you wish for.

roller@dispatch.com

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