Melbourne Storm football boss Frank Ponissi has revealed a proposal to organise teams in conferences at four different locations as the NRL scrambles to find ways to get back on the field.
Amid all the doom and gloom, it was wonderful to have a familiar distraction in the form of rugby league, but boy what a strange spectacle it was.
The booming echos of Steve Chiddy bouncing around the empty seats of ANZ Stadium during a captain’s challenge, the hollow pangs of music rumbling through the nosebleeds after scoring plays, no announcer providing a score update or the introduction of a new player from the bench. They all became agonisingly apparent with the absence of a crowd.
Two major things have been highlighted from this first experiment.
Firstly, the crowd is far more integral to sport then perhaps we ever considered. When you’re on the field yourself, you can typically tell when you’re involved in an intense match or a game of particularly high quality – there’s a feeling there. But on grand final day with a mere 100 for grassroots sport, the excitement is at fever pitch and even an average game feels special.
Fans have long been considered more spectators than active participants, but from the couch it was clear just how important those chants, cheers and jeers of “get him onside” truly are.
Secondly, if the game is to continue with its current policy then with the wonders of modern technology and practical effects, there is most certainly a number of ways to really improve things.
I was watching the Fox coverage and the camera crew, Warren Smith and Greg Alexander did their best to supply a decent product. Commentary was energetic, a bed of music was played on Fox during try replays but there is the potential for so much more.
A few years ago Triple M ran a commentary competition. Participants had to either call an existing NRL game or grassroots match, and the best submissions were filtered out before resulting in calling the under-20s grand final. Some entries had removed the original commentary, dubbed their own and played it out. The best, though, also sourced crowd sound effects that responded to the teams’ position on the field and the play that was unfolding. There was a constant crowd murmuring until a break was made, at which point cue the crowd going up and then up a further notch for a try being scored.
Fox and Nine could, without a great degree of difficulty, create a fake sound board to mirror what’s happening on the field. Jorge Taufua’s big hits won’t have quite the same impact without an “ooof” ringing out. How good would it be to hear the cowbell ring out at AAMI Park (or wherever the Storm will play) or the one extremely coarse Sea Eagles fan start the “Manly” chant!
Sound effects are a nice touch, but with the backdrop of an empty stadium that would almost heighten the absurdity. A simple fix.
A lot of sponsors are already super imposed onto the playing surface, with ANZ in particular having nothing but blue seats technical wizardry could very easily provide consistent fake crowds for long shots from all different angles by using stock footage featuring crowds from previous games between the two sides playing. Combined with crowd effects it would almost seem normal.
It’s also not exactly new to the NRL. In 2017 reports found that broadcasters had been using some fake cut-aways of crowd shots after tries were scored. These were crowd-only shots and would be very easy to squeeze into the broadcast – these wouldn’t even need to be superimposed.
Combine the superimposed crowds, stock footage and crowd sound effects and we have something resembling normalcy and atmosphere.
Having a sideline reporter where possible (Fox did not) would also add a nice familiar element to the broadcast. In the interest of player and public safety, they don’t need to directly interact or interview the players – but those little bells and whistles of pitch condition reports, wind direction, talking about heavy contact and relaying what coaches have said or banter between players that might not get picked up by effects mics would all be part of the theatrics that help with the product’s polish.
The last part of the equation comes down to the NRL and clubs themselves.
There was something very hollow about Tones and I wailing in the background after a try without an announcement. There’s clearly staff there to play the music. I would implore that staff also provide a ground announcement for interchanges and additional points at the very least. Working collaboratively with broadcasters they could even begin a chant when a team is on the attack and then broadcasters cue the response of the crowd to join in.
And in terms of practical effects, depending on which grounds are used moving forward (if it’s Queensland Country Bank Stadium or Bankwest Stadium then the lighting effects are sufficient), keeping the pyrotechnics in play for entries and tries would further help create an artificial atmosphere.
The NRL have done a tremendous job to implement policies and procedures to keep the game moving in these challenging times and as much as I was grateful to have the footy on, I did find myself struggling to engage at times with it. These measures might go some way to heightening that engagement and ultimately maximise our interest and enjoyment levels, improving the broadcast product and potentially enticing investors like ESPN to help it stay afloat.