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  • Shauna Rush


Updated: Sep 10, 2020

In terms of sports, 2020 has become the year of the fake fan.

As sports returned, teams across the world have had to come up with innovative solutions to maintain a connection with their fanbases, while fans have been unable to attend games in person.


One of the first leagues to return after the COVID-19 pandemic was Germany's Bundesliga and it would be here that the first innovation of fake fans would surface.

Borussia Mönchengladbach's creative solution was to began offering fans the chance to have their likeness printed on life-size cardboard cutouts, placed within the team's Borussia-Park for their remaining 2019/20 fixtures.

More than 21,000 Gladbach fans took pictures at home in a shirt or scarf and paid $20.70 to be turned into one of the “Pappkameraden” or “cardboard companions.”

“The cardboard cutouts are a monument — they’re supposed to show that football without fans just isn’t the same,” Gladbach sporting director Max Eberl said. “It’s a great campaign which provides a lot of atmosphere in the stadium.”

“Despite that it still looks really super,” Gladbach player Stefan Lainer added. “It creates a certain atmosphere.”

However, not all of the supporters like the cardboard counterparts idea. A number of banners were placed inside the stadium stating things such as “For Borussia, against ghost games.”

“The bleak backdrop of empty stadiums is exactly what these games represent and deserve,” read a statement from a Gladbach supporters group. “We consider the initiative with the cardboard figures to be counterproductive. We understand the well-meaning, charitable idea behind it, but we consider the signal to be the wrong one.”

Across the Atlantic

Despite receiving some backlash from German fans, U.S. sports teams have so far embraced the idea of cardboard fans.

As major leagues rely on selling tickets for a considerable chunk income, teams retooled their ticket sales departments so that they can sell the cut-outs to fans. Creating a whole new cardboard cut out sub-industry, at the same time.

“It’s like a totally new division of the company that we didn’t have before,” said Oakland Athletics President Dave Kaval (@DaveKaval), of his reoriented ticket sales department.

“Everybody’s looking for ways to show your allegiance and loyalty to a sports team,” said Brewers President of Business Operations Rick Schlesinger. “And since we’re missing a lot of those connection points, this is something for the fans to enjoy and feel like they’re still part of the organization.”

The cost of cardboard cutouts has varied across U.S. sports. Ranging from just under $30 for the Premier Lacrosse League (PLL) through to $299 to some of the Dodgers cutouts.

The Oakland A's even sold out of a program in which fans would receive a foul ball if it hit their cutout. 

Many teams have announced that the cardboard fans act primarily to help maintain relationships with fans, rather than generate revenue. Although some organizations such as the PLL had made sure that its initiative was profitable, despite the economic damage caused by the pandemic already being done.

“We’re not looking for this to make up ticket sales,” said PLL Senior Manager of Operations Courtney Ellis. “We won’t be able to do that with this initiative.” 

Teams such as the Brewers, Dodgers and A’s, announced that they are using the initiative to support local charities. However, the cardboard fans are opening a new way to generate extra revenue for teams through selling sponsorships for different sections where the cutouts sit.

Virtual Fans

As the NBA resumed its season inside of its 'bubble' at the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, it decided on a different method in which to engage fans.

Instead the NBA decided to partner with Microsoft to place basketball fans courtside in a virtual experience during live games.

To do this the league implemented 17-foot tall LED screens, which they wrapped around the court. Allowing more than 300 fans to appear virtually at each game.

This decision to go virtual has allowed fans to react in real-time, with players being able to see and hear the fan reactions.

“This new experience—the first to go live as a result of the NBA / Microsoft partnership — gives participating fans the feeling of sitting next to one another at a live game without leaving the comfort and safety of their homes,” explains Jared Spataro, head of Microsoft 365. “Players, meanwhile, will experience their energy and support as they dribble down the court and see fans’ real-time reaction. And viewers tuning into the game from home will feel the crowd’s energy as well as they see the virtual stands filled with fans.”

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