For one season in the football world, we got used to hearing the cries of the players, the rippling of the net, and the shouts of the coaches on the sideline… without a peep from the fans. Many of us watching from home had the choice between this Sunday League-like atmosphere or an artificial crowd noise inserted into certain streams. It was a strange time, when goals –– the moments we fans live for –– were followed by an anti-climactic, subdued silence.
Fans are back for the moment. But now that we are nearing the 18-month mark from the start of the 2020/21 European football season, when it became clear that football would be played without fans, we thought that it might be the perfect time to look back at how that season was different.
Teams felt the difference
Reuters has written of the curb in home advantage that took place during the time we went without fans. This was a fascinating experiment in many senses, because pundits and fans have often wondered aloud what it is about home stadiums that gives teams such a strong advantage.
Before, the two main theories revolved around the greater number of supporters for home teams, and the players being accustomed to their home surroundings. After all, it stands to reason that a long trip to a stadium abroad or on the other side of the country might tire the players. Then, being unaccustomed to their surroundings –– the changing rooms, the stadium entrance, and even the exact cut of the grass –– might have tiny psychological and physical effects on the performance of the players in question.
Some, meanwhile, have questioned the effect of the home crowd, because, although the away teams have far smaller sections, those sections tend to include the most boisterous of the fans. You can sometimes hear away sections chanting even louder than the home fans. This is because those willing to travel long distances for games are likely more enthusiastic (and grouped together in a small corner).
Yet, the loss of home advantage in the season without supporters proved that the main difference between home and away performance is indeed those vast home crowds. As it happened, more away teams won than home teams across the fan-less season. Moreover, upon the return of fans to games, the home advantage was quickly recovered, proving once and for all that the home spectators make the difference. So make sure to get down and support your team – it could just carry them over the line against a tough opposition.
In those times without fans in the stadium, remote participation in teams took on more resonance. Fans were unable to attend matches; there was no competition between “real” fans, or high-paying fans, and the rest vying for seats; and frankly, plenty of fans found the football less engaging even when it was available on TV.
What we saw as a consequence of all this was that fans found alternative ways to participate from afar. Games like FIFA 20 (and Madden for American football fans) reached new heights in popularity, as people stayed at home and willed on their sports teams virtually and vicariously.
Beyond more gaming engagement, the pandemic campaign also brought about a rise in what we might call the tokenization of fanhood. This was seen primarily through Socios, which is a platform that enables fans to buy cryptocurrency in exchange for tokens. These tokens in turn give fans the ability to vote in official polls for their respective teams, with polls revolving around things like the song that plays when the team scores, or the message on the captain’s armband. Many fans used these to feel closer to their teams during the bizarre pandemic season.
We discussed teams feeling the difference in terms of stadium atmospheres and match outcomes. But with respect to the direct impact on play on the field, it’s worth noting that a season without fans also affected scoring.
There were fewer overall goals in the year without fans –– although only by a little. Specifically, 10 goals fewer were scored in the fan-less season than the previous one. Early on, there were some boring goal-less games that appeared to have more to do with player fitness (which to be fair was also affected by the pandemic and the restrictions it imposed on training). But once fitness picked up in September, goals ticked up as well. Interestingly, different teams seemed to adjust to different extents though: Man Utd and West Ham seemed to benefit, while Liverpool, Sheffield United and Wolves are among those that seemed to suffer without fans.
It was a strange season, to say the least. And while it may have clarified some things about fan impact, and even brought fans closer to their teams in new ways, it’s one we likely won’t remember too fondly.