“You Got No Fans – Do You Want Some?”

The title is a reminder of the Wealdstone Raider and his infamous viral video (viewer discretion) but it’s also a reminder of the importance fans play at sporting occasions, be it in the Premier League, Sunday League or National Football League.

Which prompts the question, how did the opening weekend feel in the stadiums around the NFL?

Two stadiums allowed in a small percentage of their capacity in Game Week One – Around 16,000 fans were in attendance for the season opener between the Houston Texans and the reigning Super Bowl champions, Kansas City Chiefs. Jacksonville Jaguars allowed in 25% of their stadium capacity for Sunday’s win against the Indianapolis Colts.

But how different was the experience as a spectacle for TV viewers?

When the Premier League returned to our screens, it was to a recorded, piped atmosphere and the surreal sight of empty seats at grounds that are usually packed to capacity. Fans instead were left watching games on their TV, with no real sense of involvement or passion and the whole experience felt vastly different to actually attending the match, or watching it on TV with a real crowd inside the stadium.

So, we came to the NFL’s opener on Thursday Night Football, as the Chiefs hosted the Texans at Arrowhead Stadium. This was a bit of an outlier because it was one of the stadiums that had decided to allow fans into the stadium on a much-reduced basis. With 16,000 excited and pumped-up fans inside Arrowhead, it didn’t really seem that much different to normal. You could hear them, see them and feel their passion.

As we moved on to Sunday, I chose to watch the Washington Football Team take on the Philadelphia Eagles, fully expecting to watch my team get beat by the Eagles once more. This is usually a big rival game for the fans of both teams and initially, it felt strange knowing there would be nobody at the venue.

How quickly I forgot!

By half time, with Washington looking down and beaten once again, I realised I had been so engrossed in the play and trying to work out how we sucked so badly yet again, that I had completely forgotten that there were no spectators. Unlike the Premier League games, where the piped atmosphere sounds completely false and almost like watching someone playing an EA Sports simulation of the game, this was different.

American football is a much different game to – let’s just call it soccer and get that out of the way – and the players have to perform or they have no place to go to earn a living. Unlike soccer, there are no secondary leagues like the Championship, League One etc. There are no foreign professional leagues to join – apart from the Canadian Football League and let’s face it, with all the best will in the world, the CFL is nowhere near the NFL in prestige or salary for the athletes that play in it.

Why do I point this out?

Because, the players have to give everything they have in order to remain in a job and the consequence of this is that the spectacle is still immersive and passionate, even without fans. The tactical battles between coaches, coordinators and players, draws the viewer in and you literally forget that there is nobody in the stands watching. There is the added bonus of being able to hear every crunching tackle and the occasional words from the players.

Another factor, as someone pointed out to me on Twitter earlier today, is that the stadiums themselves differ from what we are used to. In some British football stadiums, the fans are almost on top of the players and can be constantly seen in the action on the screens. In NFL stadiums, a combination of stands where the seating seems to start a little higher up and a different camera angle, help reduce the feeling that something is missing and the piped crowd noises, actually do feel like there is a crowd in attendance.

All in all, I can sum up this article by saying I enjoyed the experience as much as I normally would – especially after that completely unexpected second-half turnaround, led by the impressive and constantly improving Washington defensive line.

As the season moves on, I fully expect more teams to start allowing a reduced capacity crowd into their stadiums and indeed, in Game Week Two, there are already plans for limited numbers to attend games in Dallas, Indianapolis, Cleveland and Miami. You can bet, other franchises are already planning ahead to get some bottoms on seats too.

In the meantime, the enjoyment isn’t diminished for those of us who have to watch it on TV anyway… much to my relief after months of waiting for the season to kick off!

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