How to be a ‘virtual fan’ at NBA, MLB, and other games this summer

These are hard times for those who love to attend live sporting events. This week has brought more news of American sports leagues and teams deciding to either limit the number of fans able to attend their upcoming events, or opting to bar them entirely.

On Wednesday, it emerged that both the Masters and the Kentucky Derby—two of America’s most prestigious sporting events, which were already postponed from their traditional spring dates as a result of the pandemic—will go ahead this fall with no fans and significantly fewer fans in attendance, respectively.

Meanwhile, the NFL’s Washington Football Team announced Wednesday that it would play its 2020 season without fans in attendance at its home stadium. The team joins numerous other NFL franchises that have indicated they would have no fans or significantly fewer fans attending their games in the upcoming season.

Elsewhere, some leagues and their fans are making the best of an unfortunate situation. The NBA and the NHL as well as MLB are currently proceeding with their seasons even though fans are barred from attending—and each has taken its own unique approach to ensuring supporters still feel involved in the action.

Here’s a look at what each league is doing and how you can participate.


The NBA, which has resumed its season in its “bubble” at the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, has drawn plaudits for its particularly innovative approach to involving fans in its basketball games. At every game, the league displays more than 300 “virtual fans” on 17-foot-tall video screens standing next to the court—an arrangement made possible through a partnership with Microsoft

If you’re a fan, you can sign up for free through your favorite team to be featured on the screens. Though it’s worth noting that the league has a conduct policy that means unruly “virtual fans”—no different than the real ones who attend games in person—can be ejected for inappropriate conduct.


Things have proved a little more complicated for Major League Baseball, which is not playing in a bubble but rather at ballparks around the country. The league has been plagued by positive COVID-19 tests among its players, forcing numerous games to be canceled.

While physical baseball games are presently closed to fans, MLB teams have taken measures to include their supporters. Many allow fans to purchase cardboard cutouts of their faces that are displayed in the stands during games. The price of those cutouts range anywhere from $25 for Atlanta Braves and Philadelphia Phillies season ticket holders to a $500 donation to the Boston Red Sox Foundation that gets fans a cutout placed atop the famed “Green Monster” at Fenway Park.

Meanwhile, Fox’s decision to include fake, computer-generated fans in its MLB broadcasts has drawn plenty of mockery online.


And then there’s the NHL, which has resumed its season via two bubbles located in Toronto and Edmonton. Unfortunately there are no fans—real or virtual—involved in the hockey games. Still, those watching from home have gotten a kick out of the league’s use of its Jumbotrons, and four cooling fans placed in the stands in Edmonton quickly became Internet sensations among the NHL’s online fan community.

The absence of actual human fans from American sporting events is undoubtedly a blow for these sports and their respective products—especially during playoff games that are usually characterized by a raucous atmosphere that elevates the competitiveness and makes for more compelling contests.

What’s more, the absence of fans during the pandemic is costing the sports industry billions of dollars in revenue from ticketing and other income streams, something that could put a considerable dent in the economics of many sports for years to come.

But like American society at large, sports leagues and their teams have had to make the best of an unprecedented situation—and that includes doing what they can to ensure their fans, the economic and cultural lifeblood of their sports, feel as engaged as possible.

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