Can artificial crowd noise match the thrill of packed stadiums?

Can artificial crowd noise match the thrill of packed stadiums?

With spectators unable to watch live sports in person due to the coronavirus, the cheers and jeers must come from somewhere. Teams, leagues and broadcasters around the world are taking different approaches to provide artificial crowd noise for games.

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Bianca Hillier

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Oakland Athletics’ Stephen Piscotty watches a foul ball go into stands filled with photos of fans during a baseball game against the Seattle Mariners, Friday, July 31, 2020, in Seattle, Washington. 

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Ted S. Warren/AP

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In 2020, the lyrics “take me out to the ball game” have a rather bleak meaning. The only way to watch a game is on TV or by phone at home due to the coronavirus pandemic. There are no roaring fans packed into stands, block parties or neighborhood bars.

Still, the cheers and jeers must come from somewhere. Teams, leagues and broadcasters around the world are taking different approaches to provide artificial crowd noise for games.

In South Africa, curating these sounds has been top of mind for broadcaster SuperSport.

“Replicating the atmosphere of the fans behind a closed-door match is hard because South Africans have a very unique fan culture,” said Dheshnie Naidoo, head of operations production at SuperSport International. “The popular vuvuzela that was made famous at the 2010 soccer World Cup still remains abuzz at our stadiums.”

Related: Washington NFL team retires racial slur from its name and logo

For that reason, according to Naidoo, it’s important that fans at home hear the vuvuzela when football begins in South Africa this week. Those sounds, along with all of the other cheers and crowd noises, are sourced from previous matches.

Andrew Benintendi leads off with a double. You can hear how the MLB “crowd” soundtrack reacted. #MLB #RedSox pic.twitter.com/9Ern3TdaOg

— Tom Caron (@TomCaron) July 10, 2020

“We have audio samples for specific scenes. Your penalties, your fouls — the ahs and the oohs. How your fans would react,” Niadoo said.

While the system is vastly different from pre-pandemic life, she added, it’s exciting to see the changes happening: “We’re now getting to try out different ways of doing things from the norm. So, the new normal.”

Related: Women’s pro soccer made gains toward parity. Will coronavirus undo it?

Alvin Naicker, head of content production at SuperSport International, said the company has had to think very carefully about how they want to incorporate crowd noise. One solution they plan to implement is having two audio operators in the stadium who each focus on playing different sounds.

“Obviously, you need a very sharp and cued up audio operator,” Naicker said. “So we decided to have two people: one to control audio for cheering and the other one for disappointment.”

Both Naicker and Naidoo said they’re confident SuperSport’s plans will closely match the real experience of being in the stands.

“When [the camera] is on a close-up and you’re getting all this audio —  you actually forget that it’s an empty stadium. You actually think, ‘Wow, this is actually awesome.'”

Alvin Naiker, head of content production, SuperSport International 

“When [the camera] is on a close-up and you’re getting all this audio —  you actually forget that it’s an empty stadium. You actually think, ‘Wow, this is actually awesome,’” Naicker said. “I think it’s more disconcerting for the players, who don’t have that energy coming through from the 12th person on the field.”

Australia’s National Rugby League and select football teams in Germany have also chosen to input sound from previous matches. The English Premier League and Spanish La Liga, though, have chosen a more synthetic route. They are using sounds from the video game FIFA 20. Sports leagues in the United States are using a variety of tools; the NBA, for example, is allowing 300 fans to “attend” the games by calling in via Zoom to the arena, where their faces appear on large screens.

AFL players have returned to their clubs across the country, ahead of the season restart on June 11. Channel 7 will be adding crowd noise to the telecast from round 2. @Stevo7AFL with a preview. https://t.co/5zYfOfohG3 #7AFL #7NEWS pic.twitter.com/BzHfCVooRK

— 7NEWS Melbourne (@7NewsMelbourne) May 18, 2020

Part of the fun of cheering, though, is feeling like you’re a part of the action. Now that the logistics of getting teams back on the field are mostly figured out, fan engagement is drawing more attention. 

Related: In Spain after lockdown, soccer resumes for men — but not for women

MyApplause, an app from a Germany-based company called hack-CARE, lets fans control which noises are blasted through stadium speakers. To use the app, people at home simply select their team and the upcoming match. 

“When you download the app, you have four options,” said Brad Roberts, who is in charge of International Sales for MyApplause. “Cheer, clap, sing, and whistle. The sound of the audience —  and this is fans reacting in real-time  —  that gets played through the stadium speakers so the players can hear it. In return, that sound gets picked up through the TV cameras and comes back through the TV.”

That way, Roberts said, not only are the fans transported to the stadium, but the players are also able to receive the energy from the crowd’s cheers. Jürgen Kreuz, the campaign manager of MyApplause, says players have told them that it makes a difference to know that the cheers are actually coming from the fans.

“There were some players from the UK —  from Manchester and from Leeds —  who said that if there is [fake crowd noise], it’s OK,” Kreuz said. “But knowing that it was created by people at home —  that’s a completely different story. Because they feel like, ‘Wow, there are people watching us and supporting us.’”

“We’ve got fake crowd noise the teams are pumping into the stadium,” Tennessee native and @Dodgers‘ Matt Beaty said. “The TV ratings are through the roof. We can feel them watching the games even though they’re not there with us.” https://t.co/DCcrFNrsaB

— FoxNashville (@FOXNashville) July 31, 2020

Screenshot from the app MyApplause

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Screenshot from the app MyApplause

MyApplause has partnered with FanChants.com, a company that has curated crowd noises, chants, and cheers from games over the past 15 years. Because of the partnership, the MyApplause app can be customized for each team. If a Brazilian team is using the app, for example, the MyApplause team could place those fans’ favorite chant into the app.

This functionality is important, too, because certain cheers have different significance and meaning around the world. For example, Kreuz said they received feedback from Australian leagues that their fans don’t “boo” often. 

“In England, if you don’t have the boo or the whistling, that will be like, ok, the app is not worth anything,” Kreuz added.

(Read: Brits like to trash talk.)

But regardless of their team’s chance at winning, fans have expressed nothing short of desperation for sports to reenter their lives. Some people don’t mind the fake crowd noise. Others think it’s distracting and disingenuous.

Broadcasters have largely left it up to viewers to decide by offering one version of a game with artificial crowd noise and one with a more silent stadium.

“We’re very hopeful that we will create the very best audio experience,” Naidoo said. But she also acknowledges that not everyone is a fan of artificial crowd noise. 

“[The viewer] would have the option to switch it off if it’s not their preference,” she said. 

What South Africa can teach the US about racial justice and reconciliation

What South Africa can teach the US about racial justice and reconciliation

"If you want to change, it has to start with an acknowledgment," says Stan Henkeman, executive director of the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation in Cape Town.

By
The World staff

Producer
Ariel Oseran

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A member of South Africa’s opposition party, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), leads chants during a protest against the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police and Collins Khoza, who died after a confrontation with South African security forces enforcing the nationwide coronavirus disease lockdown, outside the US Embassy in Pretoria, South Africa, June 8, 2020. 

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Protests against police brutality and racism are erupting all over the globe. That includes in some African nations, where thousands have been calling for justice for George Floyd.

In South Africa, it’s a reminder of its own complicated history of police violence. Twenty years ago, the end of apartheid was marked by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. It was set up by the South African government after decades of institutionalized racism under apartheid. The commission gave thousands of people a chance to testify to the racism they experienced or perpetrated. 

At the funeral Tuesday for George Floyd, the black man who was killed by a white police officer in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Democratic Rep. Al Green of Texas called for reconciliation for black people in the US. 

South Africa’s commission was headed by Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

“We are a wounded people, because of the conflict of the past,” Tutu said at the commission’s first meeting. “No matter which side we stood, we all stand in need of healing. We on the commission are no super-human exceptions.”

Stan Henkeman is the executive director of the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation in Cape Town, South Africa. He spoke to The World’s host Marco Werman about what the US might learn from South Africa as it reckons with centuries’ worth of racial discrimination and inequality.

Related: South Africa’s imperfect progress, 20 years after the Truth & Reconciliation Commission

Marco Werman: Coming out of apartheid in the early 1990s, there were so many raw emotions after years of oppression. There was the specter of South Africa falling apart, even a race war. How did South Africa even get people to agree that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was the right way to go? How do you get people — black, white, different social classes — to buy into this?

Stan Henkeman: I think the first thing to say is that there was the [Nelson] Mandela factor. And Mandela proved to be the one person that every South African, irrespective of their background, was able to identify with. The second thing is to understand that the majority of South Africans are not white. And so you can imagine the idea of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission was very appealing to them because there was so much suffering. And people just saw this as an opportunity to expose what had been happening, but also to close a chapter, a painful chapter of honesty. 

Having said that, the buy-in from the white community was not as enthusiastic. In fact, there were a number of white people who saw this as a witch hunt. 

So how did you approach that imbalance? And did you eventually get more buy-in from the white population of South Africa?

You know, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is an outflow of an act of parliament to promote national reconciliation. White people, generally, even though their political parties agreed to it, were still skeptical. But as the commission progressed, the fact that it was transparent, it was on TV screens on a daily basis — I think that kind of helped make people understand that this is a genuine attempt to try and understand what happened.

Related: Concerns of structural racism are ‘deeply existential,’ UN special rapporteur says

And what were the stated objectives of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission once it started? 

The process was quite organized. There were three aspects to the commission. The one committee was the committee that investigated gross human rights violations. And the emphasis was on gross human rights violations because you can imagine every disadvantage South African had their human rights violated. Then there was a second committee that looked at the issue of amnesty, and that was always going to be a thorny one. And then the third committee had to look at reparations.

My sense is that the whole process was very highly charged and was very emotional for a lot of people, almost like a confessional of sins and victimization. Was there a prosecutorial aspect to any of this?

The only committee that kind of acted like a court was the amnesty committee. And what was really interesting was the fact that people who applied for amnesty did not have to do a public apology. I imagine that angered a number of people, but the idea was a way to get people to come and tell their side of the story. More than 7,000 people applied for amnesty, but only 1,700 received amnesty. Now, this is where a question comes in about prosecutions. And this is one area where I think that many South Africans would say we have failed because the prosecuting agencies did not follow through on the thousands of people who did not qualify for amnesty.

Related: 20 years on, South Africa’s remarkable constitution remains unfulfilled

The world looks at South Africa today, and apartheid, they see, is over. But now there is a profound class difference in South Africa that isn’t all about race. When you look at that reality, do you think it’s a failure of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission?

It is a bit unfair to blame the TRC for the problems of our country. I think the first thing we need to say about the TRC is that it was not going to be the silver bullet that’s going to solve the problem and that’s going to reconcile the country. It was the beginning of a process. And if you listen to people like Archbishop Desmond Tutu and others, that’s exactly how they understood it. Sadly, the rest of the country didn’t necessarily understand it in the same way.

If we look at the young people today, especially black, young people who are still experiencing the struggles of poverty, unemployment, and exclusion that their parents went through, they are extremely critical of the TRC. In fact, they call the TRC a whitewash of white atrocities.

I’m curious to know, Mr. Henkeman, as you look at what’s going on here in the US, what would you say America has to reckon here and what can Americans learn from South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission?

You know, if you want to change, it has to start with an acknowledgment. And I think that that’s probably where America has to start. Acknowledge the pain, how that pain gets transmitted generationally. And what happened to somebody in the 60s or even earlier affects young people today. And once that acknowledgment happens, then there should be a conversation. I’m not sure whether the US is ready for that conversation, because in South Africa, we have a black majority government. So there is a level of openness.

Now, whether they listen to us is another story, but at least there’s a willingness to have the conversation. I’m not sure how successful that will be in the States, because you can bring all the changes that you want, but if there’s no shift in attitude, in [the] worldview that we hold about other people, in people’s place in society — if that doesn’t shift, you know, you can make all these cosmetic changes, you will just have a perpetuation of the status quo.

This interview has been condensed and edited.