CINCINNATI — I was one of the thousands of fortunate fans able to attend Sunday’s matchup between the Cincinnati Bengals and Jacksonville Jaguars at Paul Brown Stadium.
Several months ago, I didn’t even think an NFL season would be possible. I remember staring at the TV in disbelief as the Kansas City Chiefs and Houston Texans kicked off the regular season in September. Football was actually happening again. I was even more surprised to see that there were fans in Arrowhead Stadium that night, and I found myself wondering about their experience. What was it like to attend an NFL game during these times?
In the days that followed, I couldn’t find any first-hand accounts from anyone in attendance. I knew I’d have a chance at getting my own observations soon. It had already been announced that Ohio Governor Mike DeWine was permitting 6,000 fans at Paul Brown Stadium for two games, and I was determined to attend at least one of them. I wanted to share my experience for anyone, like me, who may wonder what it’s like to attend an NFL game during a pandemic.
My wife and I were able to buy tickets online several weeks ahead of the game. We chose tickets in the same vicinity as our normal season tickets in an attempt to ensure some sense of consistency in this absurd year. When gameday finally arrived, we dropped our children off with grandparents and drove towards downtown Cincinnati without facing any semblance of the traffic typically found on gameday.
Entering the stadium couldn’t have been easier. We arrived at our assigned gate, had our digital tickets scanned, walked through metal detectors and we were inside the stadium in less than 30 seconds. That process might take up to 30 minutes in a normal year.
I walked across a mostly empty plaza area, taking in my surroundings. Chairs were bundled on top of tables, communal areas were roped off and, despite the music booming over the loudspeaker, everything felt quiet.
When we reached our seats, we were met with complimentary Bengals face coverings (neck gaiters specifically) to wear during the game. It’s rare to get free handouts at Paul Brown Stadium, so it felt like a privilege getting orange-and-black PPE, which many fans donned throughout the game. We settled in and waited for kickoff, surrounded by empty seats that were zip tied shut to ensure that groups remained in their assigned seating area.
I was surprised at how loud 6,243 fans can get. When Joe Burrow emerged from the tunnel, the cheers that erupted would make you question the fact that Paul Brown Stadium was at only 10 percent capacity. Perhaps being mostly sequestered to my home for the past six months has warped my perception of “crowd noise,” or maybe the thousands of NFL fans in attendance were in search of unparalleled catharsis after months of being pummeled by a global pandemic—it might’ve been a little of both.
Or perhaps some of the cheers I heard weren’t even real.
For months now, professional sports organizations have been utilizing artificial crowd noise in empty stadiums as a way to instill some sense of normalcy (whatever that means anymore) for both players and fans. There are debates on how effective artificial crowd noise is and anyone with an interest in the psychology behind it could spend hours reading up on the topic.
During the game, it eventually dawned on me that crowd noise was being piped into the stadium by speakers directly above me. Until I noticed its source, I will admit the noise was comforting, much like the white noise machine I turn on every night for my children to sleep to—it’s effective until you turn it off, which is exactly what snapped me out of my trance. There was an inadvertent drop in fake crowd audio at one point during the game, and there were several seconds of silence as a result. Like a glitch in The Matrix, it was enough to disrupt my apparent hypnosis. It wasn’t long before I was focused on the game again, but it was a disorienting moment that stood out to me nonetheless.
There were no vendors slinging cold drinks up and down the aisles. There were signs everywhere reminding fans to “Protect yourself. Protect our jungle.” Even the Bengals mascot, Who Dey, celebrated in his very own section of the stadium with a mask over his muzzle. Despite these measures contributing to a much-needed sense of safety, it seemed that no matter where I looked there were reminders how chaotic life is in 2020.
Much like the fake crowd noise humming above me, these distractions became white noise when I actually focused on the game. Whether I was watching Joe Mixon score three touchdowns, Jessie Bates torment the Jaguars with 10 tackles, or Burrow secure his first NFL victory—simply focusing on the game provided moments of escapism that I wish for anyone during these times.
While walking back to the parking garage, Bengals fans were shouting in celebration. A few paces ahead of us was a small group of people wearing Jaguars gear witnessing the triumphant chants of “Who Dey!” around them. One Jaguars fan grumbled to the others, “Imagine winning one game and thinking it’s important.”
This comment gave me pause. As a Bengals fan, I can certainly commiserate with the sting of defeat, but Sunday was bigger than winning or losing. This game was important. Over 6,000 people witnessed an NFL game, live and in person, on a Sunday afternoon. One day, my children may ask me about what life was like during the COVID-19 pandemic. I’ll remember the stress of juggling work, parenthood, and remote learning while quarantined at home. I’ll remember the outreach and support from family and friends. I’ll remember questioning if I’d ever see toilet paper on store shelves again. I’ll also remember how I actually attended an NFL game in 2020—something which seemed unfathomable. It’s hard for me to dwell on who won or who lost when I look at the big picture.
But, then again, Joe Burrow has a point: Winning is fun.
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