Look Ahead — 2021 Comeback of the Year: Fans will again fill arenas, stadiums in 2021

We had to sit out a year, but we’ll be back

The return of fans — including Duke’s boisterous Cameron Crazies — will be a welcome sight in 2021. (Gerry Broome / AP Photo)

If you’re reading this, congratulations. You’re the North State Journal’s choice for the 2021 Comeback of the Year.

We’re all going to be part of next year’s biggest comeback — from the Cameron Crazies to the beer-drinking, nacho-pounding fans at a midweek minor league game enjoying the summer evening and not sure what the score is.

We’re going to be back next year, maybe not in the numbers we were before — at least not yet — but the big return is coming.

When athletes win a Comeback of the Year award, it’s usually because they returned from an injury — a torn knee ligament or rotator cuff, perhaps.

We all felt something tear in 2020 as well and felt the pain when it did. It was our connection to the teams and sports we love, our feeling of security in a crowd of like-minded fans and our need to be there, in the arena, stadium or bleachers beside a field.

2020 is the year our sports were taken away. The ACC Tournament: Gone. March Madness: Gone. Spring sports, minor league baseball, high school football, little league and all the options on cable or satellite every night of the week. From March to midsummer, it all went away.

Instead, we read — and wrote — stories about old games. We voted in tournament brackets where the winner was determined by social media poll instead of on the court. We watched NASCAR drivers play video games and NBA players shoot HORSE in their driveways. And we stayed home.

It wasn’t the end of the world, and we’d never claim that it was. It wasn’t even the worst thing that happened this year. But, in a time of great stress and upheaval, we were abandoned by our lifelong companion. Sports has always been there for us. Maybe it’s the only thing you can talk civilly about with a co-worker or parent. Maybe it’s your favorite thing to argue about with an old friend. Perhaps it’s just background noise for your evenings or weekend afternoon. But from trade rumors to buzzer-beaters, it was always a topic of conversation.

For many of us, it was also a place to gather. It’s no coincidence that fans refer to the “Church of baseball” because sports give us a place to gather with other believers, to chant in unison, to cling to our faith and sing praise.

When the churches closed, so did the sports shrines, and we were left with nowhere to go. The very thing that gave us strength — the energy of the crowd — was what we were told could kill us. And so we stayed home and waited. And when sports returned, we were left on the outside, looking in.

Games were played in empty arenas, giving us content to watch from the safety of our homes. It was the sports equivalent of Zoom meetings — a chance to connect, but a pale comparison of an in-person meeting. It wasn’t being there.

Venues tried to help make things the same, creating bizarre scenes that always seemed to top themselves in surreal peak 2020-ness.

Who would have thought that the cardboard cutouts of heads student sections used to wave to distract free-throw shooters would become the only ones occupying courtside seats? Row upon row of cardboard fake fans, watching silently. When viewed from behind, they looked like rows of tombstones, perhaps a fitting reminder of why we weren’t able to join them.

The pregame hype videos went on with no one to get hyped by them. All the gameday traditions were played — Cascada at Duke, “Jump Around” at Carolina, the NC State horns section’s late-game trip around the court. Like a prerecorded anthem when a team can’t find someone to sing it, they were hollow, tinny replicas of something usually inspiring.

Then there were the fake crowd sounds, borrowed from video games and played over loudspeakers to give some type of white noise backdrop, often making a game in an empty arena sound like the rear seat of a commercial flight. And there were the senior nights, without parents in attendance, as players were honored for their four years with an introduction to an empty stadium.

It’s from all this that we shall return. We will gather, and we will shout. We will chant, and we will cry. We might sit farther apart than we used to at first. We might have to show proof of vaccination to get in. We might have to paint our masks as well as our faces, but we will be back.

We will be there.


Next year.