Soccer-Virtual fans? Premier League looks at options for empty stadium games

by Reuters
Monday, 18 May 2020 20:00 GMT

By Simon Evans

MANCHESTER, England, May 18 (Reuters) - The Premier League is exploring the use of audio effects and computer generated 'fans', to improve the viewer experience of watching behind closed doors games.

The league voted on Monday to allow teams to return to non-contact training in small groups from Tuesday and hopes to be able to clear contact training next week as it steps up 'Project Restart'.

Germany's Bundesliga returned to action on Saturday without any major hitches, which has encouraged the Premier League. However, CEO Richard Masters says they are looking at ways to improve the television experience of watching games in empty stadiums should the league return as planned in June.

"I think we'll take a different approach, not better, but slightly different approach about the behind closed doors product and that was one of the things we were able to talk to clubs today, the direction of travel on. We have group of clubs and broadcasters together on that," Masters told reporters.

The absence of fans was highly noticeable on Bundesliga broadcasts with players' shouting the only noise to be heard other than the voice of the commentator.

Sources with knowledge of the discussions have indicated that all options are currently on the table, including adding crowd noise and the use of computer generated (CGI) fans to replace the images of empty seats in the stadium.

No decision has been taken on whether to use such technology, with concerns that any changes do not make the game appear too far away from the reality of what is unfolding on the pitch.

"In terms of the precise nature of what we are planning, we haven't really talked about it with the wide group yet so I don't want to share too much of the plans," said Masters during a conference call with reporters.

"But obviously the big issue is that if there aren't fans in the stadium, what does the viewing fan at home, what's his experience like? And how different is it to a normal Premier League production and that's the question we're seeking to answer," he added.

AUGMENTED REALITY

A number of companies offer technology, including augmented reality products, which could add crowd noise and the impression of a crowd to broadcasts.

"The idea is to protect the integrity and experience of the game, by turning the attention away from the empty stadium, and instead replacing it with appealing surroundings to make the game more interesting, and as close to reality as possible," said Gudjon Gudjonsson, CEO of one such company, OZ Sports.

"These are times to explore and experiment, to make sports even more appealing and to bring it closer to the latest developments in esports," he added.

Oz Sports declined to discuss whether they were in talks with the Premier League. "OZ Sports can confirm it is in discussions with multiple sports bodies, not limited to football," the company said.

While the league and broadcasters evaluate all the options, the focus for now though is on the players returning to their training grounds on Tuesday.

Initial training will be in small groups, no bigger than five players, and with social distancing rules enforced in and around the facilities.

Players will also be tested regularly with the first set of results expected to be made public on Tuesday. (Reporting by Simon Evans Editing by Christian Radnedge)

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