Graham explores the power of audio in sport’s comeback

This week our country has found itself more divided than ever before. 

I’m talking, of course, about the deep split between the people who are super-excited by the return of football and those who are frankly a bit ‘meh’ about the whole thing! 

I am firmly in the first camp. 

And, because I’m part of the UK’s leading audio creative team, and because we’re frankly a teeny weeny bit, ever so slightly, absolutely OBSESSED with all things audio and its awesome power, I’ve found myself as interested in the sounds as I am in the sights that football’s comeback has brought us. 

And those sounds are centred around what has been coined by some in derisory terms as the ‘canned crowd noise’. 

About 3 to 4 weeks ago, as Germany eased its lockdown restrictions, the Bundesliga returned to action. And so, having not had a football fix in months, it immediately made its way to my TV screen! 

But, as I watched the opening game between Freiburg and RB Leipzig, it left me feeling cold. Of course, the crowds weren’t there due to social distancing measures, and it completely changed the atmosphere and dynamic of the match. 

The pictures that were being beamed into my living room were identical to pre-Covid matches but the sound was like another world. Instead of the excitement, the passion, the vitriol, pride, determination and desperation of 50,000 loyal fans, my ears were met with a mostly silent and sterile atmosphere, broken only by the team manager’s occasional barking of orders to their players – their voices echoing out into the abyss of the cavernous stadium. 

I was watching with my 10 year old son who rightly turned to me at one point with a scathing look and said: ‘this is ridiculous’. We lasted about 15 minutes. 

Fast forward a few weeks and the Premier League’s ‘Project Restart’ has achieved its goal...FOOTBALL IS BACK! 

And it’s back to be played with no spectators, ‘behind closed doors’ as they say, BUT with added crowd noise! 

When I first heard this idea, the cynic in me started to run riot! But, on matchday, I was proved wrong. For me, it REALLY works. 

OK, it’s not perfect, and you’re suspending reality slightly, but the difference between watching those earlier noise-free, atmosphere-draining Bundesliga matches vs the Premier League’s return was incomparable.

In fact, I believe the Bundesliga has taken heed and added in crowd noises now! 

The thing that makes it work SO well is the fact that it isn’t just 90 minutes of a flat ‘hum’ of generic crowd white-noise, as I’d initially expected. 

Instead, the Premier League have been working in partnership with EA Sports’ FIFA video game developers to create a crowd atmosphere that’s totally responsive to the action, with the audio programmed in real-time, ‘live’ by one of the production team in the studio. 

And so, as your team moves forward into the attacking third and your winger takes on the right back then whips his cross in, the sound engineer presses button number ‘x’ and the crowd noise builds in excitement to that anticipatory crescendo! 

And when a lunging tackle comes in and one of your players is pole-axed, the sound engineer hits another button and we hear shock and disgust as hearty boos ring out around the stadium! 

And when your attacking midfielder hits an audacious, swerving power-house of a shot from outside the box that nearly bursts the net, the sound engineer hits the ‘goal’ button and the crowd bursts into ROARS of delight! 

For those watching in Sky’s ‘Fanzone’, you can even overlay your own team’s songs with the click of the ‘choose a chant’ button too! 

Because it’s controlled on the spot by a human, it’s not without fault (I’ve heard a couple of cheers for bad tackles!) but it just shows what remarkable power the spectator sound has on our emotions, enjoyment and engagement in the game...and how pivotal it is to make us ‘feel’. 

It’s what we call ‘personal and contextual relevance’ – a key principle we employ every day to create the most engaging and effective audio possible for our clients. 

And it’s exactly the reason why I’ve enjoyed the Premier League’s return as much as I have. 

You can find out more about ‘personal and contextual relevance’ in our POWER OF SOUND presentation. If you’d like to organise a meeting for us to run through it, please just get in touch. 

Graham Bridgewood