If, and it is still a very big if, football returns in the next couple of months, one thing we can be sure of is that the grounds will be empty. Fans will be able to watch all games at home, though, either on the traditional platforms of Sky Sports and BT Sport or by streaming on the official club websites.
But what will that look like?
The major broadcasters have already begun drawing up plans and it’s quite clear our viewing experience is going to be very different. Sources close to the production teams at both Sky and BT have told ITV News that they’re not planning any gimmicks and will play it fairly straight. For example, introducing pre-recorded, artificial ‘atmosphere’ into the coverage has been ruled out. There were discussions about it, but they quickly came to the conclusion that no one wants that type of fakery.
To an extent, they’ll be constrained by what the government allows them to do. For example, neither has yet been told exactly how many staff they’ll be allowed inside each ground and those that are permitted to work will have to be virus free. They can only be tested if all key workers everywhere else have had the checks they need.
Broadcasters therefore may be forced to reduce the number of cameras they use or at least have a few in fixed positions that are operated remotely. They may even downsize of their own accord, except for the very big games. Every match remember, costs many millions to cover.
It’s certain the traditional studio set-up will be consigned to 2019 and the presenter will be alone, talking to us from a studio at the broadcaster’s HQ or at the ground. The A-list pundits - Gary Neville, Jamie Carragher, Rio Ferdinand, Michael Owen et al - will not be sitting alongside the presenter but will probably be at home, watching like everyone else on TV. They will be linked up remotely so they can contribute as normal.
With no gimmicks, the two channels will have to make a virtue of the silence inside the stadium. That presents many opportunities and some problems too. It’s rare that viewers get the chance to hear what the players are saying to each other or indeed to listen to the instructions being shouted at them by the manager. It will be both novel and intriguing, but it obviously comes with a risk, especially before the watershed.
BT Sport are prepared. “We have our ‘F’ button,” a senior source told me which has already been trialled during their coverage of UFC bouts. Essentially, it means they could broadcast matches on a 10-second delay and have somebody poised over a switch that allows them to mute any X-rated exchanges before they make air. But the prospect of eavesdropping on Jurgen Klopp, Pep Guardiola, Jose Mourinho and any number of players is mouth-watering.
It will be fascinating to watch how the players respond in this alien environment. Will the crowd-free stands diminish the intensity? How will they celebrate a goal? Will home advantage become less significant with no home crowd? There are any number of questions we don’t yet know the answers to.
And what will Sky and BT’s match directors do without fans to cut away to? The angry fan, the crying fan, the nail-biting fan, the shirtless fan, the face paint, the scarves, the chanting, it will all be strangely absent.
So, prepare yourself for a brand new experience. Who knows how popular it will prove to be but it will be something we’ll have to get used to for the time being.
Football is about to look and feel very different and this is just the start.