A confession: There’s at least a part of me that can’t help but feel a little bit of warmth inside when I see a sporting event being played in front of fans right now. Of course, it’s also concerning and uncomfortable to watch a game where every single crowd shot contains, at best, two or three people who don’t know how to wear a mask right in the middle of a pandemic, and as cases reach new highs it’s a really bad idea to keep congregating in large groups. But it’s also, I believe, a pretty standard human reaction to feel some kind of reassurance or even some faint camaraderie when other people are watching and trying to enjoy the same thing that you are, in the same way that it’s easier to laugh at a comedy in a packed theater than it is with headphones on in your bed. While sports have perhaps proven this year that they don’t literally require live crowds in order to keep putting out a product, folks seem to be unanimous that the enjoyment they get out of watching a game declines noticeably when it’s played in lifeless conditions.
And it’s already become apparent, just a few days into the season, that no sport has suffered more of an aesthetic drop-off from the loss of fans than college basketball. Over the first week of the new NCAA season, an onslaught of would-be marquee matchups have been placed on TV in nonsensical locations and/or without any spectators. These games don’t even get the luxury of the NBA’s pricey setup from this summer, where loud noises and the images of live fans did their best to approximate a real arena. Instead, every game has the vibes of a late-night scrimmage in a middle-school gym.
To be clear: That there are currently basketball games between teams from separate ends of the country happening indoors as the pandemic worsens is extremely stupid in itself. But the fact that the games, just as pure product, feel completely devoid of any kind of energy or fun adds another layer of suck that makes this whole undertaking feel even more absurd. Compared to every other pandemic sports broadcast, college basketball’s disadvantages are stark. Unlike football or hockey, fans are typically very close to the action. Unlike golf or baseball, these fans are rowdy—particularly the ones positioned behind the hard cam. Unlike the NBA, they simply don’t have the resources to try to recreate the arena atmosphere on a closed set. And, maybe worst of all, there’s little-to-no star power that can give these games a sense of larger importance to the viewers stuck at home.
Michigan State’s win over Duke on Tuesday night laid bare all of the issues that will continue to dog the sport for as long as they’re determined to gut out this ill-advised schedule. The Spartans rode 20 points from Rocket Watts to earn a 75-69 victory over the Blue Devils’ highly touted group of incoming freshmen. They won this game against a school that consistently has their number, and they did it at Cameron Indoor Stadium, of all places, where Tom Izzo had been 0-3. But unlike any other year, one of the sport’s loudest venues was nearly silent from beginning to end. With this top-10 win, Michigan State did not shut up Dick Vitale’s beloved Crazies; for all watching, they merely traveled 700 miles to win a game against a good team on a Durham court that happened to be painted Duke Blue.
“I know one thing: I’m not gonna put this as an asterisk,” Izzo, who recently returned from a bout with COVID-19, said after the game. He wouldn’t be doing his job properly if he said anything else, and in any other year, this would in fact rank among Izzo’s all-time best regular season wins. But to watch his team’s achievement on TV—the only way anyone could watch it—and say that this was some sort of monumental road victory would require a simply delusional level of optimism. And the fact that these sorts of interchangeably dull atmospheres will be the norm all season is enough to make you wonder why there’s going to be a season at all.
We all know that the answer to that is “money.” But the fact that the NCAA and its business partners’ denial of reality already feels like a ridiculous, sweaty charade after only a week does not bode well for the next several months. And if this pandemic keeps getting worse before it gets better, like experts predict, the questions being uttered at the start of this season will be shouted by the end of this month. Namely, why do unpaid workers need to travel all around the country to play basketball in empty buildings right now? And how are we, the fans, expected to continue cheering in isolation as if everything is normal?
Maybe, like everything else, hopeless CBB morons like myself will just find ourselves adjusting to this new low. Maybe the initial weirdness wears off and these particular frustrations just become yet another of the many little negotiations you have to make with yourself to accept that supporting college sports as a full-fledged adult doesn’t make you a bad person. But unlike all of the NCAA’s other flaws, the disappearance of fans, student sections, cheerleaders, mascots, etc. is immediately visible and almost impossible to ignore for basically every second of every possession. The particular noises and visuals of on-campus arenas is, I think, so ingrained into the college basketball experience that the sport becomes something else entirely when it gets taken away.
College basketball, like every other institution in this battered country, has decided that the show must go on at any cost. That the show absolutely sucks just makes our collective defeat that much easier to notice.