May 16 2020

THE FIRST GAME BACK – “A VIEW FROM THE COUCH”

Live Sports, Soccer/Football

Insights and Observations from Octagon Chief Strategy Officer Simon Wardle on The Bundesliga’s Return to Live Competition

Football is finally back. The world is watching and sports fans are holding their breath that everything goes smoothly.

Ironically the first major soccer game to be played since global live sports went on hiatus was “the mother of all derbies”, played by Borussia Dortmund and their local rivals FC Schalke 04. The irony is that Dortmund has the highest average audience (over 80,000 fans) of any other soccer club in the world, yet the first game back was being played with an official attendance of zero fans.

There were quite a few surprises before the game started. In fact, there was a major surprise before the U.S. telecast even began.

I understand that there are logistical challenges with producing an in-studio pre-game show during this time. And given the fact that Fox Sports' media rights deal with Bundesliga expires at the end of this season, network executives were likely not inclined to invest in building a large audience for the match. However, I was very surprised that Fox Sports decided to not have a pre-game show or more comprehensive pre-game coverage before the most eagerly anticipated Bundesliga soccer telecast in U.S. television history. Instead, viewers were treated to a 20-year-old low definition NASCAR truck race as the lead into the match telecast.

Once the coverage did start, 10 minutes prior to kick-off, the scene was of masked grounds people tending to the pitch inside a stadium that under normal circumstances would have had 80,000 noisy fans creating an atmosphere befitting a heated Dortmund rival. Instead, the only sounds were the match commentators going through some basic introductory comments before announcing the starting line-up.

The starting line-up was also interesting for a number of reasons. Firstly, I was surprised that both teams had a couple of regular starters out due to injury. I had assumed that with a two-month break, both teams would have been able to name a full-strength team, but clearly there were some long- term injuries that the seemingly endless hiatus was not quite long enough for them to get back to match fitness.

Another surprise in the team sheets was the absence of star player Jadon Sancho - from the Dortmund starting line-up – as well as a first Bundesliga start for the young American Giovanni Reyna, son of U.S. National Team legend Claudio Reyna. I must admit that I did wonder for a split second whether it might be part of a U.S. marketing ploy for Borussia Dortmund to build their fan base in the United States.

Then yet another surprise, as Reyna was a last-minute scratch due presumably to an injury in the pregame warm-up.

When the game did start, it was eerily quiet and the referee’s whistle was surprisingly loud, but it was also surprising how incessantly loud the coaches' vocal instructions were in the empty stadium. Another interesting note was how loud and noticeable the sound was of the impact of the soccer ball being kicked half the length of the field. It was definitely a strange experience, to begin with.

The players were naturally a little rusty, with some misplaced passes early in the game. The commentators were also slow to the start, hindered no less by the fact that the pair were calling the match from two different remote locations.

It seemed that the cameramen were trying to keep their camera angles tight, with only the first two rows of the empty grandstands visible on the far side of the pitch. The empty stands were more evident when the ball was near the goals, or at corners when the empty seats in the ends behind the goal were clearly there for all the world to see.

However, I do have to say that after about 15 minutes, the incessant noise from the coaches, and occasional glimpses of an empty stadium, it all seemed almost normal already.

Then there was the first flagrant dive. Football is back! Then came a suspected handball in the penalty area, which caused the first Video Assistant Referee (VAR) review since the hiatus. And in a silent stadium, with no crowd noise, and the coaches and players suddenly quiet, the decision seemed to put the Bundesliga on hiatus again. The delay in action was probably only a minute, but it seemed to last five times that long. The decision eventually coming back. No penalty. Play on.

The next meaningful action on the field was the first goal of the game. Dortmund’s prolific Norwegian center forward Erling Braut Håland scored a well-taken goal and promptly found himself doing a socially distanced goal celebration with no fans in the background.

Goal celebrations without fans and without teammate interactions can be very lame.

However, the goal did prompt the first crowd noise of the game, when the sound of the fans chanting their version of the White Stripes “Seven Nation Army” blasted through the stadium's loudspeakers. It was good to hear fans chanting what has become an unofficial anthem of soccer around the world.

Just before halftime, Dortmund scored a second goal and another lame goal celebration followed, accompanied by the recorded fans blasted through the loudspeakers again.

Shortly after the halftime whistle blew, and the players started walking off the field, it was strangely quiet again. 

It was also a little surprising that Fox Sports chose to not have pundits join the telecast to share their comments from home at half time. It seemed that Fox Sports had missed an opportunity to not have any half-time show. This was the perfect opportunity to engage many of their first-time viewers, and convert them into regular Bundesliga viewers.

A few minutes into the second half, Dortmund scored their third goal of the game. The third goal celebration was actually the best of the pretty lame set of goal celebrations when Thorgan Hazard scored on a breakaway and then raised his arms in celebration to the empty grandstand behind the goal… to imaginary fans that were all sitting at home watching the game on TV rather than roaring in celebration in the stadium.

A fourth Dortmund goal followed and prompted a very non-celebratory goal celebration and a couple of elbow bumps, and for the fourth time, the recorded “Seven Nation Army” chant echoed around the empty stadium.

The rest of the game played out fairly uneventfully, with Borussia Dortmund comfortably winning 4-0 against Schalke, their crosstown rivals. For the most part, the coaches kept up their incessant background noise for the whole of the game, until the referee’s final whistle brought the game to an end.

It was actually a little shocking to then see the wide-angle view of the very empty stadium, after 90 minutes of watching the up-close action.

After the end of the game, it was a nice touch for the Dortmund players to go out onto the field to applaud the four empty grandstands. They then performed a socially distanced alternate version of their traditional celebration, which usually occurs in front of a wall of adoring Dortmund fans in the imposing South Stand but today was to all fans that were elsewhere.

And that was it, some last shots of a completely empty stadium within minutes of the final whistle.

Dortmund had won. The world was watching.

There was one last strange Fox scheduling surprise. After the game ended, Fox Sports chose to show a Classic Bundesliga telecast. It was a show that documented the storied rivalry between Dortmund and Schalke, including a historic meeting between the two teams. It would seem that this show would have been a much better lead-in to educate and engage US viewers ahead of the highly anticipated return to live football, than a twenty-year-old NASCAR truck race.

But maybe it doesn’t matter. What matters is that football is back.

Long may it continue.

-- OCTAGON --


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