There's typically not much crossover between football fan culture and the theatrical world of "Les Miserables" and "Mary Poppins," but in these unprecedented times, the two have come together in the EFL Championship in a novel attempt to re-create the atmosphere of a packed stadium in a ground without supporters.
Because of the safety protocols imposed as a condition of competitive football returning while society continues to battle against COVID-19, all games in England and western Europe are taking place in front of empty stands. Television companies are offering viewers the option of watching live games with or without the addition of pre-recorded crowd noises, but in the Championship -- the league that feeds into the Premier League -- clubs are allowed to re-create the atmosphere inside the stadium, with crowd sounds played through speakers as the game is in play. So far, only Queens Park Rangers have gone ahead with the idea, but league leaders Leeds United have also signed up and are planning to fill Elland Road with the sound of 30,000 absent fans when they face Luton on Tuesday.
The idea was the brainchild of two sound designers from Autograph, a theatrical sound company that has worked on the biggest shows on Broadway and London's West End for 50 years. But with theatres forced to close temporarily due to the pandemic, they're now using their expertise in football.
"The majority of our staff are on furlough because most of our work is theatre -- West End shows, UK tours and a lot of European and global shows," Luke Swaffield of Autograph told ESPN. "We hire systems out to a lot of the big West End shows. Our gear is used at 'Hamilton,' 'Les Miserables,' 'Lion King,' 'Mary Poppins,' 'Waitress' -- a huge number of the big shows in the West End and on Broadway. But when the theatres closed in March, we had no income or any way of getting income, so we are working on whatever we can to keep us busy and motivated, but this has been such a fun project.
"We have big football fans in the company, and it is a passion for all of us, so one of my colleagues, Ian Dickinson, came up with the idea that we could get involved with underscoring matches in the stadium. That's when we came up with the idea of having a 360-degree surround-sound system inside a stadium. We then developed a control surface which we can run on an iPad to control the sound live, as if we were mixing a show.
"We did the QPR vs. Barnsley game at the weekend at Loftus Road, and it went very well. For a first live match, we were very pleased and had a lot of great feedback from the management at the club."
Josh Scott, QPR's head of operations, admits that the idea to pump crowd sound inside the stadium came while watching German football on television last month.
"The idea came after seeing the Bundesliga and hearing the artificial noise that was added over the broadcast," Scott told ESPN. "We wondered if crowd noise played inside the stadium would benefit the players from a psychological viewpoint, rather than having an eerily quiet stadium.
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"We aimed to provide the players and staff with as much normality as possible as not to disrupt their normal matchday preparations. After a few test runs, the manager, director of football and other key staff all agreed that by adding in the crowd noise you could easily believe the stands were full of supporters. Reaction from the management has been incredibly positive so far."
Having impressed Leeds manager Marcelo Bielsa and his players during a test of the system alongside a practice match at Elland Road last week, Autograph have been given the green light to run their programme at Leeds, although EFL rules do not allow for the system to be used during games that are being televised.
Swaffield, a Watford fan, says the company have done everything possible to ensure that crowd noises are authentic and relate directly to the teams involved.
"We have also partnered up with Fanchants.com, who have 26,000 different football chants from all over the world, so they have helped source the club-specific chants," he said. "They have a huge library, but we have all worked really hard to remove any sounds that may be distracting -- referee whistles, sounds of the ball being kicked and, obviously, we have had to keep it clean!
"Our system is totally controllable. When we went to Leeds, we tested it out during a training game and the players asked us to turn it down a bit because they wanted to hear the manager. We are being guided by the clubs. The system can generate the noise of 30,000 fans -- we can turn it right up and hit those levels, but we can pull it back.
"Most stadiums have a PA system of some description, but most of them fire away from the pitch because they are there for the spectators. So we have put in a surround system, with speakers placed on seats pointing to the roof so they can amplify the sound and make the stands get the sense of fans cheering and chanting.
"On match day, we have two operators: one controls the spot queues and the big goal button, while the second operates the chants and club-specific stuff."
The big question is whether this will be a fleeting experiment or something that may become a permanent addition to the game.
"Music and noise is used a lot in U.S. sports as a build-up to a big moment," Swaffield said. "I'm not sure we want that to happen in football, but this system may be useful while crowds are absent or vastly reduced. But it's really important to make the atmosphere as realistic as possible. We just want to make sure everything we are doing is realistic and correct."