The early verdict on the fake crowd noise that has become the weird new soundtrack to our televised sporting events:
It’s better than the alternative, which is awkward silence. But it could be better, period.
Here’s my main beef, in hypothetical form. You’re a Red Sox fan, right? Now, pretend these are normal times, if you can, and imagine that you were just at Fenway Park for a game, if you can do that too.
You just spent triple digits on tickets for your family, plus hit the high double digits for souvenirs and refreshments. Parking probably cost you another $60.
You’re old enough to remember when you could get a bleacher seat for $2, but you open up the wallet and go now because it’s a good time, it’s tradition, and it’s a memory you’ll share with loved ones.
Plus, you get to see Mookie Be … well, scratch that part. You get to see Xander Bogaerts, at least.
Now, imagine that game you attend goes the way most Red Sox games have gone this season. The offense hits the snooze button with runners on base (what is going on with Andrew Benintendi, anyway?), the starter (or opener, whatever that is supposed to be) lasts two innings, and three relievers who in a normal season would be pitching middle relief in Pawtucket combine to give up five runs in yet another loss.
I suspect most fans, before departing Fenway, would let their feelings be known, most likely with boos, and probably accompanied by a colorful selection of adjectives.
Yet we don’t get that on broadcasts. It’s understandable, I suppose; artificial boos on a home team’s baseball broadcast might be a tough thing to explain to a player. But it’s also why the fake noise will never be quite right. It can’t, or won’t, duplicate how actual fans will react when things go wrong.
When the Sox leave the bases loaded in the ninth in another tough loss, the booing in living rooms across New England will have to suffice, because we’re just not going to hear it on our televisions.
Still, the fake crowd noise is a necessity. Every broadcaster I have talked to about it in the past few weeks — probably a dozen to 15, among them Mike Gorman, Jack Edwards, Andy Brickley, Dave O’Brien, Dennis Eckersley, Jerry Remy, and Reggie Miller — felt it was a necessary aid in helping them feel the flow of the game as they called it, even if it’s not the same thing as feeding off a real crowd.
“A lot of times on big plays, the crowd gets your play-by-play and your color analyst going,’' said Miller, who is in the NBA bubble calling games for TNT, during a recent Zoom conversation. “God bless [play-by-play partner] Kevin Harlan; he brings it and he is full of energy every night.
“But as a former player and as an analyst, you get juiced up by the fans, by the music, the cheer squads, the atmosphere. The pumped-in noise obviously isn’t the same, but it’s much better than nothing. It sounds enough like basketball.”
Of all the leagues experimenting with fake noise, the NBA has been the most hit-or-miss. The volume was much too loud on a recent Bucks-Rockets broadcast on ESPN. Strangely, the cheering also seems to be amplified on random made free throws; you would have thought the Celtics had just clinched Banner 18 after Enes Kanter made a free throw against Portland Sunday.
It was better on NBC Sports Boston’s broadcast of the Celtics’ matchup with the Heat Tuesday night, though it was amusing that there was no perceptible “crowd” reaction whatsoever when Kemba Walker hit a shot from beyond halfcourt at the end of the third quarter.
The crowd noise has been well-done on NHL broadcasts, both on NBC and NESN. When the Flyers’ Michael Raffl scored the first goal of the game against the Bruins Sunday, there was even a little anticipatory murmur as the play developed; it almost sounded real. NESN’s audio approach is more subdued — it was especially strange Wednesday not hearing any reaction to Todd Angilly’s rendition of the anthem on video — but it worked well for its first broadcast of a round-robin game.
The fake crowd noise has worked best on WEEI’s Red Sox radio broadcasts. I suspect that is because we’re not constantly facing the strange and unavoidable juxtaposition that we do watching games on television and hearing a crowd react while seeing that the seats are empty.
On the radio broadcasts, the crowd audio has been a pleasant and unobtrusive backbeat to Joe Castiglione and Will Flemming’s call. It sounds normal and familiar, and in a summer in which the Red Sox aren’t very good and that’s just about the least of our worries, there’s some comfort to be found in that.
Still should mix in a few fake boos, though. The real Sox have ‘em coming.