By Brian Hoffman – Sports Editor
When I first heard about putting cutouts of fans in the seats at sporting events I thought it was one of the stupidest things I’d ever heard of. Now, in day 161 AG, I’ve done a 180.
Of course 161 AG means it’s been 161 days “After Gobert” tested positive for COVID-19 and all sports as we knew them came to a halt. Now Rudy Gobert of the Utah Jazz is back for the NBA playoffs, the National Hockey League is going full tilt in Canada with the Stanley Cup playoffs and Major League Baseball is struggling along with a 60 game regular season, but playing none the less.
While teams are playing and there’s lots of stuff to watch on television again, things are far from normal. There are no fans at the games and the three sports I mentioned are handling it in different ways. The hockey arenas are covering the seats with big tarps, like the Salem Civic Center would do when they knew about how many people were coming to an event and they wanted to make the crowd look bigger. Of course, the civic center only covered the seats on the ends while the hockey folks are covering ALL the seats.
The NBA has been interesting. They have “virtual fans” on a big screen and those fans actually react to the game as it is being played. The designated “home” team in the Orlando bubble gets to have the virtual fans, and they wave their hands behind the basket during opponents’ foul shots and act like they’re at the game while watching in the privacy of their homes. It’s a novel idea and it makes the game more fun.
Baseball is outdoors and the stadiums are too large for the screens of virtual fans, but many of the big league teams are putting cutouts in the seats where fans sit. Being a Phillies fans, I’ve watched all their games thus far and they’ve gone all out to make it a “homie” site at Citizen’s Bank Park.
Phillies fans had the opportunity to submit a photo and purchase a cutout of that photo to be displayed on a seat at Phillies’ home games. Cost was $25 for season ticket holders and $40 for the general public, with net proceeds benefitting Phillies Charities.
This went over big. The entire lower bowl at Citizen’s Bank Park is covered with cutouts and it ALMOST gives you an atmosphere of having fans at the game when you’re watching at home.
The Phillies fans have been very creative in ordering the cutouts. You can see dogs and other pets in the stands. If you look closely you can see cutouts of the Phillie Phantic, Ben Franklin, Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead and even long time Philadelphia A’s owner and manager Connie Mack. It’s fun to scan the “crowd” and look for interesting faces during the game.
The players treat like the cutouts like real fans at times. If Bryce Harper catches a fly ball to end an inning he tosses the ball into the stands just like he would if real people were there. Andrew McCutcheon made a nice catch and tipped his hat to the cutouts in response to the usual round of applause he would receive. And, by the way, fake applause is piped through the PA system at appropriate times.
The Phanatic has been very creative with the “new normal.” When the Mets were in town there was a cutout of a guy wearing a Mets jersey and a mean look on his face. The Phanatic attacked the cutout, bending the head backwards to where it had a big crease in it. Then, a couple innings later, he showed up in a Doctor’s outfit with a roll of duct tape to try and repair the cutout, which was obviously a plant. What Mets fan would spend $40 to have his face at a Phillies’ game?
Also, when a Phillies player hits a home run they put a cutout of that player on the spot where the ball landed, moving the fan photo to a different seat. It makes watching the games a lot more fun than it would normally be with no real people in the seats.
Of course, the day this virus magically goes away like President Trump said and fans will be in the seats again it will be a great day of celebration.