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How the NBA can make games without fans exciting

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The NBA faces a plethora of obstacles to tackle before basketball can resume. From coronavirus safety concerns to the logistics of establishing a bubble at Walt Disney World to the very format the league will adopt to finish out its 2019-20 season, there’s a mountain of challenges lying in wait over the next few weeks.

No fans being in attendance for any of these games is a microscopic issue at the bottom of the pile by comparison, but as necessary an evil as it may be, it will still be fairly awkward to experience.

Not having fans is for the best. It’s a no-brainer for safety reasons, especially as COVID-19 cases and deaths continue to soar in the United States. But it’s still going to be really f**king weird to watch, no matter the quality of basketball gracing our screens for the first time in months.

Think about watching Orlando NBA Summer League games: There are basically no fans, the quality of basketball is low and the broadcasters’ commentary dominates the proceedings. While actual NBA games are obviously on a different level than Summer League, that’s what we could be experiencing for the 2020 NBA Playoffs. These guys won’t have played in 4-5 months by the time late July/early August rolls around. The playoffs are typically when most teams round into the form. That won’t be the case here.

The intensity of the playoffs will remain, but there will be rust to shake off, and it’ll be even more noticeable at a silent, neutral site that lacks home-court advantage or the roar of the crowd to make up for it. These will feel like high-stakes scrimmages, stripping down the playoffs to their rawest form — the players, coaches, officials and announcers, all alone in a gym, without the regular fanfare and hype we’ve grown accustomed to.

Playing NBA games without fans is necessary, but it’ll still be weird. Here’s what the league can do to enhance its product under these circumstances.

A LeBron James poster dunk, a Giannis Antetokounnmpo chase-down block, a Kawhi Leonard dagger — none of these things will feel the same without a crowd losing its mind over game-changing, momentum-swinging plays. Even so, the NBA still has a few easy moves it can make to ensure the millions tuning in get their money’s worth.

1. Don’t use fake crowd noise

This is one idea that’s been floated around. It’s a bad one.

Having to tolerate all these manufactured chants, random song snippets and gimmicky sound effects being blasted over the PA every five seconds during regular NBA games is annoying enough. Inserting fake crowd noise would make these proceedings even cornier, even while trying to create a playoff vibe.

To be fair, Bundesliga broadcasts on FS1 have had some success with this, using crowd cheers and even chants to make soccer matches feel more authentic (they’re only added to the broadcasts; the players cannot hear them on the pitch). However, including chants that are commonplace in a soccer match or cheers after an infrequent goal is easier to manage; putting someone in charge of crowd noise for a basketball game, which evokes a full range of emotions on a play-by-play basis, would be much more challenging.

Do you dedicate the crowd noise to the “home” team to try and give them some semblance of home-court advantage? Or does the fake crowd root for both teams? Is it just for scores, or does it include everything that can illicit cheers from a basketball arena (blocks, steals, assists, turnovers, poster dunks, foul calls, team runs, etc.)? How does an unbiased broadcast handle the various range of crowd emotion on a second-by-second basis without the real crowd reaction to determine each play’s worth in real-time?

Too many things happen on a second-by-second basis for fake crowd noise to work in basketball, especially playing in smaller, empty gyms. Soccer stadiums are big enough to make the fake crowd noise feel a little more realistic, but doing so with a more difficult sport to engineer cheers for would make for a disjointed, complicated and possibly even corny viewing experience.

2. Make sure those benches are fired up

Putting mics on the bench is a dangerous idea; if the NBA wants to make up for some of the lost revenue from in-arena fans, these broadcasts need to be as universally accessible as possible. That means the league doesn’t want little Timmy and Betsy at home hearing their first F-bombs on an ESPN broadcast the moment Patrick Beverley starts trash-talking Luka Doncic.

However, even without mic-ing up the bench, the NBA and its players can still take it upon themselves to compensate for the lack of crowd noise with more energetic reactions than normal. It’s difficult to muster motivation in a quiet basketball gym, but enthusiastic teammates will up the ante, and that increased intensity will translate through the broadcast.

If the viewers at home can feel the players’ energy in what will undoubtedly be the most unconventional NBA playoffs ever, it’ll be easier to overlook how weird this setup without fans is.

3. Mic up the players for an additional, uncensored broadcast

This one’s trickier, especially depending on how the NBA proceeds with the rest of its schedule. If there are regular-season games, a group stage or multiple playoff games being held throughout the day to rush through the postseason quickly, an additional, uncensored broadcast becomes less feasible. People won’t re-watch games — even if they’re full-blown productions like “Game 6: The Movie” — when there’s a fresh batch of new games each day.

However, this is the NBA’s best opportunity for full authenticity. No fans, no generic arena noise, no manufactured cheers. Give the fans watching at home something different: a genuine, bare, unfettered production of NBA basketball.

Some of the most captivating moments of The Last Dance came from back-and-forth, on-court interactions between Michael Jordan and his teammates/coach. People go crazy for those behind-the-scenes, inside-the-locker-room conversations, and it’d be even more fascinating to see them unfold for at least 16 different playoff teams in the heat of battle.

Obviously doing this in real-time would be problematic. Mic-ing up the players runs the risk of driving away younger/family viewers with profanity, which is why it’d need to be an additional, adult-aimed broadcast for the uncensored part to work. It’d also probably have to be delayed and couldn’t include anything tactical, since teams could easily take any strategic information and use it to their advantage over the course of a playoff series.

But for the on-court discussions, more generic exchanges in the huddle and those moments of passion and celebration? Hearing that in full and uncensored would create a sports product unlike anything television has ever seen, and there’s never been a better time to experiment than right now. It’d be difficult to figure out the best format for this, and maybe it’d only work for the later rounds when the games are fewer and further between.

But after The Last Dance taught us how entrancing raw, expletive-laden sports footage can be, it’d be a shame not to make up for the lack of crowd noise with the one thing we’ve always been dying to hear underneath all those cheers.


The NBA’s All-Letter Team Tournament is here. Bring on the opinions, takes and controversy!

We need to put these Draymond Green redemption narratives to bed.

We offered our own opinion on yesterday’s Whiteboard as to how the NBA should conclude its season. ESPN’s Zach Lowe agrees with us on a play-in tournament, giving his detailed thoughts on each potential avenue.

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