A typical American summer with hot dogs, soft drinks, and a jam-packed baseball stadium won’t exist in 2020. But the games themselves are still scheduled to take place — just within empty stadiums, with music and pre-recorded noise pumped in — marking the first time Major League Baseball has ever held crowdless games. (Even during the 1918 Spanish flu, there were fans at games.)
Crowds often bring something just as valuable as money: sound. Psychology studies show that sound influences the behavior of those engaging in athletics. That’s why the MLB is providing each club with an array of “crowd sounds” that can be integrated into their ballpark sound system.
“The crowd sounds will be audible to on-field personnel and during television and radio broadcasts,” the MLB rep tells Rolling Stone. “For the on-field staff and the players, having it emanate from the ballpark was important — as opposed to just pumping it into a broadcast where they don’t hear anything.” The rep notes that positive sounds, like cheers, are proven to “give the home team a home-field advantage,” and that the crowd background and reactions are all derived from exclusive, original source audio recorded by MLB The Show developers. The audio is edited from files used in MLB The Show 20, with a focus on “authentically replicating crowd sound and behavior.”
“You attach to that energy, and you want to do something that keeps that energy going,” Lawrence Jackson, a defensive end, said to Bleacher Report in 2013 about the effects fans have on NFL games. “It just takes you to a different level, in the sense that you’re not afraid — almost like you’re invincible.”
It’s not clear if background music — separate from walk-up music, which the players typically choose themselves — will be incorporated into the audio recordings, although the rep says it’s likely. Exhibition games start this weekend, so that’s when these sounds will start being tested, in attempt to give players the cues they are used to hearing from a crowd.
The rep declined to answer questions about the payment structure for usage of songs in a crowdless baseball game. But a grey area has surrounded the “fair use” of music in sports games for some time now: Performance rights organization BMI and sports television network ESPN, for example, went to court in 2016 in an argument over the value of ambient stadium music and how royalties should be structured.
In that instance, ESPN requested a royalty rate for public performances of compositions and an adjustable-fee blanket license (“AFBL”) from BMI, in an attempt to “get a break on royalty payments that could amount to about $15 million per year,” as The Hollywood Reporter put it. BMI said it quoted a reasonable rate for the license that was in line with the prevailing market rate. But ESPN challenged that reasonableness, and BMI rebutted by saying ESPN offered no compelling reason as to “why it should pay only a fraction of the rate it agreed to pay for the previous decade, and the same rate paid by many other news and sports networks,” adding that “the market and ESPN’s music licensing activities have remained essentially unchanged over the last 20 years.” The entities settled privately outside of court a year later.
In 2020, pricing for music usage in sports games is still “all over the map,” a prominent entertainment lawyer tells Rolling Stone, adding that there is no clear and fair royalty payment structure for background music at sports stadiums.
Athletic companies regularly use ambient sound to influence the outcome and/or energy of games that are watched by millions and put money into sports industry members’ pockets. Now without crowds, music and audio may become more valuable than ever — giving the music and sports industries another point to tussle over.