Even without crowds, soccer’s return is bringing Europe back to life

In March, Spain was one of the hardest hit countries in the world by the coronavirus pandemic and because of that, the return to play of La Liga is considered a major victory for the country.

“I think it was really important not only for La Liga but for as many things as possible to come back to normal routine for people,” said Real Betis business development manager Toni Ortega.

“At one point our lockdown was very strict and for about six weeks you could only leave your apartment or home to go to the grocery store or pharmacy,” Ortega said.

Last year at this time, Real Betis had just returned to Spain from an end of season tour that included a friendly against D.C. United at Audi Field. Betis had been scheduled to return to the United States in May this year to play games in San Diego and San Jose, but plans were scrapped as a new reality set in.

On June 11, Real Betis played arch rival Sevilla in the first game played in La Liga since March 8, when the coronavirus forced the competition to stop. Usually a Betis-Sevilla matchup is played in a stadium full of passionate supporters, but in Spain — like in so many countries — games are going ahead without fans in the stands.

Since games have become literally made for television, or for digital media, La Liga has developed options for its viewers.

One choice is to watch a game as it is being played — in a stadium with empty seats and without any added crowd noise.

“We have something for the fan who is the purist and just wants the game,” Ortega said. “You hear the players making comments to each other and the noise of hitting the ball.”

La Liga is also giving its viewers the option to bring the atmosphere of the game to life. Through the use of augmented reality technology, crowds can be digitally added to empty stadiums to create virtual fans. The league has also partnered with EA Sports to use audio from the game “FIFA 20” that is then mixed in at the appropriate moments during matches.

“We have somebody at each stadium controlling the sound,” said Ortega.

“If the home team is on the attack, you hear the excitement in the crowd. If it’s a goal, then the noise is like you hear when a goal is scored. If it’s the home team that scores, everyone is cheering and if it’s the away team that scores, then there are boos,” Ortega said.

Ortega said early returns are favorable for La Liga, with domestic viewing figures up between 30% to 40% over the same match day last season.

Featuring glamour clubs Barcelona and Real Madrid, La Liga is one of the most watched sports properties in the world and Nielsen reports the league’s international viewing figures are up 48% from last year.

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Germany’s Bundesliga resumed its season in mid-May, and viewer interest has also been strong and there have been no reported health concerns among the league’s players.

Italy’s Serie A resumed play over the weekend, and last Wednesday one of the world’s most popular sports competitions, England’s Premier League, picked up its season.

“It doesn’t feel quite as intense,” said Sky Sports reporter Chris Hull, after watching several days of matches in England.

“Some of these games, players are playing with a smile on their face. I’m not saying players shouldn’t enjoy it, but it just doesn’t seem the same without the passion of the fans that are normally filling these Premier League stadiums,” Hull said.

“It won’t be the same until we get back to that stage, but unfortunately I don’t think we’re going to be back in that stage for a few months, or it might even be the start of next year,” Hull said.

Still, it is a step forward that so many leagues are up and running again across Europe.

To be sure, for the major soccer leagues in England, Spain, Germany and Italy to have games again is important financially, with billions of dollars of television rights on the line.

But it is also a psychological boost, as countries try to find their way back while dealing with the ongoing threat from the coronavirus.

“It’s really important for society to have slowly everything going back to routine and to start working again in the sport and all the industries,” Ortega said.

“There is hope if everyone follows the recommendations and everyone complies with the rules that are stated, I’m sure that sooner than later we’ll see fans inside
the stadiums and everything getting back to normal,” Ortega said.

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Dave Johnson

Dave Johnson is Senior Sports Director and morning sports anchor. He first arrived at WTOP in 1989, left in 1992 and returned in 1995. He is a three-time winner of the A.I.R. award as best radio sportscaster in D.C. In 2008 he won the Edward R. Murrow award for best writing for sports commentaries.

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