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Soccer Players Might Have More Emotional Outbursts With Audiences

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Professional soccer players have had to adjust to matches without fans during this pandemic, but what impact does that have on how they play? NPR's Casey Morell reports.

CASEY MORELL, BYLINE: Soccer matches have sounded a little quieter during the pandemic. Take this Major League Soccer game from August. Orlando City midfielder Nani moves toward goal, shoots...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Connects beautifully.

MORELL: ...And he scores. And while there's cheering, it's all from players. What's missing is the roar of the crowd. Meg Linehan of The Athletic attended a few of these so-called ghost games in the National Women's Soccer League and says gameplay just felt different without the influence of fans.

MEG LINEHAN: When players are fighting for 50-50 ball right along the sidelines and there's just - usually, there would be people right there, yelling and trying to influence the outcome of that event. And instead, it's just kind of these two players really in their own little world and teammates yelling at them.

MORELL: Now, two sports buffs who happen to be neuroscientists have taken a deeper look at whether empty stadiums influence players' behaviors on the field.

MICHAEL LEITNER: It was a good excuse to watch soccer and to rewatch the matches from the weekend.

MORELL: Michael Leitner and his colleague Fabio Richlan of the University of Salzburg in Austria rewatched 20 matches from their local team, Red Bull Salzburg - 10 from before the pandemic, with fans, and 10 from ghost games without them. As they watched, they catalogued players' emotional behaviors - things like whether a player yelled at the ref after a call or shook his head after missing a big chance. Overall, they observed significantly fewer emotional outbursts during ghost games. Richlan has a theory why.

FABIO RICHLAN: The fans are like an amplifier in certain situations. If there's a foul or something going on and 20- or 30,000 people screaming, then for sure you jump up and yell at your opponent. And you probably do this less or a little bit less if there are no fans there.

MORELL: In fact, the emotional outbursts that did take place in ghost games tended to be less confrontational than in games with fans in attendance. The scientists also think home field advantage could be smaller without those screaming fans. Here's Leitner.

LEITNER: There seems to be something making the away teams perform significantly better without the home fence (ph).

MORELL: They'll tackle that question next. The current work appears in the journal Humanities and Social Sciences Communications. And while they note their study just looked at one team in one league, both Leitner and Richlan say they wouldn't be surprised if the same was seen in other soccer leagues around the world.

Casey Morell, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.