Welcome back, old friend.
Ladies and gentlemen, perhaps the greatest presence in sports has officially returned and is making its presence felt:
Full and rowdy home stadiums are BACK.

In the 1990’s NBA Eastern Conference Playoffs, it was not the New York Knicks vs. the Indiana Pacers. It was Reggie Miller vs. the New Yorkers. The teams would battle, sure, but Reggie would hit dagger threes, get in verbal spats with Spike Lee who sat courtside each game and did everything he could to play the role of the heel as the Knicks crowd in Madison Square Garden would erupt in “CHERRRRYYLLLLL” chants to taunt him, signifying that his sister, Cheryl Miller, was a better basketball player. With all due respect to Patrick Ewing and John Starks, the MSG crowd was the opponent for Miller in those series.

Last week, for the first time hosting a playoff game in 7 years, the crowd was at it again, heckling Atlanta Hawks’ guard Trae Young in a gladiator-esque environment. The crowd at what is considered to be the mecca of basketball was finally full again and let Young have it with some obscene chants until he hit the Game, 1 game-winning floater, with less than a second left; young then put a finger over his mouth and postgame said on the TNT broadcast, “It got real quiet in the end, and for me, I want to hear those F-you chants again.

Photo: Jared Ebanks/SLAM Online

Then, ahead of Game 2, the Garden organized and passed out to the crowd papers instructing a “Trae is balding!” chant. I’d say they’re pretty fired up to make their presence felt again.

We saw it again in the Stanley Cup Playoffs in the Pittsburgh Penguins-New York Islanders series. The goalie for Pittsburgh, Tristan Jarry, made an embarrassing critical mistake to allow the game-winner in overtime of Game 5, then in Game 6 at a packed out barn in New York in Game 6, the Islanders fans were as loud as any college student section, and Jarry felt it. They taunted him with “JARRRYYYY” chants, and he then gave up three goals in a row within three minutes in the second period to blow the lead, and the Pens were eliminated. The arena was absolutely buzzing.

We’re coming off of a year in sports with either limited to no fans in home stadiums. In the 2020 season for the NFL, home teams finished with a 127-128-1 record, the first time ever the league had a worse home record than away. The home-field advantage factors were almost completely absent; the Seahawks’ “12th Man” in Seattle was spaced out. The Vikings’ “SKOL” chants were a little bit quieter than usual in Minnesota. The Bills Mafia only got to 9% for their first home playoff game in 24 years.

Overall, the dominant teams in sports, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Tampa Bay Lightning, the Los Angeles Dodgers, the Los Angeles Lakers, Alabama football, and Baylor basketball, ended up still winning in the end- there wasn’t anything astounding due to a team’s lack of fans.

But what if the Lightning had to play a series in the loaded Islanders’ ice instead? What if the Bucs went into the Superdome with a crowd packed and ready to make their presence felt in what was Drew Brees’s last game?

We’re already seeing it now as the stadiums expand their capacities, many having designated “vaccinated” sections where fans can sit shoulder to shoulder like old times, drinking, screaming, and heckling the opponents together. These people are not only thrilled to be rooting on their team to victory, but they’re also coming off potentially a year and a half hiatus of not getting to see a game or event in person. We could potentially see the loudest crowds we’ve ever seen in a long time all across sports. Think about it: there will be freshmen and sophomore students at the University of Wisconsin who never got to participate in the “Jump Around” tradition in the student section that fires up the whole football team.

The Duke Cameron Crazies will be back, handing out embarrassing facts about the opposing school’s players to create taunts. We haven’t even gotten to see a Red Sox-Yankees game yet with fans in the stands and stakes on the line for the best rivalry in baseball now that both of them are performing well. These games will mean the world to the people after watching from their couches the previous season.

The NFL recently announced that 30 out of 32 teams are approved to have full capacity for the upcoming season, the only other two being the Broncos and Colts, but they’re reportedly on track to get the approval before August easily. That means the debut of fans in Sofi Stadium in LA and Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas. That means the return of the Lambeau Leap in Green Bay. That means the return of bundled-up Browns fans in a subzero stadium, but this time rooting on a team with expectations.

It will be tougher to win on the road, just as it will be easier to win with the strength of thousands on your side. There will be an extra opponent to beat, just as Trae Young is trying to take on the Knicks five players plus the 6th man: the MSG crowd.

We will get more sports villains and heroes. We will get more wins from teams solely because they had their fans backing them in a building.

As gatherings and events continue to progress towards normalcy, sports will have many new superstars rising from the ashes: home field, home court, and home-ice advantage.

Featured Image: Jim McIsaac
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