Silence in the stands: Does it matter for fans?

Dr. Dorothy Collins

Assistant Professor of Sport Management at Lake Erie College in Painesville, Ohio. Dr. Collins’ primary research interests center on sport fan identity and the extent to which individuals use sport to create communities rich in social capital.

Section 4: Fandom & National Identity

Due to COVID-19, the 2020 Tokyo Olympics (held in 2021) was unprecedented in that it occurred without live fans. This brings to question the importance of having live fans at a mega-event for the creation and maintenance of a highly identified fan base. Unlike sport contests put on by local teams, most fans will never attend the Olympics.  Because the Olympics does not have a fixed location, it also does not have a hometown fan community. As such, it would seem that traditional ideas about sport attendance which are based on geographic proximity of fans, do not apply particularly well to the modern Olympics. 

Some critics of the Olympics have suggested that mega-events cause more harm than good, particularly with relation to environmental, social and economic factors. There is perhaps no better example of these issues than the Tokyo games, which have been particularly fraught with controversy. In fact, the Olympics are a “made-for-TV” event, as evidenced by scheduling decisions such as holding the swimming finals in the morning to cater to American primetime television broadcasting. Further evidence of the fact that the Olympics is a made-for-tv event is demonstrated by the fact that it depends so heavily on viewership that when the Tokyo games failed to deliver the expected viewership, NBC was forced to give advertisers extra advertising spots to make up for it.

One must then ask if it even matters if there is a live viewing audience at the Olympics, or if Tokyo was a test case for a mega-event that does not include a live audience. While the average fan might never attend an Olympics, the modern Olympic games certainly draw a crowd. The five Summer Games held since 2000 have averaged more than six million tickets sold.  When the Olympics were postponed in March of 2000, more than 4.5 million tickets had already been soldUltimately, when the rescheduled games prohibited fans, roughly $800 million dollars in ticket revenue for local organizers in Japan was lost. The reliance on ticket revenue, however, stems, at least in part, from the massive influx of tourists attending the Olympics. Therefore, one must question if scaling down the size of the live audience, while focusing on providing high tech virtual opportunities that connect to diverse social identities for the rest of the world, is a middle ground that would lower the costs of hosting the Olympics, while creating the necessary level of fan identification to keep the Olympics relevant.

While attending an Olympics is a transformative experience, few fans will ever have this experience. The lack of fans in the stands in Tokyo did negatively impact the athletes, but this concern could be overcome with a smaller audience. Most fans of the Olympics are not much different from the non-local fans of other sports, who in some cases, only consume sport via technological means.  Based on what research about fan identification and sport consumption has revealed, several things are known, there are several lessons Olympics stakeholders might consider, in order to make the Olympics more relevant to these non-local fans. 

First, highly identified fans demonstrate higher levels of sport consumption. Furthermore, it has long been understood that the more of an individual’s identity a sport property attaches to, the more highly identified individuals are likely to become. The Olympics, which features many sports, nationalistic competition, and many athletes with diverse identities and compelling stories, has a unique opportunity to do this.

Second, in order to remain highly identified fans, most individuals must, in some way, participate in a fan community. It is now understood that, at least in some situations, individuals are using technology to create fan communities outside the area in which the event is taking place.  These types of communities have sprung up for non-local fans both in person in their geographic locations, and virtually using the internet.  In some cases, the communities are strong enough to not only create and preserve a sense of identification, but to produce social capital for these fans. Based on this, it would seem that the Olympics could be more relevant for more individuals, if the various Olympic stakeholders made a decided effort to help foster and support the creation of such groups, not only during Olympic competition, but also during the time periods between Olympics, during which they fade into the background for many individuals.

It is clear that technology has the potential to allow more robust sport experiences without traditional in person attendance; however, this only works if individuals are interested in seeking out these experiences. In Tokyo, viewership numbers plummeted, and thus it is clear that if the Olympics are to remain relevant, it is necessary for Olympic organizers to examine what is known about engaging non-local fans and begin utilizing those ideas to ensure that fans remain highly identified enough to continue consuming the Olympics.