As sports, the competitions from the NBA bubble, like the football (soccer), baseball, and ice hockey games I’ve watched, are more or less the same. But as television shows, as a variety of broadcast media, and as an aesthetic experience made up of images and sounds, the NBA games so far have been a departure from the usual, and nothing feels right. It’s been a bit like another newly familiar experience: getting takeout from a restaurant where you previously would dine in. The food might taste like you remember it, but the sensory and social environment of the meal makes you realize how much context matters.
The first live sports I watched after the time away from live TV was a Bundesliga match on a weekend morning in May. The sounds of the game were completely transformed. In an empty stadium, you could hear the players and coaches talking to each other, and little else. No chanting, no cheering, no rumble of thousands of mostly male voices huddled together in a big bowl. It reminded me of the youth soccer games I once played in, and later on attended and coached (minus the screaming parents).
The next week, the Bundesliga on TV had added crowd noise, perhaps to drown out the salty language on the pitch, but also to recreate the familiar sounds of televised sports. Soon the English Premier League was back, with recorded crowd sounds, and eventually the UK stadiums had covered seating sections with wrappings to hide empty seats and fill the visual field with advertising and team logos and slogans. Some games had video displays behind the goal line with a grid of faces of fans in team colors watching live. American sports have followed these formats by adding recorded crowd sounds and surrounding the playfield or court with imagery to cover or substitute for empty seats, often with images of live viewers. The effect combines watching a dress rehearsal from the middle of an empty theater with playing a video game, hearing looping crowd sounds and seeing digital fans. It also has the distinct flavor of the audible audience in another genre of television: comedy.
The NBA bubble games have had a particularly sitcommy feel. The courts at Disney’s Wide World of Sports are walled in on three sides by tall video displays, obscuring whatever seats or walls are beyond the court except for rare glimpses when the director cuts to a camera behind the scorer’s table for a referee’s call. The images almost always stay on one side of the action facing these displays, and unlike the usual games from the before times, there are no camera operators on the court itself under the basket. The visual array is reminiscent of the kind of three-wall sets that television comedies adopted from the stage, with their proscenium effect of positioning the viewer across an invisible fourth wall. In a typical American sitcom, you hear but do not see an audience. Many are recorded with a live audience in the studio, and sometimes begin with a voice-over telling you as much (“Cheers was filmed before a live studio audience”). The combination of the three-wall set and audience audio makes the television comedy much more like theater than many kinds of television (the difference between this aesthetic and the “single-camera” comedy style of shows like The Office often prompts comparisons of the latter to cinema).
The sitcom “laugh track” is an old convention. It has sometimes been held up as the epitome of commercial television’s basically fraudulent nature. In the absence of a live audience, or when the audience isn’t demonstrative in the way the producers would like, the sound track of a comedy can be massaged by sweetening the recording or adding canned laughter. This isn’t that different from an older tradition in live performance of the claque, the audience members hired to applaud. But in any event, the sounds of the audience recreate for the viewer at home a sense of participation in a live event among members of a community who experience the show together. This is true for sports just as much as it is for scripted comedy or late-night variety shows. The audible audience for televised sports is always manipulated to be an accompaniment that suggests the space of a live event. A sports stadium or arena is a big television studio in the first place, a stage for the cameras with a raucous in-person audience. Your ticket gets you into the show as an extra. The sensory pandemonium of the live event is never really captured on TV, the blaring music and sound effects are kept low in the mix to keep the booth broadcasters’ voices loud and centered, and no one shoots a T-shirt cannon in your direction when you’re watching at home. But the crowd is essential to the visual and auditory qualities of sports, and the missing elements in these games from Florida have been a present absence.
The NBA could have set up these bubble games in spaces that look like empty gyms, which is not far off from where they actually are being played, or they could make them resemble the vacant arenas of the NHL, MLB, and soccer leagues. The WNBA's 2020 games, being played in another bubble in Florida, are similarly wrapped on three sides like a stage set, but rather than video screens behind the play, they are using black walls with smaller rectangles of video.
The spaces that the NBA has constructed for their resumed season have a different aesthetic from any of these. In addition to the changes in the courtside appearance, with a scorer’s table behind a tall pane of glass and the benches being recessed farther from the court than usual, with players spaced apart and sometimes masked, the courts themselves look different, with a broader bare perimeter beyond the out-of-bounds lines and lots of blank space for digital insertions of advertising and team icons. The look of the players and coaches are also a bit different, with the players’ names replaced over their numbers with social justice slogans (“EQUALITY,” “HOW MANY MORE,” “BLACK LIVES MATTER”) and the coaches wearing “coaches for racial justice” pins on their golf shirts. The coaches have a more casual look in the bubble, their suits having not made it to Disney World.
The video displays are part of what makes each game have a “home team,” as the imagery conveys the identity of one of the two competitors with the text, colors, and advertisements you would find in their home arena. The displays, expansive like digital billboards, also show images of the home team’s fans, which is a nice touch in theory. But the way this works in practice is bizarre. The low-res webcam images of the individual faces are abstracted against backgrounds that look like arena seats, and these are arrayed in a grid to create a large rectangle of spectators. The images are presumably live, but they could be out of sync for all we know as the fans seldom react to anything in the moment, have no way of feeding off one another, and are not audible. The arena has set up a grade of rows that recede away from the court, and some fans are more visible than others as they are courtside or behind the bench or scorer’s table. The close proximity of fans, separated by no barrier from the stars, is one of the thrills of watching live basketball. These virtual fans are by contrast one big upright surface of blurry, laggy heads, and they are reminiscent of the Hollywood Squares of meeting attendees now all too familiar from Zoom’s gallery view. Like many elements of live television of the past few months, these visuals of the NBA’s bubble games are the optics of a pandemic that has turned our lives inside out.
In the segments around the game, other spaces also suggest departures from business as usual. Interviews after the game are conducted with extended boom mics from the requisite six feet distance, or else are done via remote links with reporters outside of the bubble. The regional cable network I watch, Fox Sports Wisconsin, has its gameday host sitting in an empty, dark arena in Milwaukee to introduce the games and talk at halftime, and the “broadcast booth” for these games is the Bucks’ dressing room, where we see announcers framed against the players’ jerseys hanging in their lockers. Just like me, the play-by-play and color analysts are also watching the game on TV in Milwaukee. The “home team” arena is marked by digital logos on the floor, but even for “away” games, the Fox Sports telecast inserts ads on the floor for the Milwaukee media market (a personal injury law firm is a ubiquitous sponsor). We hear the home crowd chant of “DEE-fence,” a steady refrain when the opposing team has the ball.
The effect has been uncanny, in the Freudian sense of something at once foreign and familiar. The bubble games on television have defamiliarized the aesthetics of live sports, making them as much like a Survivor challenge as they are a live event that happens to be transmitted over the air. And even so, the game is the same. Same corner threes, same alley-oops, same dimes and dunks, same incredulous faces on the guys called for blocking fouls, same time outs after a nice run for the other team. It’s just all going on in an arena that looks like a TV studio, which is fitting for games being played for an audience entirely consisting of folks watching on TV. Big league sports have been major media events for more than a century, and as the audience has fragmented into so many niches engaging via multiple platforms, sports has been one of the enduring bright spots for broadcast and cable television, attracting broad audiences for live events. The games may be played for the fans in the stands, but the mediated text layered over the live event makes sports into the multi-billion dollar industry we know. Subtracting one of these elements leaves behind something else, and while the pleasure of the return is pretty special amidst so much trouble, the missing parts are hard to forget.
These bubble games remind us, minute by minute, what life is like now. They afford us the dreamworld of a space where you can safely breathe heavily, unmasked, indoors with nine other players and three refs on the same basketball court. But they also televise this newly risky world of facemasks and six feet, of conversations mediated by plexiglass and video screens. I have felt for the NBA players whose season was abruptly arrested as it was getting good, but now I also envy the careful setup that their filthy rich sports league can afford, while my cash-strapped public university takes its chances and opens its dorms and classrooms without such a luxury of frequent testing and exceptional security. We all deserve a bubble, and despite the weirdness of its sights and sounds, the NBA offers us one of the most incredible fantasies of 2020: not that an overdue team from a small market can win a championship, but that a well-run institution can effectively manage the pandemic ravaging our precarious society.
All images from "Welcome to the Bubble," by Matisse Thybulle.