In 2020, the first and most intense year of the COVID-19 pandemic, daily life in our society underwent significant changes. These adaptations were part of what many believed to be a “new normal” that would persist as long as — if not longer than — the pandemic itself. Some developments have been widely considered positive. Unnecessary meetings were canceled or adapted into emails. Long commutes were often eliminated. Many families found themselves spending more time together. Despite the rapidly worsening state of public health, perhaps there were a few silver linings in this new normal.
Such was not the case for spectator sports and fans. With restrictions on large gatherings, live audiences were prevented from attending sporting events, and after long periods of complete shutdown, seasons were either canceled altogether or resumed in vacuum environments free of fans. Players across various sports noticed the difference in the atmosphere and the ways in which empty arenas impacted the games. Fans waxed poetic about missing the experience of attending live competitions and witnessing athletic history. These audience-free environments were a necessary alteration during the height of the pandemic, but all parties wished for the conditions which would allow sports and the broader community a return to normalcy.
With COVID-19 cases decreasing as a result of widespread immunization, spectators have started to trickle back into stadiums, and fan bases could not be happier. The sights and sounds of tens of thousands of raucous people reacting to every play could never be replaced by artificial crowd noise, and being part of a team’s home-field advantage is a magical feeling for fans of all ages. The return of fans has increased both the quality and stakes of each game played. The NFL, for one, has repeatedly called 2021 its “biggest season ever,” as the return of fans across the league and the addition of a 17th game for each team combine to ceremoniously usher in the future of the sport.
Nowhere has this comeback borne out more evidently than at Michigan Stadium, where spectators have enthusiastically returned after a 2020 season that left many fans feeling as empty as the bleachers at the Big House. As the largest stadium in North America and the third-largest in the world, the complete absence of fans could not be more unnatural. In normal times, those in attendance at Michigan football games are reminded by announcer Carl Grapentine that they are part of the “largest crowd watching a football game anywhere in America today,” a fact which carries special weight after a year in which crowds were robbed of the electric atmosphere of Michigan football. U-M fans certainly appear refreshed upon their return, with their spirited game day traditions, such as the crowd’s inspired singing of The Killers’ “Mr. Brightside,” garnering national attention.
For those who already had the chance to be part of college fandom before the pandemic struck, the removal of fans from sporting events made for yet another tough blow. Taking in a game at the Big House, Crisler Center, Yost Ice Arena or anywhere else on campus is a one-of-a-kind experience and practically a rite of passage for U-M students. With boisterous collective chants, seas of maize and blue apparel and the exceptional performances of U-M student-athletes, the environment is unparalleled. After a year of watching from our couches as U-M teams achieve greatness, students and fans have found an even greater appreciation for simply being present.
Athletes often explain their love for team-oriented sport through an appreciation for being part of something greater than themselves. The same can be said for fans, who dedicate their time, resources and energy to the teams they adore. Their cheers, whether stemming from euphoria or exasperation, are what make spectator sporting events the popular rituals they are. Research has shown that the presence and energy of a live audience often affect the performance of athletes and may exert notable influence on the outcome of a game. Home court advantage exists and can certainly prove powerful.
After a year in which people felt more socially isolated than ever before, the enthusiasm for live sports comes as no surprise. Despite the lingering of COVID-19, many of those with a love for their teams and competition simply cannot remain on the sidelines any longer. It once seemed improbable for crowds to come back to arenas this year, or perhaps for even longer. Now, scientific developments and necessary precautions have assured that in-person sports attendance is back and likely here to stay, and it is beautiful to see athletes and fans coming together once again. For those able to attend who haven’t gotten in on the action, there’s no better time to get in the game and be a part of something bigger than oneself.
Noah Ente is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.