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Niemi: Without fans, games lose their pageantry

Lambeau Field is shown before a game between the Green Bay Packers and Atlanta Falcons on Monday, Oct. 5, 2020, in Green Bay, Wis. No fans were allowed to attend the game because of COVID-19 precautions. (Adam Niemi/The Daily Mining Gazette)

Fans are irreplaceable at sporting events. There’s no way around it.

Fans breathe life into the pageantry and tradition behind our favorite teams across all sports.

Without fans at this year’s games and events because of COVID-19 restrictions, it certainly gives interesting insight as to what we miss when fan noise hides just how vocal players, coaches and officials are during the course of a game.

The real cost of fans unable to attend games are the young kids and longtime fans who missed out on an opportunity to attend their first game, not just in a city where the fans are such a big part of the experience, like Green Bay, but everywhere, for all teams. One of my favorite moments to enjoy during Packers pregame is watching running back Jamaal Williams play catch with young and old fans in the stands, or a soldier in uniform the Packers honor on the field before opening kickoff.

Moments like that are lost in the COVID-19 era.

The restrictions keep family members and friends from seeing our local high school athletes compete and perform in the spotlight. For many prep athletes, it’s the only time they’ll be under the spotlight and command a community’s attention.

Those moments matter. They’re gone for now, but they will return.

Without the presence and passion of the fans, the game is indeed stripped to its core — the game itself — a simple transaction of converting a game into a win or a loss. No autographs, no selfies with players, no thunderous flyovers and no Lambeau leaps.

But what are some other details that stand out when the noise of 80,000 screaming fans at Lambeau Field is taken away?

First, let me take you on the field at Lambeau for a second, when there are fans. Let’s go back to Oct. 20, 2019, in the first quarter. We’re kneeling on the dashed yellow media line four yards behind the right side of the south end zone.

The crowd is lively and bubbling with ambient noise, but it’s quiet enough to hear Aaron Rodgers’ “Green 18” call on a first-and-10, about 30 yards from where I’m at. I focus my camera on Rodgers as he takes the snap and fakes a throw to his left side of the field. He turns in my direction, and throws the ball.

In the heat of the moment, I zoom out and focus on two bodies sprinting towards me at full speed. Packers running back Aaron Jones dives towards me and catches the ball behind a diving Raiders defender for a touchdown.

I can feel the vibration as they hit the ground.

The grass on the south end zone was still damp in the shade of the towering second deck. They’re going to slide into me at full speed, and this is going to hurt, I think, as they hit the ground. I brace myself to get hit by two NFL players — just another day at the office. I angle away and pull my camera back, still shooting. Who knows, maybe I’ll get something.

But nothing, no usable photos, and to my surprise no impact. They come to a stop within a foot of me. Jones pops up and gets on one knee beside me and points to the sky, yelling and celebrating his score that puts Green Bay ahead of the Raiders early on the way to a 42-24 win.

The roar of the crowd in that moment is so deafening that it rattles my head and chest. It’s so loud it’s silent. Beyond the yelling from Jones and teammates that rush over to celebrate, there’s no other discernible noise.

Since the camera lens I used had a minimum focal distance of four feet, Jones was ironically too close for me to take any photos. But knowing the television cameras were on Jones, with me next to him, I brought the camera to my eye to look busy.

Some say journalism is the rough draft of history. It’s indescribable to record history in that environment.

Without fans, it’s history for history’s sake.

Now, let’s go to last Monday night at Lambeau Field, as the Packers hosted the Falcons without fans.

I went through a COVID-19 health screening before entering Lambeau through the media entrance behind the south end zone nearly four hours before kickoff, just like pre-COVID Packer games I’ve worked.

After preparing my gear for a night of shooting and grabbing a bite to eat, I made my way out to the field. Prior to the numerous virus restrictions and protocols, photographers descended a stairwell into the Packers players’ tunnel to get on the field. On Monday, instead of taking the stairs, we were directed through a door from the media work rooms directly into the concession concourse beneath the stands, which is normally packed with fans and the smell of beer and concession. But on this night in the era of COVID-19, nobody was in the concourse besides myself.

When I entered the seating area called the “operational zone” this year for media members, there was complete silence. With some players litsening to music in casual clothes and warming up, I heard a motorbike rev and speed past Lambeau on nearby Lombardi Avenue.

During the game, plays were celebrated by the enthusiastic reactions of either bench.

The ambient noise played on the speakers isn’t loud. I heard camera shutters clicking across the field.

A Packers score didn’t elicit the deafening roar of 80,000 fans. Instead, it drew cheers from the Packer bench.

It felt more like a scrimmage than a nationally televised prime time game.

As interesting as it was to hear players and coaches talking X’s and O’s on the sidelines, or how much players communicate during a play, I missed the deafening noise of cheering fans.

I look forward to a time when we move past the anger in our society that has been sparked by social issues, the virus and election season. When fans can enter the turnstiles at stadiums and arenas, maybe we can channel that anger into rooting for our teams and witnessing sports moments we’ll cherish forever.

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