Before the Ravens’ first and only dress rehearsal of training camp, coach John Harbaugh tried to impose normalcy on a season without precedent. “Is anything normal in 2020?” Harbaugh wondered Monday, somewhat rhetorically, but for one night last month, his team could find some comfort in routine.
On Aug. 29, the Ravens held a scrimmage at M&T Bank Stadium. Players warmed up. They stretched. Went through drills. Headed to the locker room. Gathered inside the southeast tunnel. Then, taking his cue, defensive back Anthony Levine Sr. led the team out onto the field, and the crowd, well — it wasn’t much of a crowd, and the security guards and reporters looking on mostly just stared.
The coronavirus pandemic has already robbed NFL teams of minicamp, preseason games and lunchtime seating arrangements less than 6 feet apart. On Thursday, Sunday and Monday, as Week 1 kicks off across the country, in-person attendance will be the next casualty. Sixteen teams are hosting games this weekend; just three will allow fans. No seating capacity is above the Jacksonville Jaguars’ 17,000.
Of all the unknowns entering this season, maybe the most intriguing is how emptying a stadium and muting a crowd will affect teams accustomed to cacophony. Is home-field advantage over? Will players choke less? Will the game look different?
“I’ve never played football without people watching,” quarterback Lamar Jackson said in April, when the prospects of packing M&T Bank Stadium with 70,000-plus weren’t so bleak. “So I don’t know.”
Even with fans barred from Ravens home games for at least the initial part of the season, Sunday’s opener against the Cleveland Browns won’t be quiet. Under new NFL rules, when the play clock or game clock is running, teams without fans must play prerecorded crowd noise through their public-address system at 70 decibels.
With overlapping audio prompts — foghorns, chants of “Defense!” and so on — the combined sound level cannot exceed 75 decibels. The din of city traffic is about 85 decibels; the hum of a dial tone, 80 decibels.
Heinz Field isn’t considered the NFL’s most deafening stadium, but it’s loud enough. When he’s attempting a game-winning kick in Pittsburgh, Justin Tucker acknowledged that he can’t just blot out the noise. “It’s loud,” he said Friday. “For that to not be a thing, potentially, moving forward will certainly be unique. It will maybe be uncomfortable, in a sense, because I think we’re so used to going on the road and, when we line up a kick, the volume gets cranked up. It’s just kind of always been like that.”
It’ll be a new experience for everyone. Outside linebacker Matthew Judon, a product of Division II Grand Valley State, said he “came from somewhere where you didn’t have that many fans.” (The school’s Lubbers Stadium seats under 11,000.) Still, he said: “I think it’ll be weird.”
Some have given it more thought than others. Harbaugh said Monday that he hadn’t considered how a fan-free stadium experience might affect players psychologically. For researchers in the field, the pandemic has offered a rare opportunity to study how empty seats affect performance, on both a macro and micro level.
While experts disagree on what drives home-field advantage, and to what extent it can help, there’s no denying it exists. Last year, NFL teams won nearly 52% of their games at home — and that was their lowest rate since the league expanded to 32 teams in 2002. In betting markets, NFL teams with home-field advantage usually get two to three more points added to their spread.
In European soccer, where teams completed interrupted seasons in empty home stadiums this summer, the post-lockdown advantage was mostly preserved. Clubs in England and Spain’s top divisions won home games without fans more often than they had with fans. In Spain, the rate dipped slightly, but not below the away-win rate. Only in the so-called “ghost games” of Germany’s Bundesliga did home-field advantage ultimately not matter.
“I think it gets back to whatever the players are perceiving,” said Mark Otten, a professor of psychology at California State University, Northridge who runs the school’s Sports Psychology Lab. “If they’re at home and they feel like, ‘OK, we’re at home, we’re supposed to be better,’ then it appears that that’d be driving the effect. ...
“If you’re the Baltimore Ravens, getting ready to do this, you’d think home-field advantage would be gone. But the preliminary findings suggest, no, actually, if the players still believe they should be better at home, then they will be.”
Even in an age of information, where player-tracking data can tell coaches how fast receivers are moving on any given route, only so much about a player’s performance can be predicted. Optimal performance requires arousal. Arousal requires stress. Stress requires a stimulus — like, say, tens of thousands of strangers stamping their feet, hollering for a fourth-down stop.
If quieter, fan-free stadiums reduce players’ arousal level, Otten hypothesized that there could be fewer “extreme” performances. More players might play like they practice.
“Adrenaline is one of those things that can go both ways,” said Otten, who has studied sports performance under pressure. “If you use the adrenaline, you get those butterflies in your stomach. That can help you or hurt you, depending on your interpretation of them.”
He pointed to baseball as an example. “Certain guys will, if they’re interpreting the situation as a positive, they’re going to throw harder. And if they’re not, they’re going to throw softer.”
Stu Singer has worked as a sports psychology and performance consultant for the Washington Wizards, Washington Mystics and Maryland women’s basketball team, among other clients. Amid a year of chaos that has upended both sports and society, his big-picture message has been simple: Control only what you can control.
Some athletes, Singer said, are more adept. Former Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis seemed to feed off frothing crowds in Baltimore, indulging their passion with his pregame “squirrel” dance. But fans or not, Singer said, “he knew 100% how to get himself into that optimal zone that he needed in order to perform.”
Less experienced players might struggle to find the right mindset in unfamiliar circumstances. But Singer was optimistic that football, by its very nature, would knock players into the right headspace. “The first time you get hit,” he said, “you will be forced to find that space.” If that’s the case, NFL games could start to reflect the play in the NBA’s “bubble,” where defenses have been almost helpless to disrupt offensive flow.
“The ’zone’ is ultimately that place with limited distraction where your mind is so locked in to what’s present, what’s in front of you, and your mind’s just as clear as it possibly can be,” Singer said. “And things almost begin to slow down, and that’s always going to be easier when there’s less distraction around you. So I do think you’ll have those moments, for sure, just because there’s that much less to create distraction.”
Ravens players talked all offseason about how much they’d miss fans at games this season, how they play for the crowd’s delight as much as their own fulfillment. Tight end Mark Andrews said it’s “what we all live for.” Left tackle Ronnie Stanley said it would be “hard to imagine” a barren crowd. And defensive end Derek Wolfe? He said he had no other choice.
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“I feel worse for the fans than I do for myself,” Wolfe said last month. “Because, to me, I’m out there to do a job. Whether people are screaming and yelling for me or not, I’m going to do that job.”