NFL broadcasts to feature phantom fans cheering stellar plays

National Football League broadcasts will look different this year, with rows of empty seats in the stadiums. But they’ll sound as close to normal as the league can make them.

The NFL is set to kick off its 2020 season Thursday night in Kansas City, where the Super Bowl champion Chiefs host the Houston Texans. About 16,000 fans are expected, less than one-quarter Arrowhead Stadium’s capacity, due to social distancing in the coronavirus pandemic. But if all goes according to plan, NFL Films will supply prerecorded audio specific to each venue and it’ll sound as if 76,416 fans are cheering every Patrick Mahomes pass completion.

“We paid attention when the Bundesliga came back,” said Onnie Bose, the NFL’s vice president of events, referring to the German professional soccer league. “The first week it had no audio and the second week it had it. You could just tell viscerally what the difference was.”

Recognizing the importance of sound to home viewers’ enjoyment, the NFL decided to dispatch audio engineers to each game. They’ll be playing what’s called custom audio palettes to juice up an otherwise eerily silent broadcast.

Those palettes have been culled from NFL Films, which for years has archived high-quality sound from each stadium.

So TV viewers won’t just hear a generic waaah on a loop. Instead, they’ll likely get Fireman Ed leading an overflow crowd in a J-E-T-S chant at a New York Jets game. Or when the Philadelphia Eagles score a touchdown, “Fly Eagles Fly” might suddenly rise up from the empty seats. Or when Myles Garrett of the Cleveland Browns sacks Joe Burrow to end a Cincinnati Bengals drive, the Dawg Pound may be heard barking their dog masks off. It’ll be up to the audio engineers at each stadium to decide what to play and when.

“We hired engineers to be at each stadium and produce audio that is appropriate to that moment of the game,” Bose said. “It’s a very dynamic range that we’ve created.”

Those in the stadium will hear a baseline, generic crowd murmur played at 70 decibels—about the volume of a vacuum cleaner —used to mask offensive and defensive play calls.

The plan for in-stadium sound received less than a rousing endorsement from San Francisco 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan.

“All it’s going to do is be human torture,” Shanahan said.

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