UFC 249 was the best fight card I’ve watched in a long time.
After two months of rescheduling bouts and attempting to hold events in California and Las Vegas, the backlog of postponed matchups resulted in numerous high-level fights all winding up on the Jacksonville card instead. Some of the non-pay per view matchups we saw on the undercard would have very easily appeared on the main card under normal circumstances.
Did you watch? If you did, cool. If you didn’t, no problem, because this post isn’t about MMA, it’s about watching a sporting event in an empty arena, with a few observations that hopefully give us an understanding of what team sports might look like when they return, inevitably without fans.
1. Clearly hearing the action
One of the unique things about the lack of a crowd is that every punch, kick, and communication was amplified. You could hear coaches shouting instructions. You got a sense of how heavily fighters were breathing between rounds. Taking away the layer of crowd noise made everything feel more organic.
An interesting wrinkle was that the fighters said they could hear the broadcasters, who were ringside but sitting at three different tables. A couple of them followed the commentary and changed their approach, mid-fight:
Esparza says she could hear Daniel Cormier's commentary and adjusted her game because of it #UFC249
— Amy Kaplan (@PhotoAmy33) May 10, 2020
Greg Hardy, the former Dallas Cowboy, also said he heard Cormier and adjusted accordingly. He won via unanimous decision.
Assuming the “four major sports” are also played in front of empty arenas, some things that might be different in this department specifically:
- Football: You’ll probably be able to hear quarterback audibles much more clearly now, plus the various calls at the line of scrimmage. If “kill kill!” wasn’t noticeable before, it will be now. I’m also interested to see how the field-level microphone volume is set, and whether the broadcasters change their technical approach to audio. You’ll also be able to hear tackles very clearly, which should give you a sense of how hard these guys hit.
- Basketball: We might be able to hear coaches call plays. It’s very difficult to discern NBA calls unless you’re sitting behind one of the benches or familiar with the visual signals, such as Brett Brown pulling at his ear for the Sixers’ bread and butter “ear tug” play.
- Hockey: The crunch of the boards should be even better now. The stick hitting the puck will be amplified. Looking forward to this.
- Baseball: The crack of the bat will be clear, and you’ll likely hear one guy call off another on a pop fly. The ball hitting the catcher’s mitt will be a great sound. Non-verbal signs will be the same, and if the Astros try to cheat again, the banging on the trash can will be discernible.
- Soccer: You’ll be able to hear instructions shouted from the sideline, and from goalkeepers and defenders. Should give you an idea of how build-up play is directed, plus how defensive coverage and help is called for.
It’s also worth mentioning the lighting inside the arena. With only the octagon highlighted, Vystar Veteans Memorial Arena didn’t feel empty. Only when the fighters came out did you sense the lack of a crowd. It makes you wonder what Lincoln Financial Field might look like with lighting adjusted only for the field.
And not to be an asshole, but here’s another thought:
I think we’ve all been to a sporting event where we’ve sat next to somebody who doesn’t know what they’re talking about. This type of fan will complain about a perfectly fair foul call or boo a certain player for no reason at all. It sucks that fans are barred entirely from these events, but one silver lining is that the drunken jabronies are also absent from the arena. We won’t be hearing uneducated and juvenile nonsense coming from the stands.
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2. The testing process
We had an incredibly iffy moment on Friday evening, when Ronald “Jacare” Souza tested positive for COVID after going through weigh-ins and face offs. As such, they axed his fight with Uriah Hall and continued with the rest of the card instead.
Souza was wearing a mask and gloves during that face off, and was also seen in a photo standing near another fighter, who went on to compete (and lose) on Saturday night. When asked about this later, UFC President Dana White said this:
“What I’m hearing about that situation, I know that there was some video,” White said. “That happened, it wasn’t for a long period of time. He went over and did something real quick. The optics obviously look real bad on that one. This was our first one. Even the staredown, he stayed away from me, he stayed away from Uriah, he had gloves and a mask on. Nothing goes 100 percent perfect. We did the best job we could going into this thing.”
UFC was in prime position to continue here because they only had to cancel one fight on the card. But what about team sports?
- Football: If one member of the 53-man roster tests positive, what now? Can you remove him, replace him with another guy, and play the game? What if everybody else is fine, but Tom Brady or another superstar tests positive? One positive test could be a train wreck.
- Basketball: Same thing, only it means more. Losing just one player means a ton in a 5v5 sport.
- Hockey: (same as football entry)
- Baseball: The only thing I can think of is perhaps being able to play if a relief pitcher or bench player tests positive. Still seems really iffy though.
- Soccer: Similar to football I’d think.
The team sports are in a much tougher position than UFC, or tennis, or golf, or any individual sports. And to add another layer, mixed martial arts can cancel one fight without issue, while removing Roger Federer from Wimbledon would affect the entire tournament. That’s not the case in boxing or MMA, since we’re not talking bracket-style play, but only 1v1 matchups instead.
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3. Defining “essential”
UFC did a good job minimizing personnel in the building, but some things seemed unnecessary. They used one ring girl instead of three, but that number could have very easily been zero. It was fantastic to see and hear Bruce Buffer, but the fights could have taken place without him. Fighters obviously did not wear masks, nor did the refs, but their corners did. And despite telling us before the event that they would not do interviews, Joe Rogan went ahead with post-fight media while also shaking hands with the winners and losers.
Theoretically, if everybody was tested and cleared, none of this should matter, but after the Jacare Souza scare, it seemed slightly cavalier for Rogan to operate that way. He at least could have helped make the optics look better, regardless of whether they trusted the testing system.
What else is really, truly essential? A sideline photographer? Security outside the building? What if fans can’t come in but try to gather nearby anyway? You also need people running controls inside the building (lighting, maintenance, etc). You’re also going to need medical personnel with the ambulance parked in the tunnel. It’s rather significant when you go down the list of think of all of the boxes that need to be checked to run an arena and operate a sporting event, even without fans.
- Football: 53 players, numerous coaches (some crammed in a booth upstairs, wearing headsets), officials, equipment crew, medical personnel, etc. It seems like the NFL is going to have the largest amount of people in an otherwise empty stadium.
- Basketball: Fewer coaches, fewer staffers overall. The NBA might be better positioned than the NFL, but playing indoors in smaller venues could present more of a challenge than, say, the Linc.
- Hockey: Need the zamboni driver and ice crew. What about mascots? Is Gritty barred from the arena? Probably. Hockey is like basketball in this category, but with more personnel required for ice and equipment maintenance. (Also, if hockey and basketball both come back at the same time, Wells Fargo Center staffers need to change out the ice and hard court, which is a pain in the butt).
- Baseball: Players, umpires, dugout and bullpen availability. Can’t think of anything off the top of my head that might present a unique challenge here.
- Soccer: Gonna need to test the ball boys and ball girls, or not use them. In that case, somebody goes into the stands and gets balls that are kicked into the seats.