After fake noise, what's next?

Photographer: Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Take Me Out to a Quieter Ball Game

Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a professor of law at Yale University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. His novels include “The Emperor of Ocean Park” and “Back Channel,” and his nonfiction includes “Civility” and “Integrity.”
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A couple of weeks ago, a friend invited me to accompany him to a baseball game in Nationals Park. The game was a thriller. The visiting Atlanta Braves were ahead going into the bottom of the ninth inning, but the Washington Nationals tied the score with two outs, then won in the 10th on a pinch-hit home run by a rookie.

Loads of fun.

But something happened during the contest that I hadn’t noticed before. Late in the game, as the Nats tried to rally, the already noisy stadium began to thrum with the catchy but ubiquitous “boom-boom-clap” of Queen’s 1977 hit “We Will Rock You.” By the early 1980s, the cheer had become commonplace at high school games. A few years later, it broke into the pros. Everyone who's been to a stadium in the past quarter-century knows the sound. Fans smash their feet against the floor on the booms and ... well, clap on the claps. Those stomping feet can make a stadium shake.

There was one problem this time.

The sound was fake. It was piped in through the public address system. We fans weren’t stomping and clapping. We were listening to a recording of other fans stomping and clapping. No doubt the point was to get us to make noise. But I noticed something else. Most of the crowd was rather ... blase. Conversation didn’t cease. People didn’t stop texting. Life went on amidst the noise, and nobody but a few youngsters in the upper deck seemed even inspired enough to get on their feet.

It was very strange. But given the decibel levels at today’s ballparks, everybody was probably noised out.

Now, regular readers know that I love baseball. At live sporting events, the noise of the crowd is part of the game. Even cricket, where I remember the sedate audiences at matches in the West Indies when I was a boy, has yielded to the tendency toward loudness.

Nowadays, it’s easy to see why. Sitting quietly is for losers.

Consistent studies in every team sport have found that the home team has an advantage. Crowd noise is likely part of the reason. In a study published in 2002, British researchers divided their subjects, all soccer referees, into two groups. Both groups watched video of a series of incidents and challenges that occurred in an English Premier League match. One group watched in silence; the other could hear the sounds of the rooters. The results were clear. The group that heard crowd noise was less decisive, and wound up awarding 15.5 percent fewer fouls against the home team than the group that watched in silence.

And that was in the laboratory.

Imagine the difference in the stadium.

Actually, the study just confirms what instinct already teaches. Every fan is certain that crowd noise matters. That’s why we cheer. (And boo.) In March, the Atlanta Falcons were fined by the National Football League and stripped of a draft choice for what Sports Illustrated described as “using pre-recorded crowd noise at home games.” But, as the story went on to explain, the punishment wasn’t for faking the noise; it was for faking the noise “while their opponents are huddling or trying to call a play” -- a period during which the public address system is supposed to be silent.

So why the fake crowd noise? Because during that same period, although the public address system mustn’t make a sound, the fans can make all the noise they want (as long as cheerleaders or mascots or stadium announcers aren’t urging them on). Maybe the Falcons were hoping that the game officials would think the cheering really was coming from the crowd.

Which brings me back to that baseball game.

The artificial boom-boom-clap, boom-boom-clap might have been intended to egg the crowd on. Or it might have been intended to intimidate the visiting team -- or the umpire. But it didn’t do any of those things. It sounded like what it was: a fake. Artificial crowd noise falls somewhere between what political observers call astroturfing and what techies call sock puppetry.

Neither one is a compliment.

Here’s my suggestion: If owners want to stir up the home crowd, they should put an exciting product on the field. This doesn’t mean the team has to win. But the game should be fun to watch.

Which leads us to my second suggestion. Turn down the volume in the stadium. Not everything warrants explosions on the scoreboard and raucous announcements. I’m not trying to protect the hearing of the fans. I’m trying to protect the excitement of the game. When what emerges from the public address system is as loud as the crowd, the crowd is unlikely to try to compete. They’ll just treat what’s going on as background noise and go back to checking their phones.

Owners, please. Play all the music you want. But don’t put fake fans in the seats.

  1. Oddly, as the philosopher Peter Godfrey-Smith has pointed out, the noise of the cricket crowd (at least at Test matches) seems largely independent of whatever is happening on the field.

  2. Studies conflict on whether crowd noise inspires better performance by the home team.

  3. The unnameable Washington professional football team has, amusingly, been both punished by the National Football League for violating the rules regarding the public address system and sued by activists for the disabled for allegedly not providing a means for the hearing-impaired to find out what the announcer is saying.

  4. “Flagrant attempts by cheerleaders, mascots or the public-address system to encourage crowd noise for the purpose of disrupting the visiting team's offense while the play clock is running is prohibited.”

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Stephen L Carter at scarter01@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Stacey Shick at sshick@bloomberg.net