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As German Soccer Restarts, Broadcasters Use Crowd Sounds To Replace Missing Fans

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Germany's top soccer league is back. But while the Bundesliga has resumed its season, fans are barred from attending, which means games are taking place in empty, echoing stadiums, which is leading networks to experiment with new features to liven up the TV broadcasts. NPR's Laurel Wamsley reports.

LAUREL WAMSLEY, BYLINE: When FC Union Berlin took on Mainz this week, here's what it sounded like in the stadium.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED SOCCER PLAYER #1: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED SOCCER PLAYER #2: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED SOCCER PLAYER #3: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Non-English language spoken).

WAMSLEY: That's hardly recognizable as a pro soccer match. It is so eerily quiet.

ROBERT CERVANTES: It honestly felt like watching a practice.

WAMSLEY: That's Robert Cervantes, a leader of a Baltimore club for fans of Bayern Munich, the Bundesliga's top team. Sports-starved Americans have been watching Bundesliga games on Fox Sports. And this week, the broadcaster tried something new. It began using a feed of the games that has crowd sounds from previous matches layered onto it, complete with chanting, singing and cheering. Here's what a game between Dusseldorf and Schalke played in a totally empty stadium sounded like to the viewers watching on Fox Sports.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: We've had so many draws.

WAMSLEY: Cervantes said that change caused a clash between what he saw and what he heard.

CERVANTES: You could definitely see the stadium is empty. It kind of felt awkward to hear fan noise. But then with your eyes, you're seeing that there is no fans.

WAMSLEY: Alexi Lalas is a former star on the U.S. National Team and is now an analyst for Fox Soccer.

ALEXI LALAS: I love it. We all know it's not real, but it is enhancing the viewing experience. And right now without crowds, that's all there is, is the television viewing experience.

WAMSLEY: Fox itself isn't creating the crowd sound. It's using a feed made by the broadcaster Sky Deutschland. But when the games are broadcast in Germany, the true stadium feed is used. Fans who want to hear the crowd sound version can stream it online. Marcus Sotereanos (ph) is one of those German fans whose cheers and groans is being imitated by the broadcaster's use of pre-recorded sound.

MARCUS SOTEREANOS: For us, it's a bit astonishing because in our opinion, you cannot replace fans and supporters in the stadiums.

WAMSLEY: In Germany, these matches held without fans present are called ghost games. The Bundesliga has returned so soon because some teams were facing financial disaster if it didn't. Sotereanos says that if it is necessary to play these games right now, they should be shown as they really are and not be made artificially more comfortable for those watching on TV. But for many fans in the U.S., the return of sports anywhere feels like a balm for troubled times. Lalas says that sports are a kind of comfort food.

LALAS: And the ear wants what the ear wants. And without that crowd noise, it's a different type of experience.

WAMSLEY: An experience that leagues and fans around the world are listening to very closely. Laurel Wamsley, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF UYAMA HIROTO'S "YIN AND YANG") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.