Thursday, December 31, 2020

Without fans, the arena set-up becomes a key factor for TV viewers

By Zachary Baru

The way an arena chooses to set up the floor and lower bowl has typically been overlooked by television audiences.  It is usually a decision that affects the fans at the game, instead of the fans watching at home.  But what happens when all of the fans are watching at home?  For the first time, arena set-ups are getting more attention from sports fans on television, and the way an arena chooses to set up, can potentially affect the on-screen product for the fans.

The Fans' Perspective

Like so much on television, the visual appearance is a very important factor of the on-screen product.  Typically in sports, people care much more about what is happening on the court or ice over how the playing surface is set up.  But in 2020, with many games being played with 100% of the fans at home,  the way a venue sets up changes the entire audiences' perspective of the game.

For example, if this was 2019, and you were watching one of the G-League games that is broadcast on NBATV, you might see a team that plays in a medium-sized arena that has a much different floor setup than the NBA.  The reason is obvious, minor league teams in all sports attract smaller crowds than the major league teams.  

Major League Teams Face a Minor League Problem

One thing that is often seen in the G-League to combat this issue is a different approach to a floor setup.  Since all of the floor space is not needed for seats, many teams will set up "boxes" with table seating or "private" seating areas for fans or companies.  Some minor league teams have displayed new cars next to the court to fill in the space, and other minor league or college teams have taken most or all of the seating away from the floor, filling up the space with press tables or a second row for team personnel to sit.  

This is an approach teams have made to fill in empty floor space in the past, but what should NBA and top-tier college teams do in 2020?  And what about the lower level for NBA and NHL games, should all the seats be empty, or covered with tarps displaying ads or team logos?  All of this is still a work in progress, but is also overlooked as potentially a key factor in the on-screen image of the game.

For the teams playing without fans, their fans entire experience of the team now comes from a 16:9 aspect view through their television.  And lets not forget about the fans watching on phones and computers, all of which are watching the same broadcast and experiencing the game the way all other fans are - at home.  

The Importance of the Visual Fan Experience

For the teams playing without fans, 2020 marks the first time ever in sports history all fans can experience the game in the same exact way, through the screen.  For these games, with zero fans getting the experience of watching live in person, the view the fans see becomes such an important factor.  And thus the questions, should there be empty seats on the floor?  Fill in the floor with press boxes?  Or maybe screens of virtual fans?  And so on.  And for both hockey and basketball, what should teams do with the empty lower levels?  Should fans on TV see empty seats?  Tarps of ads?  Tarps with team logos and messages?  And so on.  Which brings us back to the main question, how do arenas set up in 2020 without fans?  The answer might be more simple than one would think.

The answer just might be that there is no one true answer.  All leagues are different, all fans are different, and the desires of fans are most certainly different.  It is an impossible question for teams to get 100% right, as the on-screen image all fans see of the game will most likely come down to the decisions of front offices throughout the leagues.  

Once a simple decision of three rows of seating behind the bench at a basketball game, or placing a banner over an empty wall at a hockey game, now becomes a much different decision.  Watching a basketball game without any seats on the floor simply looks strange.  Watching a hockey game with 100% empty seats behind the glass looks boring.  But then what about the people who enjoy the extremely rare sight of a completely empty arena?  Placing tarps over all of those seats ruins that rare opportunity.  It might not seem like a big problem for the average sports fans, but it is one front offices around the sports world are trying to tackle.  In a year when everything changed, the perspective sports fans have of the games has changed as well.

Zach Baru can be followed on Twitter @zbaru and reached at  Zach also writes and

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