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On Second Thought

Cardboard fans at sporting events appear to be in the cards

Could cardboard likenesses of fans soon be coming to Fenway Park?
Could cardboard likenesses of fans soon be coming to Fenway Park?Justin Setterfield/Getty

It’s not easy being a fan these days. Games are finally about to start up again in the NBA, NHL, and in Major League Baseball, and that’s tremendous, although fans won’t be permitted inside ballparks or arenas until scientists discover a way to defuse the deadly COVID-19 pandemic.

For the foreseeable, if you’re rootin’ for the home team, you’re rootin’ from home. That trip to the ballpark will be swapped for a deep dive into the family room BarcaLounger, where being there might not be twice the fun but currently remains the lone option.

But wait, lest anyone believes Joe Fan will be completely sidelined from the sidelines, there’s hope.

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At least five MLB clubs ― the Giants, A’s, Brewers, Royals, and White Sox — have committed to filling up some of their empty seats with cardboard or plastic facsimiles of fans.

Finally, real games. Only now with fake fans to cheer on silently in the stands. Perfect. It’s sports in 2020, the year in which logic and proportion have fallen sloppy dead. Our field of dreams has slipped into theater of the absurd.

For years, a good pal in the business reminded me the other day, sportswriters often have chided clubs for announcing inflated attendance figures, writing in jest that those fans obviously came dressed up as empty seats.

Now, with the replacement fan era about to dawn, we’re about to see empty seats dress up as … fans.

In Oakland, for a $129 fee for all 30 games at the Coliseum, fans can have their likeness printed and propped up in the expansive ballpark’s designated “Foul Ball Zone.” If you’re lucky enough to be winged by a ball in the FBZ, an A’s employee will recover the ball, identify your cardboard remains, and send you the ball — presumably in a cardboard box, left at your doorstep in the appropriate mode of no-touch delivery, to complete the immaculate reception.

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Imagine sitting at home, watching the A’s broadcast, when the camera shows you getting reduced to sawdust by a screaming liner into the first base field boxes. Had you been there, glove in hand, you surely would have snagged it with a flourish, and high-fived everyone around you in glee.

Instead, you’re a poster child for Elmer’s Glue or Gorilla Tape, sitting at home and yelling, “Hey, that’s me!” back at the widescreen.

The Red Sox, who finally get back to the business of live baseball at the Fens on July 24 (Orioles, 7:30 p.m.), were still assessing the “fake fan” field as the weekend approached.

Adam Grossman, the club’s chief marketing officer, said he is intrigued by the idea and likes how it might dovetail as a fund-raiser for the franchise’s various charitable efforts.

“We’re exploring a number of initiatives — options that would be unique to Fenway … during a unique season,” said Grossman. “Some of those will be in-ballpark, and some will be social [media] and broadcast opportunities, because the experience now will be heavily weighted toward the broadcast.”

The Red Sox will try new things, said Grossman, adding, “We do want to push the envelope in any way we can, even in an environment like this.”

Cardboard up, people!

One of the first dalliances with replacement fan initiatives in the pro sports world did not go well. In Seoul, the local pro soccer team in the K League scattered full-size mannequins in the stands for a game vs. Gwangju in mid-May.

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All well and good, a smart and innovative marketing initiative, until people soon realized the mannequins were sex dolls. Chafed K League officials fined Seoul the equivalent of $81,000 and the embarrassed club quickly accepted the punishment.

“This is our fault without excuse,” noted the Seoul FC media release. The mannequins had no comment.

Last month, London-based DS Smith, an international corrugated packaging provider with US headquarters in Atlanta, plunged into what it coined the “recyclable cardboard replacement fan market” here in North America.

The DS Smith line of paper tigers is made to slip easily over the backs of arena seats and, according to Mindy Myrick, the company’s head of corporate affairs, its manufacturing plant in Indiana can knock out as many as 50,000 fans in an eight-hour shift. That’s a lot of fans cooked up in short order.

If the Red Sox were to hire on DS Smith, the proud men and women on the Hoosier production line could have Fenway filled in about six hours, slightly less than it takes the Sox and Yankees to play a game on any given Sunday evening.

In Columbia, S.C., a DS Smith plant can add a layer of “Greencoat,” making the recyclable cardboard replacement fans water resistant. These cardboard fans can be men and women for all seasons.

Each “replica fan,” as Myrick calls them, is roughly 13 inches wide and 20 inches high, and made to mount on the back of seats with folding tabs attached to armrests.

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Cardboard fans can remain in place, never move, never worry about bathroom runs or beating the traffic home.

Look, we’re in really strange territory here, folks. The dog days of summer are fast approaching, and we’re just now about to see the games we love, including the NHL, a league with ice literally its stage. August hockey is what December baseball would be — and, the way things are going, will be.

Like players, even the greats of all sports, we now know that even the fans are replaceable. None of us imagined, though, that our hearts, souls, and sinew would be folded neatly into recyclable cardboard, run through a high-speed press, and stuck to the back of a seat.


Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at kevin.dupont@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeKPD.