Virtually A “Fan”

This week’s column had been on the books for months. I had penciled “Kentucky Derby” into the calendar for this Sunday since yesterday I was supposed to be in Louisville. Excited about writing about the Derby, it would have also been the first live sporting event I’ve attended since Thursday of this year’s Players.

“Everything I’ve been looking forward to, the Derby, The Masters, everything’s been cancelled,” lamented my friend “Wooly”. The last time I was in Las Vegas with Wooly, his nephew, “Big Handle” had invited us to sit in his box at the finish line at Churchill Downs for the rescheduled Kentucky Oaks and The Derby. Just a few weeks ago they called that off. Both Wooly and I were disappointed, but we had talked about just getting together for a weekend watching sports, including the Derby, somewhere here in town.

But we agreed, watching sports on TV right now is weird.

“Those virtual fans and those cutouts, they don’t do anything for me,” Wooly explained. “I do like the different camera angles, like the one running the length of the court. I like the sound of the ball and the squeak of the sneakers. But I’m a different audience.”

He was right about the appeal of the actual competition. That might be the attraction for him, but for a lot fans of when they go to an arena, the game is secondary. Going to a game is now an entertainment experience instead of a competitive experience. Right now, the different leagues are trying to make the games kind of “look” normal because they are anything but.

The NBA has collaborated with Microsoft to create virtual fans in the stands at the Disney arena in Orlando. They’ve installed 17-foot video boards behind the benches.

Numerous Major League Baseball teams have put “cut-outs” in the stands. But most of that is a side-show, not close to the real thing.

“I want to see the Kiss-Cam and the Dance-Cam and the Weiner races,” my friend ‘Ghost of Chuck’ told me this week. “Baseball is tough to watch without the instant fan reaction. Basketball doesn’t seem to have any enthusiasm. And in hockey you don’t see the fans anyway.”

Among the MLB teams using cutouts, the Atlanta Braves are selling them to fans for $50, and they’re sold out. Watching a game the other night, the Ghost thought he saw a friend behind home plate.

“I was looking from the center field camera and recognized my friend ‘Thurman,’ Ghost said with a laugh. “So I called him and sure enough, he had bought one behind home plate.”

A member of the “A-List” as a Braves season ticket holder, Thurman was offered a cut out when the season started for $25.

“I have friends call me from all over the country,” he explained. “Luckily I’m not right behind home plate or my phone would never stop ringing”.

Placement of the cutouts was a totally random by the Braves PR staff. Thurman ended up behind the on-deck circle. So he gets plenty of ‘face time.”

“It was just a goof,” he said with a laugh. “I thought it would be the funniest thing. Kind of a once in a lifetime thing.”

Buying the cutout was a total lark for Thurman. While he got a kick out of getting his cut out at a Braves game, some of my friends were less enthusiastic.

“Not at all,” the “BQ” said flatly when I asked if he’d be interested in being a virtual fan at a game. “I guess there are people who will be a part of history. You know, ’I was at a game when you couldn’t go to a game.’ That kind of stuff.”

“Those people are reflective of our society,” was Wooly’s take. “You can pay for your 20 seconds of fame. The only people looking at the cutouts are the people who bought them. Although when I saw Dwayne Wade as a virtual fan at the Heat game, I thought that was funny.”

I don’t know, I thought the whole thing was funny.

Several NBA teams have enlisted some of their former players as virtual fans. Bill Walton, Paul Pierce, Dirk Nowitzki and Steph Curry have all appeared in the “stands.” Shaquille O’Neal spent an entire day as a virtual fan watching every game.

MLB teams are doing the same, and taking it a step further. The Dodgers have former “Entertainment Tonight” host Mary Hart in her regular spot behind home plate, The guy in the panama-hat, Dodgers scout Mike Brito, is there as well, holding a radar gun. Celebrity spotting is still a sport at Chavez Ravine. The Dodgers have placed plenty of Hollywood types in the “crowd.” Most asked for their traditional seat. So far the Dodgers have sold 8500 cutouts raising $1.5M for local charities.

The Twins have gone with the “Big Head” approach instead of cutouts. It’s their 60th anniversary so to celebrate, for one game they had 80 former players “at” the stadium.

The A’s have had some fun trying to give the Oakland Coliseum a “home park’ feel. They have cutout sections for pets, visiting fans, their mascot, the mule “Charlie O” and even Tom Hanks dressed in his old uniform selling hot dogs with his voice blaring over a loudspeaker. That’s the first job Hanks had in the ‘70’s.

The guy from “Weekend at Bernie’s” has made an appearance and some clubs have followed Seattle’s lead trying to keep fans engaged. If a foul ball hits your cutout, a staff member verifies it actually hit you, retrieves the ball and sends it to you.

Cut outs run from $35 in Philadelphia to $299 at Dodger stadium. Most of the money goes to charity.

“It’s like watching a sitcom,” BQ added when asked about flipping on a game. “Canned Laughter, the whole thing. I don’t have a lot of enthusiasm about sports right now. I’m following along but there’s a lot that’s distracting from the game right now.”

That seemed to be the consensus among my friends, but they all also agreed that golf might be the big winner.

“The way the courses are presented, in their normal state, that’s really nice,” “Pliers” told me last week. “Getting to see them without fans, without ropes or hospitality tents really shows them off.”

When you see the Stadium Course on television for The Players, it looks completely different than it does the other fifty-one weeks of the year. And it plays differently as well.

“I’ve loved golf without fans,” Ghost agreed. “You get to see more of the course. Even from the green to the next tee. Plus when they miss a fairway, the ball runs out. It doesn’t hit anybody.”

Maybe the virtual fans in the stands aren’t there for our viewing pleasure at all.

“I figured they put them there for the players,” ‘Jaguar Fan’ told me. “But they’re grown men, paid professionals. Fans or no fans, it shouldn’t matter.”

Give teams credit, trying to keep fans as part of the game. And they’ve made it fun for some.

“I’ll have this goofy cutout from this terrible pandemic year forever,” Thurman said. “Maybe I’ll get some players to sign it someday.”