A new study shows that soccer players had fewer arguments and other altercations on the field throughout 2020, when empty stadiums meant fans were absent due to the coronavirus pandemic. Referees and other on-field officials also had briefer and less heated exchanges during the same period.
Empty stadiums: no fans, less stress
The study was based on an analysis of 20 games played in Austria’s Bundesliga league. The Bundesliga resumed scheduled games in May of 2020, as did most other European soccer leagues.
The only difference from normal was that there was no audience in the stadium. These so-called “ghost games” represented “a unique and unprecedented opportunity to study the effects of (missing) audiences on the behaviour and experience of sports professionals,” the study says.
The study’s authors analysed 20 games played by the team FC Red Bull Salzburg (abbreviated RBS). Ten were played during the 2018-19 season, and ten (with no audience) during the 2019-20 season.
The study found that there were 20% fewer “emotional situations” in the ghost games. This refers to arguments or discussions with players on the other team, or with referees. “Emotional situations” also include tackling and fouls. In the regular games, referees got involved in 39% of these emotional situations. In the ghost games, this figure was only 25%.
More specifically, the researchers found that players committed 4% fewer fouls in the ghost games, and received 14% fewer “disciplinary points” such as yellow and red cards.
No fans, more goals
The players and officials also spent less time engaged in “emotional behaviour,” as the researchers call it. In the games with the audience on hand, the players and referees spent about 41 minutes engaged in emotional behaviour. During the ghost games, that amount was only 27 minutes.
With the fans absent, said lead author Michael Leitner, the “players and staff stayed calm more often, and got less carried away with arguments and discussions.”
The team that they observed, RBS, also scored considerably more goals during the ghost games. In the 10 regular games the researchers analyzed from the 2018-19 season, RBS scored 28 goals. In contrast, they scored 36 goals during the ten “ghost” games played in 2019-20.
The authors point out that this study only analyzed a limited number of games of one soccer team. As such, only further analysis can determine whether the absence of fans also has similar results in other contexts.
European teams have made creative use of these empty stadiums. In October 2020, a Dutch soccer team filled up the empty seats with teddy bears, to raise money for a cancer research institute.
Study: “Analysis System for Emotional Behavior in Football (ASEB-F): matches of FC Red Bull Salzburg without supporters during the COVID-19 pandemic”
Authors: Michael Christian Leitner and Fabio Richlan
Published in: Humanities & Social Sciences Communications
Publication date: January 26, 2021
Photo: by Paul Brennan vi Pixabay