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Are Sports Missing The Fans As Much As The Fans Are Missing Sports?

by Derek Doyle, Head of Production

The last minute goal. The crowd on their feet. There’s just no substitute.

To be one of the lucky ones, who could forever say they were there. When half of Ireland was in Giants Stadium. When the English rugby team came to Croke Park. When the Dubs won three-in-a-row. Then four, five and six. When Ray Houghton put the ball in the English net. 

Now that’s been taken from us and we don’t know when we’ll get it back. Of course, there are more important things in life, even if the great Bill Shankly suggested otherwise. It even seems to be in bad taste to be moaning about not going to games, when we are being deprived of so much more than a ticket to the match.

But the truth is there has been a re-focussing on sports and how it is woven into the very fabric of our lives. There’s a reason the government has done all it can to keep sports going, it’s part of us and our communities, something to call on in a time of crisis. Look at the GAA Championships, there was a sense that the efforts of the players were lifting the spirits of the whole country, not just the county they were playing for. Wearing the green jersey, so to speak, as well as their own county colours.

Now watching teams take the field in empty, cavernous arenas, built to hold forty thousand people, not forty, you can see the players looking around bemused, adjusting to not having an audience to play to, still taking it all in. When there’s so little to take in.

Maybe, just maybe, they’re missing us as much as we’re missing them.

Watching the results in the Premier League over the last few months makes me think something is up. Shock results, Nine-nil score-lines. Bottom beating top. A seismic shock to the natural order.

Even watching the 6 Nations this weekend, Ireland were one moment of madness away from making it a clean sweep of away wins across the three matches, without having to also face the hymm-loving ‘vocal locals’ as Matt Williams described them. And the Superbowl on Sunday, perhaps the greatest sporting show on the planet, just wasn’t the same in a half-empty stadium.

Players feel this too. Last year, when we were filming for our friends in Energia with Shane Horgan and Ronan O’Gara, both spoke of how they would ‘feed off’ the crowd during matches, how a shout from the fans could push them on.

This a concept known to psychologists as ‘social facilitation’, which is the urge humans feel to be at their best in front of others. It is believed that this impulse triggers a range of physiological changes, including a release of adrenaline, leading to sweaty palms and an elevated heart rate. They also point out that loud noises, such as crowd roars, can lead to a surge of cortisol, the stress-induced, fight-or-flight hormone, which also boosts performance.

Of course, it’s not just the support from the terraces during matches which helps. Ticket sales and match day activities are a huge source of revenue for all sports. In the Premier League, the figure for 2019 was a whopping £677m. Man Utd, with the largest ground and highest average attendance, generated over £4m per match in 2018-19.

For a long time, we’ve been asking if the Premier League could survive without the ever-growing TV money. Now, we’re asking if they can survive on just that. Closer to home, we see the struggles of the IRFU, the FAI and even the GAA, as they question how to keep it all going without fans coming through the turnstiles.

Our investment in sport goes deep, beyond ticket prices, buying the latest shirt and even the taxes that pay for public funding in pitches, facilities and associations. It’s about community, coming together as one. Either on your couch at home, in a stadium, or in the local park. 

I help coach the local GAA Under 12s girls football team. And we had to ask parents to stop attending last year, to not be there to cheer on their kids.

Personally, I can’t wait for the mums and dads to be back on the sidelines, supporting their kids. Because it’s not really the same without that. And I can’t wait to be back in the Aviva, Croke Park or wherever else we get to when all this is over. I’ll never take it for granted again. I suspect none of us will, fans and players alike.