Just like Dallas hair salons and Colorado coffee shops, a few professional sports leagues are reopening, albeit with a twist. On Saturday, Germany’s Bundesliga soccer league kicks off in front of empty stadiums, while US-based Major League Soccer proposed this week to move all 26 teams to Orlando in June to play at a Disney World/ESPN sports complex that will be both empty and televised.
Here’s all the WIRED coverage in one place, from how to keep your children entertained to how this outbreak is affecting the economy.
German teams have been subjected to intensive coronavirus testing in the run up to this weekend’s kickoff, and as a precaution, high fives, group hugs, and post-goal celebrations are verboten. But will players guard each other as closely? Will referees stand as close to watch the action or deliver verbal warnings to players who break the rules?
“The situation is very strange and completely new for everyone involved,” says Alex Feuerherdt, a Cologne-based sports journalist, referee trainer, coach, and host of the podcast Rules of the Game. “I can imagine that both players and referees are insecure and inhibited, not only because there are no spectators, but also because of the hygiene rules. Maybe everyone will be more restrained.”
Never before have sports teams played an entire season without fans, and that will make this summer a fascinating time for the people who study sports and how psychology influences athletic performance. In the few instances in which fans were excluded from the stadiums in the past, researchers found fewer penalties issued by referees and less of an advantage for the home team. Over the years, researchers have documented a home-field advantage in basketball, football, and baseball. These results are due mainly to the fact that away teams have to deal with the fatigue of travel, the uncertainties of playing on an unfamiliar field and using a different locker room, and also the effects of crowd noise on referees, which tends to be associated with more fouls against visiting teams.
Mikel Priks, an economics professor at Stockholm University, reviewed 21 Italian soccer games that were played before empty seats back in 2007. (Italian soccer officials had banned fans from the games after violence erupted in Sicily between supporters of competing teams, resulting in the death of a police officer.) Pitkin found that without the boos, the refs got a bit of a breather. They issued equal numbers of fouls to both teams, according to his study published in the journal Economics Letters. “It was a natural experiment,” says Pitkin. “What we found was that there was an effect on the number of fouls, yellow cards, and red cards, and we concluded that referees were affected, rather than the players.”
But when fans are on the sidelines, it’s harder for refs to stay neutral. Another study of English and German soccer league games played in full stadiums found that referees have a subconscious bias toward the home team. Robert Simmons and colleagues at the University of Lancaster dissected the effects of the home-field advantage on referees in the English Premier League and the German Bundesliga over six seasons from 2001 to 2007. In a study published in the Journal of the Royal Statistical Society, they found that the refs gave more yellow and red cards (issued to players for committing either serious or flagrant fouls) to visiting teams. This result held true even when the researchers accounted for differences in the quality of the teams—that is, whether they were an underdog or a heavily-favored squad. In Germany, where some stadiums have running tracks that separate the fans from the soccer field, Simmons also found that referees issued fewer fouls to visiting teams.
Simmons has his eye out for this weekend’s Bundesliga match game between visiting Shalke and home team Dortmund, which usually fills its imposing soccer stadium with 81,000 screaming fans, the most in Europe. On Saturday morning, the stadium will be empty; only a few coaches, technicians, and TV camera operators will roam the sidelines. “There will be less intensity, possibly a bit more randomness, and a bit more luck involved,” says Simmons. “We don’t know how the players will respond to this. They are coming back after a two-month break and there is some rustiness.”
Read all of our coronavirus coverage here.
Even without fans, winning matters in pro sports. Fans, players, and head coaches worldwide often complain about referees inconsistently applying rules or being biased against their team. Critical refereeing decisions can be pivotal for a team’s prospects of winning championships, qualifying for lucrative European competitions, or avoiding relegation to a less prestigious division. In the United States, soccer isn’t quite as big as it is in Europe, but top teams still compete for money and TV contracts.
But one soccer referee has some cold water to throw on all the studies about the crowd’s influence on his peers. He says that refs who show bias or can’t handle the pressure of awarding penalties to the favored home team don’t make it to the big leagues. “The refs do compete to get the best assignments,” says Ricardo Salazar, a Major League Soccer referee since 2000. “Half the time, when I was on the field, I rarely heard the fans. It’s an environment that you adapt to, and focus in on what you have to do and your job. You have to have some thick skin, because you are going to be yelled at. If you take it to heart, you are in the wrong profession.”
Instead of taking the whistle before thousands of screaming soccer fans, Salazar and his colleagues will be heading to Orlando in June to officiate games on training fields that are often used for youth soccer tournaments. He has had some experience with playing before a near-empty stadium. Salazar recalled one 2011 match at the home of the New England Revolution in which most of the home fans were at home watching the finals of the Stanley Cup Playoffs (which featured the Boston Bruins). He says the lack of cheering was “a bit creepy,” and he expects that the newly silent games might affect everyone, at least in the beginning. “The atmosphere adds to the whole experience,” he says. “That’s what is going to be taken away.”
More From WIRED on Covid-19