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MLB clubs look to reinvent fan experience in empty ballparks

Example of the Coliseum Cutouts that Major League Baseball's Oakland A's are selling as part of the amended 2020 season. (Oakland A's)

  • Growing number of teams employing fan cutouts also used in Europe and Asia
  • Increased focus on using pumped-in sound and ambient noise
  • Scoreboards and jumbotrons will still be used

There are the obvious and often difficult realities that come with restarting the 2020 Major League Baseball season Covid-19 pandemic still growing in scope across the United States, namely the current inability to play games without any attending fans. And there are, of course, extensive and detailed health protocols to follow in order to ensure the safety of all involved personnel.

But there is also one other thing that goes along with these components of restarting the season, or least should.

“Baseball is supposed to be fun,” says Oakland A’s president Dave Kaval. “It’s supposed to be a fun time. And we want to capture some of that excitement that is part of coming to a game.”

The A’s are just one part of a fast-growing contingent of MLB clubs now working on new fan engagement efforts as part of the league’s planned 60-game regular season that will begin around July 23 that will seek to bring life and energy into otherwise-empty ballparks. 

Somewhat resembling in part similar initiatives being conducted in similar sports league restarts in both Europe and Asia, activities in development in MLB include the installation of cutouts in stadium seats that will feature the faces of individual fans and those of franchise icons and celebrities, as well as the playing of pre-recorded crowd noise and other ambient noise to help boost the energy level of games for television audiences. 

Many teams are additionally planning to use use their digital scoreboards and jumbotrons for the benefit of both fans watching at home and players in the ballparks, and are developing various digitally-focused efforts to heighten fan connection to players, such as the possibility of some post-game videoconferencing sessions. 

“When you go to a game, whether it’s the sounds, the smells, the feel of it, things like a day game in the summer with the kids running around, there’s all this tapestry to it we’re trying to recreate without the fans there, but do it in a balanced, organic way that feels right,” Kaval said.

Of course, that’s a tall order without the physical presence of tens of thousands of people attending each game and the energy they bring. But the unprecedented nature of the pandemic is forcing along new levels of thinking and the implementation of measures that perhaps would not have been previously considered.

“We’re trying to keep our fans engaged, have a little bit of fun, and also be creative at a time when it’s obviously been a tough summer and we all have to take some chances,” said Mario Alioto, San Francisco Giants executive vice-president of business operations. “It’s all new territory, and this really forces you to think differently and take the blinders off of what is considered normal.”

Cutout Realities

The idea of installing in otherwise empty seats cutout pictures of fans made of cardboard or plastic is not new, or exclusive to MLB clubs. Other entities such as South Korea’s KBO League, Bundesliga in Germany, and Australia’s National Rugby League have already made similar efforts in recent weeks, with some mixed results operationally. 

But given the number of games involved in even the sharply reduced size of the 60-game MLB season, the implementation of cutouts here holds the potential to be much larger in scope. 

At least four MLB teams thus far – the A’s, Giants, Kansas City Royals, and Milwaukee Brewers – have formally announced cutout plans, with more likely to join the parade as the league’s season restart around July 23 approaches.

In each market, the particular elements of the program vary, but all share a basic premise in which fans can purchase a cutout made of reinforced cardboard or plastic, upload a picture of themselves to be placed on the cutout, and then have it situated in a seat in the ballpark. Prices range from $40-129, depending on the team and seating location involved, with funds typically earmarked for local charities. The Giants, however, will offer the cutouts for free to season ticket holders if they roll over funds to the 2021 season.

In less than a week of availability, the A’s said they approaching 1,000 cutouts sold, while the Giants with a few extra days of lead time have roughly doubled that figure.

The Brewers’ “Cutout Crew” program will be reserved for the top of Miller Park, near the “Last Row” statue there of beloved team announcer Bob Uecker that commemorates his famous “I must be in the front row” TV ad campaign for beer brand Miller Lite that always saw him end up in the last row. The club sold out their allotment of 500 cutouts in less than 24 hours.

“We miss our fans and wanted to come up with a creative way for them to participate in the action this year,” says Rick Schlesinger, Brewers president of business operations.

“While nothing can replace the energy and passion of our loyal fans in the stands, the Cutout Crew is a unique way we can welcome familiar faces for now in Miller Park.”

Oakland’s Coliseum Cutouts program, meanwhile, have added some additional wrinkles, including a higher price to be located in what is deemed the Foul Ball Zone at RingCentral Coliseum. If a foul ball hits a fan cutout, that fan will receive a ball sent to them by the A’s. The club is even contemplating a visiting fan zone for fan cutouts, and Kaval joked on Twitter that cutouts for fans of the rival Giants could be placed “in the seagull zone where the birds can perform target practice.”

“It’s about keeping this all fun, fresh, and light,” Kaval says. “People are looking for things like that. It’s all uncharted territory. But we’re trying to give people reasons to watch, and with this they’ll be able to see if they can find themselves on the broadcast, and we’re working with the broadcasters to highlight the cutouts.”

The Giants have similar notions in mind, and also plan to sprinkle in images of notable personalities among the fans.

“It’ll be a bit like finding Waldo in the crowd,” Alioto says. “It’ll be interesting to see who we have pop in there.”

An aerial view of an empty Oracle Park, home of Major League Baseball’s San Francisco Giants. The club is one of many across the league working on new in-stadium fan engagement efforts despite not having attending fans this season. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Sounds Of The Game

MLB clubs are also thinking extensively about the audio components of their game presentation with two different constituencies in mind: the players on the field, and fans watching or listening at home. 

Those camps are not necessarily in conflict with each other. But normally, attending fans with the occasional boost from an organist or public address announcer would provide the heavy lifting for both groups, supplying energy that would at once energize play on the field and provide a sense of excitement for at-home viewers.

Clubs are now forced to recreate all that from scratch. And tools to do that include piped-in crowd noise recorded during pre-pandemic games, and sounds coming from scoreboards and public-address systems in the ballparks.

“It doesn’t have be some canned laugh track, like it’s from some Hollywood producer,” Kaval says. “It can and will reference us, and have things like the ‘Let’s Go Oakland’ chant.”

Exact execution plans for in-game audio have not been finalized. But active conversations are currently happening between individual teams and local and national rights-holders to determine the proper mix and balance for sound.

“We’re spending a lot of time with our radio partners, our television partners on what makes sense for them and what’s appropriate,” Alioto says. “It seems like all teams are leaning toward having ambient sounds in the ballpark as opposed to being quiet. 

“We were joking among the staff that you might now hear the radio announcer do his home run call on the TV broadcast because the booths are so close together. But if we have some crowd noise, that is going to create the environment to make it feel a little more real. And we’re still going to have our scoreboard. We may not do every piece of information there that we normally would. But when [catcher] Buster Posey hits a double, we’re still going to do the cheers and audio chants. The overarching goal is to make this all as real as possible,” Alioto says. 

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