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Best, worst fanless sports viewing experiences during COVID-19



The fans return, in limited numbers, on Tuesday. Good for you if you are one of the 4,000 or so who will be allowed inside Madison Square Garden and Barclays Center that night. Good for the Knicks and Nets, both of whom have had seasons in which they have deserved to bask in spectator adulation (and, sure, absorb the occasional reservoir of boos).

Since June, when sports began to trickle back to us, it has been a strange sensory study: How much do mostly (and, around here, entirely) empty stadiums subtract from the overall viewing experience? In some ways, the difference has felt minimal; in others it is a gaping, dreadful hole. We’ve been through it all. We’ve watched it all. Which has been best? Which has been worst?

Here’s one man’s ranking of all of that. I am most curious what other men’s (and women’s) perspectives have been.

  1. NFL: For years the joke has been that one day, NFL games will be played in made-to-order TV studios since football, especially pro football, is such a more complete experience on TV than it is in person. Maybe the fact we got 32 perfectly dreadful local football games to watch this past year, but I never once found myself distracted by the empty seats, and the games all looked as they probably would have in normal times.
  2. NHL: This is no surprise, but the level of play seemed absolutely unchanged, both in last summer’s bubble and this year’s uniquely configured four-division system. That’s because 99.9 percent of all hockey players will play with equal intensity if it’s Game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals or a pickup game at an outdoor rink in Moose Jaw with a keg of beer as the stakes.
  3. PGA: I have to admit, I didn’t miss the “You da man!” guy even in the old days if I had the TV on mute, and I never once found myself distracted by the lack of galleries. Sure, something’s missing on the 72nd hole of a major without a rousing crowd greeting, but it’s been easy to overcome.
  4. NBA: It’s been a little more of an adjustment this year, with teams playing in their own arenas. But in the Florida bubble last summer, the extraordinary level of play — helped by the lack of onerous travel and what seemed to be a wonderful shooting background — carried the day.
  5. MLB: Yes, the cardboard cutouts limited the depressing look to many games. The electronically-added crowds were sometimes silly but sometimes welcome. It was early, so the fake crowd noise wasn’t perfected and seemed especially fake. But as someone who actually covered some games in person, I can attest: The TV experience was at least 90 percent more enjoyable than being at the empty ballparks.
  6. NCAA Football: Honestly, most of the games you wanted to see were played in places where there haven’t exactly been arduous social-distance commitments, so it almost seems unfair to put this in here. Still, like the NFL, the product itself is still fine, even in those stadiums that were echoing.
  7. Tennis: The difference between the Australian Open, where there was a limited amount of spectators, and the U.S. Open — which felt like tennis being played at the bottom of the Grand Canyon — was extraordinary. Good for the folks in Queens for grinding through, but that was the one sports event this year where I was constantly aware that nobody was there. It was hard.
  8. College basketball: That last part? It applies to college hoops, too. So much of the sport’s appeal is the visceral gameday experience. Without that, the games can still be fun to watch — St. John’s renaissance has been a blast the past few weeks — but without pep bands, student sections and a generally raucous environment, it’s been a long, hard road.

Vac’s Whacks

The New York State Baseball Hall of Fame announced this week that it will induct both Jay Horwitz and his longtime friend and colleague, the late Shannon Forde, this November. Which only shows the New York State Baseball Hall of Fame has a perfect understanding of what the definition of “Hall of Famer” is. Bravo.


Stop staring at my coach, Boston College.


Maybe there are better ways to introduce yourself to a new fan base, but Taijuan Walker posting a bottle of GTS 2018 Cabernet Sauvignon from the Seaver Vineyards looks to be the new gold standard from where I sit.


It’s freezing, and it feels like we’re living in a real-life snow globe … but knowing that DJ LeMahieu will soon be spraying line drives into the Tampa sunshine makes it all seem 25 percent more bearable, somehow.

Whack Back at Vac

Larry Wigbels: Remember “Spahn and Sain & pray for rain” or “Tanana and Ryan & two days of cryin’?” With the 2021 Yankees we’ve got “Cole … and then the Black Hole.”

Vac: Note to self: Try to figure out words that rhyme with “Kluber” and “Taillon” in the next few months, just in case.


Sam Tee: For all the talk of New York not being a college sports town, there’s still a certain buzz when St. John’s is winning games.

Vac: The Johnnies are the exception to the rule, and a welcome one. If they ever become top-10 regulars again, you’ll want to be at the Garden for every big game again, just like back in the day.


@scottwilli75: If someone has to wear Naismith Hall of Famer Carl Braun’s No. 4 jersey at least it’s a real player like Derrick Rose. I hope the Knicks will one day retire 4, 8 (Nat Clifton), 9 (Richie Guerin) and 30 (Bernard King). These legendary Hall of Fame players deserve it.

@MikeVacc: As regular readers of this column know, I’m now in Year 15 of trying to get Bernard’s No. 30 sent to the rafters, but this year does beg a question: Does Julius Randle playing with that number, as well as he has, which invites many mentions of King that would not normally happen, almost honor King’s legacy as much as a retired jersey would?


Brian Augello: In your article about championships, you left out Frankie Crosetti, Yankees legend. He wasn’t on the level of Jordan and Yogi, but he won 17 championships — eight as a player, nine as a coach. A remarkable career.

Vac: And that’s one record, for sure, you can mark down in ink. Won’t ever be approached.



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