Sports

A crowdsourced crowd is cool, but nothing beats real sports spectators

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Hugh Gentry/Reuters

Triathlete Sebastian Kienle of Germany reacts to the crowd after taking third place at the Ironman World Championship in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii, Oct. 12, 2013.

There’s an off-the-field contest taking place this season among US football fans: to be the loudest.

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On Sept. 15, Seattle Seahawks fans roared their way to a world record for the loudest outdoor stadium crowd. Less than a month later, fans of the Kansas City Chiefs screamed six decibels louder. A week later, Clemson fans tried but failed to break the record. 

The “12th man” is a staple of home-field advantage. But it’s not just the home players who get a lift — sports history is full of moments when a hostile crowd lifts the road team.

Sports consumers need to hear it too: the more crucial the contest, the louder the crowd must be. And you can only really get a sense of just how much we all crave that sound when it’s not there.

Last May, at the climax of the Swiss soccer season, two teams with a fierce rivalry, Grasshoppers and FC Zurich, played each other.  Swiss TV station SRF broadcast the highlights, complete with the usual crowd “oohs,” “aahs” and less printable utterances. There was just one problem: for the first ten minutes of the match, the crowd wasn’t actually there.  The fans of both teams were staging a protest outside the stadium. They only went inside later in the game.

The TV station said they wanted to make the show “as attractive as possible.” So they added fake crowd sounds — and later apologized. But you can see where they were coming from. What kind of enjoyment is there in watching a big game, even on TV, in silence — with virtually no one watching?

Usually when games are played behind closed doors, it’s a punishment, often for hooliganism.  But it’s rare that more than one or two teams are punished.  In Tunisia, nearly all professional soccer matches are played in empty stadiums. The country is still in post-revolutionary turmoil and authorities fear large gatherings could quickly turn nasty.

That’s what led advertizing agency Ogilvy and Mather to create not exactly a fake crowd, but not a real one either.

“We created an app that connected mobile phones and the Internet to big loud speakers,” says Ogilvy’s Nicholas Courant. “There were 40 speakers inside the stadium.”

Recordings of the fans’ chants were blasted out of the speakers in the stadium belonging to Tunisian first division team Hamman Lif. Fans watching games on TV could use the app to show their appreciation of their team.

“The users just had to tap on sound icons,” says Courant. “A simple tap was instantly transformed into powerful support, because the more you tapped on the icon, the louder it was in the stadium.”

It got really loud for Hamman Lif’s crunch game of the season. Some 93,000 fans used the app during that match — their finger taps roaring their team onto victory. The conventional fan capacity of the stadium is just 12,000.

There’s no question this crowd-sourcing of crowds has provided a valuable service in a country where real crowds are verboten. But the app, called The 12th Man, has its limits. It doesn’t have an icon for booing or heckling. And as much as the players may have enjoyed the noise, it was coming out of big boxes. You can’t beat a real crowd.

Double gold medal winner Mo Farah credits the crowd at the 2012 Olympics with his wins — especially the second one, the 5,000 meters. The crowd, he says, was “just amazing.” They gave him “that extra gear. They gave me that lift.”

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