Fox Sports announcer Joe Buck revealed on SiriusXM's Andy Cohen Live (h/t John Ourand of Sports Business Journal) his network is planning on pumping in crowd noise and putting virtual fans in the stands during broadcasts of NFL games in the 2020 season.
"It's pretty much a done deal," he said. "I think whoever is going to be at that control is going to have to be really good at their job and be realistic with how a crowd would react depending on what just happened on the field. So it's real important."
Buck's comments come under the assumption there will be no fans in the stadiums come September when the season starts.
It is, frankly, a fair assumption given the remaining uncertainty regarding the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States and the sports world at large. While the NFL had the luxury of time that leagues such as the NBA, MLB, NHL and MLS did not when social distancing measures went into place in March, there will likely still be a significant element of risk to packing tens of thousands of people in the stands in the fall.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, who is the director of the National Institutes for Health, underscored the level of uncertainty when he told Peter King of Football Morning in America it is "feasible" the NFL could play to empty stadiums or perhaps with limited attendance:
"I think it's feasible that negative testing players could play to an empty stadium. Is it guaranteed? No way ... There will be virus out there and you will know your players are negative at the time they step onto the field. You're not endangering ... Also, if the virus is so low that even in the general community the risk is low, then I could see filling a third of the stadium or half the stadium so people could be six feet apart. I mean, that's something that is again feasible depending on the level of infection."
Jonathan Jones of CBS Sports offered a "conservative estimate" that holding games without fans during the 2020 season could cost approximately $70 million in gate receipts per team alone, and that is not accounting for concession sales and parking.
Still, playing the games in empty stadiums could help the league and its players salvage money from the television deals as networks such as Fox provide sports-starved audiences with football games to watch.
While there may not be fans in the stands, Buck's comments suggest those networks will do what they can to replicate a familiar situation.