MLB Facilities Re-Opening, Empty Games Could Feature Fake Crowd Noise

By the time you read this, we may know a lot more about what’s in the owners’ revised proposal to the players regarding pay for the 2020 season. In the meantime, the league and teams are starting to move forward in preparation for a second go at spring training that may or may not happen. This isn’t an indication of any sort of tacit agreement, mind you, just that facilities are re-opening in both Florida and Arizona.

If your vision is good enough to read the chyron below Jeff Passan in the tweet below — unless you’re on a work connection, that is — you’ll see that the Rays have opened their home ballpark for limited workouts and had 14 players in attendance Monday. The Astros are allowing players access to both their home park and spring training facility in West Palm Beach, FL. The Angels have likewise opened their Tempe facility to all 40-man roster players and limited staff.

Again, this has nothing to do with when and how the season will resume. Well, I suppose it does in terms of how, since teams are hoping to give their players more opportunities to get into game shape after generally fending for themselves for the last several weeks. As for the when, we should know more on that very soon.

One thing we do know for certain is that there won’t be any fans in attendance when games start back up, which could make for an odd sight unless you’re the Marlins. It’ll also make for an odd sound, or lack of sound as the case will be. While the incessant Ric Flair “Wooooo” cries from dudes sitting too close to field mics can be annoying, the general murmur of the crowd that is usually taken for granted will be notable in its absence.

Even more jarring will be the lack of reaction to big plays and bad calls, not to mention the boos that normally cascade down when Ryan Braun steps to the plate. Ah, but there may be plans in the works to ensure that viewers at home aren’t left feeling the same way ESPN coordinating producer Phil Orlins did when he first watched the KBO games his network had picked up.

Orlins described watching games without crowd noise as “disorienting,” “stark” and “jarring” when he spoke to Sports Business Journal’s John Ourand for a piece about networks planning how to best pipe noise into broadcasts. It’s not a matter of simply pumping in cheers like a revamped version of a sitcom laugh track, since that would feel a little too corny.

“We are looking at more than just pumping in audio,” Brad Zager, Fox Sports’ executive vice president and head of production and operations, told SBJ. “We’re looking at trying to figure out how to score a game live. How do we make sure that we have something that sounds authentic?”

He’s not talking about scoring a game like you might do at home, but of setting up a soundtrack of sorts that actually fits with the game action. That could mean changing the volume and intensity based on the situation in the game, so we’re talking about a real-time dynamic element. And this wouldn’t be a function of the broadcast alone, the noise would be pumped through each ballpark’s PA system. The same would be true for other sports, according to SBJ.

Of course, the players would have to be on board for that as well. Then there’s the matter of having dozens of broadcast partners across different sports and leagues. You have to wonder whether different networks will share trade secrets or use this as some sort of competitive advantage. Fox Sports and Marquee might have a leg up in that regard since they’re all under the same Sinclair umbrella and can perhaps create a more uniform audio “feel” across multiple platforms.

On the other hand, they could end up with a terrible product that tanks the broadcasts of several teams and sports. I’ve not put a great deal of thought into this yet, but I think it’s really important here to not go overboard with the sound. As much as I understand why they’d want to strive for authenticity, getting too ambitious just ruins the thing. Besides, there’s something to be said for bringing the crack of the bat and pop of the glove to the forefront.

Pumping in fake noise just for the hell of it would be like George Lucas going back and adding embarrassingly incongruous animated characters into the original Star Wars movies just because he could. Networks run the risk of doing the same with crowd noise and bastardizing what was already a fine product on its own. So as much as I understand and even like the idea in concept, I do worry that the finished product will fall short of expectations.

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