Tramel: COVID is showing us that fans in the stands matter from the NBA to the NFL to college hoops
The Phog Allen Fieldhouse clock reached 4:00 in the second half last Saturday afternoon, Kansas led OU by two points, and that’s the point where for 65 years America’s greatest athletic venue rocks and chalks and imposes its will on a basketball game.
But something was amiss.
The Sooners and Jayhawks were about to play ferocious hoops, a sprint to the finish. Four lead changes in 84 seconds. A switchblade 3-pointer by KU sophomore Jalen Wilson with 1:31 left. A sealing short jumper by Jayhawk center David McCormack with 15 seconds to go. A scintillating 63-59 Kansas victory that normally would leave all on deck still shaking from the spirit in the gymnasium.
But normal it is not. Even the unruffable Lon Kruger noticed.
The OU coach has been playing or coaching in big-time games at Allen Fieldhouse for literally half a century. And this was unlike any other.
“The last four minutes was intense and competitive, yet it was different without those 16,000 people in your huddles during every timeout,” Kruger said. “I think that's the way it is everywhere.”
Pandemic protocols limited KU attendance to 2,500, which made The Phog more haunted house than animal house. It’s that way all over sports.
Most NBA arenas are without fans. Some NFL stadiums, the same. Those with fans have only a smattering of spectators, compared to the packed seats at most major-league venues.
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College football games allowed no more than 25 percent of normal capacity and many allowed a lot less. Same with college basketball games.
And now it’s time to declare that fans matter. Not just for the atmosphere they provide, but for the impact they have. Homecourt and homefield advantage disappeared. Road teams are winning with robust frequency.
Teams still face travel hazards. The comforts of home remain. But there are no fans to energize home squads at critical times or to mess with the minds of the enemy or to rain so much fire and brimstone that referees subconsciously make a call or three that tilts a game.
And the advantages of home have withered.
No team moreso than the Thunder, which is 0-5 in downtown OKC and 5-1 on the road. The fans matter.
“I don’t like excuses,” the Thunder’s Darius Bazley said. “And I don’t want to say yes for that. Don’t get me wrong. Fans do help. But no matter what, this is our job. Whatever we gotta do to get ready, making sure we’re locked in, we have to be there.”
Good attitude. But not reality. Doesn’t matter if someone makes excuses or not, the evidence is strong.
In the four full NBA seasons from 2015-19, home team winning percentages ranged from .580 to .592. So far this season, home teams are 78-88, a winning percentage of .470. It’s not just the bad teams that are better on the road; the mighty Lakers are 3-3 at home, 7-0 on the road.
College basketball? The Big 12 has gone cuckoo. College basketball has been a road team’s worst enemy all my life. Last year, Big 12 home teams went 58-32 in conference play. This season? Big 12 home teams are 10-17 in conference play.
OSU won at Texas Tech, Texas Tech won at Texas, Texas won at Kansas, TCU won at OSU. You can go in that circle for an hour. It’s nuts.
“I don’t know why, but fans help players play their best,” said OU center Kur Kuath. “They give us energy and make us play our best. It does obviously make a big difference, in my opinion.”
Same with pro football. In 2016-18, NFL home teams had winning percentages of .579, .567 and .603. In 2020, NFL home teams had a losing record, 127-128-1.
Only in college football was the homefield normal. In the Big 12, home teams went 26-16 in conference play, after going 25-19 and 28-15 the previous two years. In the Southeastern Conference, home teams this season went 37-30, after going 32-22 and 30-24 the previous two years.
But college football is cursed by scheduling manipulation and a caste system. It will take more than COVID-19 protocols to upset the campus gridiron order.
Every other sport? The lack of fans is making games a crapshoot.
“The engagement of students, the enthusiasm of the fan base, especially once you get into conference play, there’s that familiarity,” said OSU basketball coach Mike Boynton. “You see guys for the third and fourth time at a place and it gets a reputation. Lindy Waters was not well-liked in Lubbock. So this year, you just lost some of that, and we all know why. And it’s certainly something that we don't have to worry about long term.”
So salute yourself, student sections and fan bases, the donors who pay crazy money and the crazies who paint their faces, and the hard hats and hard workers who find a release cheering on their squad.
Turns out you more than provide our games with atmosphere. You impact the scoreboard. Just as we suspected all along. Come back soon.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at 405-760-8080 or at email@example.com. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. Support his work and that of other Oklahoman journalists by purchasing a digital subscription today.