If a Sports Game Were Played, and There Were No Fans There to See It, Did It Really Happen?

A recent Wall Street Journal article looked at the impact the coronavirus is having on the world of sports.

As more American sports leagues prepare for the possibility of games without fans, which has become reality across Europe and Asia over the past month, there is one basketball player who says that sort of disruption would be unimaginable.

“Nah, it’s impossible,” said Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James. “If I show up to an arena and there ain’t no fans in there, I ain’t playing.”

I’m a fan of LeBron, and I recognize that he is one of the best players of all-time.

But he’s not, or at least he shouldn’t be, bigger than the game.

As a swimmer at a Division II college, I participated in a sport that had virtually no fans at our swim meets. Sure, it was fun if we got a few people in the stands, but that’s not why any of us did it.

It was the love of sport, the love of competition, the desire to see ourselves improve.

I would think, and hope, that’s why athletes do what they do.

Sure, at the professional level in many sports, it is big business as well.

And yes, there are rabid fans at such events.

But the fans at an event represent just a small fraction of the number of people who watch the game, given the number of fans who watch the game on TV, or follow along over the Internet.

So LeBron is willing to ignore all of those other fans just because no one is sitting in the stands? And what about his contract? Does his contract allow him to sit out a game if there are no fans at the stadium? I doubt it.

Please note that this is not a post meant to take a side on how the world of sports should handle the coronavirus.

There is certainly a risk of spreading the virus at crowded sporting events, but I can understand the argument as well that you can’t protect against all risks. So let the fans decide if they want to attend, and not the teams. I would also make sure to tell the fans the risk is completely on them; if they contract the virus as a result of attending the game, the team is not liable.

Many businesses have had to adapt to the coronavirus, the world of sports should be no different.

*image from Straits Times

38 thoughts on “If a Sports Game Were Played, and There Were No Fans There to See It, Did It Really Happen?

  1. Unfortunately, many of these athletes take themselves just a bit too seriously and get compensated way too much. When do you get back? (Should be lots of room on the plane)


    1. I agree. Many times it has become about the individual, and not the team or sport. That’s one of the reasons I’m not a fan of fantasy sports. We are leaving Singapore early Sunday morning and getting into Philly Sunday afternoon. I will be curious to see how empty the plane will be…


  2. LeBron is already backtracking today and saying he will play without fans. It is an interesting concept. Home court in basketball is a bigger deal compared to most sports. This example is more extreme than the norm, but the 76ers are 28-2 at home this year and 10-24 on the road. That’s crazy! I can’t see the playoffs being canceled because money drives everything, but I do think there’s a possibility that fans might not be allowed to attend if the corona virus takes off..

    The environment would be so much different without fans. I remember attending a youth soccer game where the league was trying a “keep quiet policy” with those in attendance. In fact, they even passed out suckers so that people’s mouths were occupied with something else. Is that taking it to the extreme? Yes, a bit over the top. On the other hand, I have been to many youth sporting events where some of the fans make the experience awful by screaming at the refs and belittling the coaches. It’s ridiculous, especially at that level. I feel like saying, “Is this way you want to teach your child to act?”

    I also remember watching a professional football game where the league or network experimented without having any announcers. It was completely bizarre.


    1. I’m happy to hear that LeBron is backtracking; it seemed like a pretty selfish comment. I was not aware of the 76ers home and away record – that is crazy. So yes, there is the home court advantage; I wonder how much of that is due to the fans vs. just being around a familiar environment, no traveling, etc. I often wonder while watching a baseball game what the home team advantage is. If the count is 3-2 and the bases are loaded, the fans are going crazy whether you are rooting for the pitcher or the batter. So how can a player distinguish between the two?

      I prefer to watch the games from the comfort of my home; better views, replays, parking, traffic, food, etc.

      I like having announcers, so that would be weird…

      Thanks for your thoughtful comments, Pete.


  3. If it’s about the game …then let them play without an audience.
    If it’s about ego, aspiration and beating the odds … let them play and take full responsibility for exposing others to potential harm.
    Perhaps this really is the time to let ego and competition go.
    So hard when this is what we have been conditioned to believe will get us through anything and win.
    But perhaps not so when it comes to our health and well being.
    What do we want to teach our children right now?


    1. well said, Val. the other option, as you seem to possibly suggest, is to just cancel all games for two weeks and then revisit the situation at that time. Just revise the schedule for the rest of the year. As I said, other businesses have had to make changes due to the virus, no reason why the NBA can’t.


  4. he needs to get over himself. flying to arizona on friday, i was wondering the same thing about my flight, wondering how full it will actually be


    1. someone told me he has backed off his initial statement, so that is good. I’ll be curious to hear about your flight to Arizona – enjoy your visit!


  5. You’re highlighting an interesting point: are athletes doing what they’re doing for love of the sport and the desire to improve themselves, or has it become a purely business transaction?


    1. one could argue that the essence of sport is best on display among 8-12 year old kids. they aren’t thinking about college scholarships or endorsement deals or million dollar contracts at that point. they are just playing for the love of the game, yet they still want to win and do their best.


  6. I, too, saw LeBron backpedaling on his earlier comments. The Ohio Governor is recommending that people avoid attending sporting events such as Cavs basketball, Blue Jackets hockey, and NCAA tournament basketball bring hosted at two Ohio sites. Right now, this is a strong recommendation only.


    1. We just got notice that all of our classes at Villanova are moving to an online format. And while athletic events will continue, they will be spectator free if played at Villanova.


      1. I just read the city of San Francisco is banning crowds of over 1,000. The Golden State Warriors will be hosting the Brooklyn Nets in a nearly empty arena.


  7. Professional athletes are highly paid employees. You can either go get your work done and get paid handsomely for your efforts, or not play and not get paid. Should be as simple as that. The court is an arena of competition, not a stage. None of this should be about the adulation of the fans or whatever else an overabundant ego may crave. Teams don’t lose because they don’t have fans in the stands, they don’t have fans in the stands because they lose.


  8. I know Lebron back paddled on what he said but I agree when he said he wouldn’t play if it wasn’t any fans in the stadium . The fans are the ones who support the athlete the league pays them to play so the fans can keep coming back to spend their money.


    1. I think if you are being paid to play, you should show up whether there are fans there or not. At this point, it doesn’t matter.

      I can’t wait for the world of sports to return to normal!


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