A Danish Soccer Team Invited 10,000 Fans to a Zoom Watch Party

A Danish Soccer Team Invited 10,000 Fans to a Zoom Watch Party
When Denmark’s top league returned from its pandemic suspension, one club decided the best way to keep its socially distant fans connected was a gameday videoconference.

While their rivals in Denmark’s top soccer league returned to action without the support of their fans this week, the players at Aarhus-based AGF could rely on the presence of at least 10,000 spectators for their game against a local rival, Randers.

Well, kind of.

In a test of a fan experience that may become more common in the post-pandemic age, AGF’s fans took in the game not the club’s home field, Ceres Park, but as part of a giant Zoom meeting arranged by the team. Through 90 minutes of ebb and flow action, their shouts were piped into the stadium’s loudspeakers and their faces were projected as a giant video wall of support as the Danish Superliga team sought a way for match-going fans to keep connected even as new hygiene protocols mean it may be several months before fans can set foot inside a stadium again.

The events are perhaps the best example yet of the innovation teams and leagues are being forced to consider as the sports industry grapples with ways to return to competition despite rules banning large public gatherings. For millions of people the world over, the cherished ritual of attending a favorite arena, ballpark or stadium has been upended. In many places, that is likely to remain the case for at least the rest of the year.

So creative solutions, from drive-in movie theaters to broadcast feeds enhanced with crowd noise to AGF’s Zoom meet-up on Thursday are suddenly part of a new gameday reality that would have seemed absurd only a few months ago.

To make Thursday’s meeting happen, AGF partnered with Zoom, the videoconferencing company whose technology — first launched only seven years ago — has been one of the breakout success stories of this year’s global lockdown.

Ahead of the game, AGF had asked fans to sign up for virtual tickets in the section of the stadium where they would normally sit, and then grouped them together on video calls of up to 18 people. Each group was then briefly projected onto one of the giant video screens set up inside Ceres Park before being replaced by another section of supporters.

There was even a smaller screen dedicated for “visiting” Randers fans.

“We are trying to recreate a community where you have your seat where you have always had it, so a season-ticket holder can come to the stadium and see those people that usually sit by them,” Carlsen had said in an interview earlier this week.

 

Fans did their best to shrink the distance. Some dressed both themselves and their homes for the occasion, passionately displaying their support for AGF. At other times, the scene was more ordinary: a couple cuddling on a couch, or a family gathered around a dining table.

For all the planning — moderators were hired to police the feeds for inappropriate behavior, and two fans were removed for exposing themselves — AGF officials and staff members said they were always conscious that nothing could substitute for the real thing. Though the video screens took up a large chunk of the lower tier of the main stand, most of the rest of the arena was a sea of empty gray seats, a reminder that things are not how they should be. And piped-in crowd noise — another attempt to improve the atmosphere — sometimes drowned out the fans’ Zoom-enabled cheers.

Still, the experiment was closely watched by teams and leagues far and wide; executives from teams in Norway, the Netherlands and England have been in touch with AGF, and a spokesman for Zoom said West Ham United had approached its fans about the possibility of showing their reactions on the team’s video screens when the Premier League resumes play on June 17.

“Football is supposed to be watched together in the stadium, so of course we would prefer not to do this,” Carlsen said.

For one day, though, the distance, and the medium, hardly seemed to matter when AGF’s captain, Patrick Mortenson, turned in a shot in injury time to help AGF pinch a 1-1 tie.

 

Written by Tariq Panja for the New York Times

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