Fans in the Swamp

A return to normalcy is often a slow trudge. In the wake of the world-stopping COVID-19 pandemic, our favorite activities and spectacles may return with restrictions. 


No one knows exactly how college athletics will look going forward, but if the Gators play in the fall, it might be without the support of Gator Nation in the stands. 


This is a tough reality to grapple with for a UF fanbase that treats its athletics like a religion and for the athletes who have developed under a large and faithful audience. But given the novelty of this reality, it’s worth considering what sports will be like without spectators. 


Athletes aren’t identical, and certain circumstances affect each player differently, but an overall decrease in athletic performance is possible. 


“An audience increases psychological arousal and produces adrenaline, which can increase performance,” said Jason Kostrna, assistant professor of sports psychology at Florida International. “That’s why you’ll see players run a 4.7 in practice but get up to 4.4 or 4.5 in a game.”


Kostrna also touched on the impact that large venues can have on players. 


That “wow factor” exists at stadiums such as the Swamp. He said opposing players might spend time looking for loved ones in the stands or get distracted by the crowd noise, which creates an advantage for the home team. 


Nataniel Boiangin, assistant professor of sport, exercise and performance psychology at Barry University, said that athletics without fans could give TV viewers a new perspective.


“I really hope that games are broadcast without crowd noise”, Boiangin said. “There is so much communication that goes on during games at this level and it might give fans a new appreciation for what these athletes do”


However, the greatest impact of empty grounds will likely be in how games are officiated. 


“[The refs] are affected by the crowd, and expressing your discontent with officiating impacts their decision-making,” said Kostrna. 


While this trend has diminished in recent years, having games contested behind closed doors should result in more evenly called contests across college sports, said Kostrna.


This leaves fans in a tough position, as their ability to directly encourage the players and influence the outcome no longer exists. Both Kostrna and Boiangin recommended that fans use social media and be patient while they are forced to watch games from home. 


“Athletes are certainly social media aware,” said Kostrna, “[They are] aware of [the] good and bad that comes with social media. Certain athletes are really driven by the likes and the retweets, so that’s a good way to show your support.”


In these interactions, it’s important to understand that for these players, especially those that are driven by the dynamics of the crowd, are just as unsettled as the fans. 


Boiangin spoke about how the “internal voice” in athletes’ heads becomes a lot louder when there’s no crowd noise to contend with. For athletes who have been told to drown out the crowd noise for years, this serves as a difficult obstacle to overcome, and an adjustment that may take some time. 


There are so many elements that make sports great: the spectacle, the brotherhood, the tradition. Despite the changing atmosphere that could come in the fall, the mindset hasn’t changed for UF athletes. 


“I don’t think it changes any of our exceptions going forward,” said Gators soccer striker Madison Alexander. “If anything, the time spent bonding over Zoom calls and speaking with the coaches has made us stronger as a team. We’re really chomping at the bit to get back out there.”

Follow Declan on Twitter @dawalsh_uf. Contact him at [email protected]