Noise Exposure in Sports: Studying How Noise Affects Fans, Players, and Personnel in Stadium Settings

As defined by Steege, acoustics can be thought of as “a way of knowing about sound, one that brings into focus quantifiable aspects of matter, force, and motion involved with it” (Novak and Sakekeeny 22). It both “exceeds and falls short of sound” (Novak and Sakekeeny 23). What does this exactly mean though? The notion of acoustics in this sense is that it is “simply the physics of vibration”. Or in other words, the scientific, measurable part of the energy of sound waves themselves. The other aspect of the equation of acoustics details the aural element. That is, how the energy of the sound waves is perceived by people and the subsequent effects it has on them (Novak and Sakekeeny 23). The former aspect is intriguing as it defines the way mankind experiences the world around us. How we choose to judge, how we interact, how we make decisions, seemingly everything is connected to this idea of the perception of sound.

A field in which acoustics in this sense of perception and reception is heavily influential is the realm of sports. Walking into nearly any sporting arena in this country and across the world, you can find one thing in common: jumbotrons exclaiming for people to be “LOUDER!”, “MAKE NOISE!”, or any similar rendition of those phrases referring to people cheering. More than ever, the idea of sound and noise level at sporting events has come into the forefront and for a variety of reasons. The louder you are, the more you give your team the advantage, right? Momentum, drawing players offside, making players miss free throws—all represent ways in which screaming as loud as you possibly can will benefit the teams that you love. However, this may not always be the case. The following post will analyze how noise exposure in stadium conditions affects not only how the players and personnel on the court/field respond to noise, but how fans are affected by it as well.

The millions of fans that flock to stadiums across the world on game day can be described as somewhat of “next-level fans”. Instead of sitting at home on the couch and watching the teams they support on TV, they take the extra step and want to “live” in the atmosphere and be in the stadium on game day. With this in mind, it is reasonable to expect that these fans are more knowledgeable and care more about the sport they paid so much to consume in person, so they will do whatever it takes to see their team win. Yet, being a fan, there are limitations to the contribution you can provide your favorite team. The only meaningful way that a fan can affect the outcome of a game is to cheer. Making noise, for better or for worse, will have a tangible affect on the game being played on the field. The consequence in this case could not only be damaging to the opposing teams record, but also to the well-being of the fans themselves.

For instance, in a study of the noise levels produced at an NCAA arena, it was found that one-third of the participants that were tested over the course of 3 home games for the Murray State Racers were exposed to noise levels above the OSHA action level 8-hour average (the Occupational Safety & Health Administration level of 8-hours of exposure to noise of 85 decibels or above) (Morris, Atieh, Keller 16). Additionally, when measuring the noise exposure of fans at a FIFA 2010 World Cup training stadium, Swanepoel and Hall found that 8 of the 10 participants had felt peak exposure to noise over 140 dB(C) (C-weighted decibels measure the frequency sensitivity of the human ear at high noise levels) with the average across all participants being 100.5 LAeq (LAeq is a way to average the noise exposure that varies over a certain period of time). In a post-test evaluation of those same participants, it was determined that they had a significantly reduced range of hearing, reflecting a temporary shift, yet still showing that “auditory physiology is affected by the sound exposure levels experienced at a football match where vuvuzelas are the major source of acoustic energy” (Swanepoel and Hall 12). These go to show that even though the excitement of the stadium and feeling the need to express support for a team will cause people to cheer, it can have some serious consequences to the health of many people.

The most frightening part about this phenomenon is the culture that surrounds it. The “culture” being that the fans do not have a concern for their hearing as they are largely unaware that it is being affected in such a negative way. In the environment of an NFL or NBA game for example, the fans are only concerned about how their team is doing on the field or court respectively, and they will respond to that in an appropriate way. Such is the case in football on third down when the home team is on defense. It is a general rule of thumb that the fans get rowdy in an attempt to throw the opposing team off and cause them to fail to convert a first down. This can be seen with the University of Tennessee Volunteers having a coordinated cheer of “3rd down for what” (a play on Lil’ Jon’s hit song ‘Turn Down for What’) to use in third down situations. The new-found tradition is documented in this video (video has since been removed, reference this video for another example). Head Coach Butch Jones states in the video that “the players get excited…it’s an overall awareness, all of a sudden the song comes on, our fans get on their feet, it creates a great home field advantage for us.” Naturally though, the louder the fans become, the more significant damage is being caused to the individual. The culture that is present in today’s sporting society has been ingrained to the point in which people take pride in their stadiums being renowned for being the loudest and most hostile environments to play in rather than taking care of their own health.

University of Tennessee fans cheering. Credit: fansonly.com
University of Tennessee fans cheering. Credit: fansonly.com

The idea of having a loud environment is not a new development however, as evidenced by the early practice of architectural acoustics (the principle of acoustics that seeks to improve the hearing of sound in a built space) recorded in De architectura libri decem. The use of resonant cavities were employed in the design of Greek and Roman theaters in order to “improve the acoustics by serving as ‘sounding vessels’, separate sources of sound resonating with the sound from the stage” (Ams and Crawford 105). In modern times, one of the more notable examples of this can be found in Seattle, Washington in which Century Link Field, home of the Seattle Seahawks, was specifically designed so that “big-roof parabolas coupled with the seating bowl design keep the sound [of fans cheering] focused inward directly towards the field” (Newcomb 6).

Century Link Field featuring the parabolic arches mentioned above. Credit: centurylinkfield.com

ESPN’s Sports Science did a video explaining this design and how the engineers behind constructing the stadium made it so that they take into account crowd noise.

And why not? This kind of attention to detail pays off, as the Seahawks boast one of the highest home-game winning percentages and have lead the league in most false-start penalties in recent years.

Like the Seahawks above, it becomes increasingly evident that neither parties (fans nor teams) share the interest in safety as some teams have even began to take matters a step beyond engineering to boost their own chances at succeeding. Recently, the Atlanta Falcons were caught pumping artificial crowd noise into their stadium to give themselves the greater “home-field advantage”. The validation of this advantage is given by the NFL docking the Falcons of a 2016 5th round pick and fining them $350,000, cementing the notion that crowd noise does in fact give one team an advantage over the other (or at least it does in the eyes of the NFL). The balancing act between a competitive advantage and a reckless overdose of noise is difficult to achieve as each have their own respective benefits. One allows for a higher win total, and the other ensures the safety and protection of individuals’ hearing. Yet, with there being studies such as the one conducted by Barnard, Porter, Bostron, terMeulen, and Hambric of measuring crowd noise generated at Penn State football games reaching peak levels of 123-140 dB and Cranston, Brazile, Sandfort, and Gotshall detailing that the mean noise peak levels at a collegiate hockey game ranged from 105 to 124 dBA (A-weighted decibels express the loudness of sounds perceived by the human ear), it is clear that safety should take precedence.

Nevertheless, it would be naïve to think that such a vast culture change could take place in the confines of an arena or stadium as this is simply contradictory to the nature of sports. They are exciting, and the most common reaction is to yell when excited. Instead, the compromise here should be one that pushes for awareness of this issue. Never will there be a time in which the PA announcer at a game will tell people to be quiet as it is getting “too loud” because the noise is all for the benefit of the team. What the above researchers have concluded and sports fans across the world need to realize is the knowledge that prolonged exposure to noise at such high levels can cause damage to one’s hearing and as a result, preventative measures such as ear protection need to be self-administered.

With the information that noise exposure has harmful affects on fans, players seemingly would have an increasingly compounded effect due to the nature of the sound being directed towards the court and it being the loudest closest to it (England, Larsen 19). It is the job of athletes to go out on the field or court every day and perform to their full potential, yet a big role in their performance is largely influenced by this external factor as noise can affect players in a multitude of ways across all different kinds of sports. Hitting free throws, shooting penalty kicks, kicking a field goal, even down to calling an audible—all are made more difficult with the addition of screaming fans.

As mentioned earlier, some stadiums are notorious for causing miscues amongst players due to the influence of crowd noise. Seattle’s famous “12th man” (their title for the fan base in the stadium referring to the fact that they see the noise as such an advantage that the team seemingly has an additional player on the field) causes more false start penalties than any other fan base/stadium in the National Football League. Throwing off timing and communication in a player’s mind due to the inability to focus on the game at hand will cause such miscues to occur. The aforementioned is the very reason why the millions of NBA fans that sit in the sections behind each hoop are distributed “thunder sticks” when they enter the arena. When a player from the opposing team attempts a free-throw, it is the expectation that the fans will  make as much noise as possible in order to disrupt the rhythm of the player so that he or she misses the shot. Establishing this link between fans and the performance of players only fuels the proliferation of this practice if it is successful. Thus, there will be an increasing presence of fans, or at the very least, a perceived increase in the presence of fans as a positive association is founded.

"Thunder Sticks" in use at an NBA game.
“Thunder Sticks” in use at an NBA game. Credit: nba.com

While this effect of noise on players will always be felt, the degree to how much influence they have will vary depending on several factors. One such variation can be caused from the “importance” of the game that is being played. For example, if it is a playoff game or rival game, it will be expected that the fans will produce noise that will exceed the noise of a “standard” game. This is evidenced by 3 of the 5 participants experiencing noise exposure at levels above the OSHA action level 8-hour average during a nationally televised Murray State Racers game compared to 0 of the 5 participants in the stands experiencing noise exposure at a normal home game versus a “weaker” opponent (Morris, Atieh, and Keller 13-14). In its basic form it breaks down to the greater the reward (in this case beating a team on national TV or winning a playoff game), the greater the incentive fans will have to produce noise in order to negatively affect the opposing team. The more danger the fans, players, and personnel have to their health, the bigger the chance the opposing team faults.

Sound does not just negatively affect players, however, it can also be the catalyst for increased performance. On a November 9th game versus the Minnesota Timberwolves, the Atlanta Hawks found themselves in a 34-point deficit at it’s highest mark. The crowd was seemingly non-existent as they had lost interest in the fading team in what looked to be a sure-loss. Yet, when the Hawks started to make a comeback to the point where the deficit was entirely erased and they had actually regained the lead, the fans suddenly became revitalized. With every make, an explosion of roars could be heard throughout the Philips Arena. Watching through the course of this video depicts the phenomenon described. Cross-reference minutes 2:52-3:04 to minutes 4:27-4:44 to compare the relatively low crowd noise level before and the higher noise level after the comeback. This positive association with a successful shot and the cheers of the home crowd leads to the players feeding off of this energy, thus leading them to performing with more confidence and tenacity. The crowd noise played a huge role in the momentum shift from one team to the other, representing the weight of the sound and how it can impact the players on the court in a positive manner.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zqb7zLz8HYA

This dynamic can also be illustrated with the Duke Men’s Basketball team in Cameron Indoor Stadium. According to ESPN Magazine, the stadium is the 2nd loudest in the nation based on a “noise potential” metric that factors in total fan capacity and room reverberation (Shepard, Hambric, Evans, Domme, Christian, Cranage, Poulain, Orr, Barnard, and Gardner 4). The conditions inside Cameron can be very polarizing on both ends of the spectrum: benefitting the home team and impairing the away team. The fans, dubbed “The Cameron Crazies”, have the reputation for being one of the most raucous and energized fan bases in any sport, thus leading to the incredibly unique environment that Cameron Indoor creates.

Being in the stadium myself, I have a firsthand understanding about how the conditions may be so influential to the outcome of a game. From the graduate students on either end of the court displaying their antics to get opposing players to miss free throws, to the constant stream of aggravation created by the Crazies’ various chants, experiencing the energy of this fiery fan base with a prime seat amongst fellow students elucidates how fans can have a real impact on the players’ performance. Below I have provided an audio clip of a game played in Cameron Indoor on 11/13/15 when Duke took on Bryant. Though this will not give a completely representative view of the noise level in the stadium, it can provide a general glance at such conditions.

 

The above audio clip was recorded in student section at the location shown in the picture in Cameron Indoor Stadium on 11/13/15.
The above audio clip was recorded in student section at the location shown in the picture above in Cameron Indoor Stadium on 11/13/15.

Sharing the court with the players are the personnel to officiate the game and the respective coaching staffs, both of which also have to endure the effects of the noise in the boisterous conditions of a stadium. When coaches are subjected to the high levels of noise, they may not be able to convey instructions to their players on the field accurately. Miscommunication between the coaches on the sidelines and players on the field has led to the usage of hand gestures and signs in order to give direction, thus eliminating sound from the equation.

Chip Kelly’s Oregon Ducks often used such signs to relay the plays from the sidelines to the quarterbacks on the field. Credit: Bleacher Report, ESPN

The need for such measures illustrates the magnitude of the impact noise can have on a game and the way that teams need to prepare for them. The other and more controversial aspect of this however, is the referees on the court being affected by the noise. Referees are trained to not be influenced by crowd noise and to make objective calls at all times based on what they see. However, sometimes the human body cannot be denied of its natural reaction, as detailed in the the study conducted by Balmer, Nevill, Lane, Ward, Williams, and Fairclough in which it was determined that there is statistically significant evidence to show that an increase in cognitive anxiety and mental effort due to crowd noise leads to an increase in the bias towards the home team when officiating. One may subconsciously fear the consequences of making a call against the home team (being showered with boos), whereas a call in favor of the home team will be rewarded with cheers, thus leading to a bias being developed which gives the home team the so called “home-team advantage”.

Further evidence has been given to suggest that 15.5% fewer fouls are given to the home team versus the away team (Nevill, Balmer, and Williams 29), giving even more justification to the fans to increase their noise level as there is a marked difference they can make simply by screaming. This also clarifies why major sporting leagues are designed so that certain teams are awarded with the right to play at their home-field over others. In theory, it should not matter where two teams play a game; if one team is superior to the other, they will be victorious. However, the fact that the statistically higher winning percentage team is awarded with the ability to play certain big games at home (such as playoff games) denotes how this bias (along with other factors that affect the players) due to crowd noise is taken into account and plays a role significant enough to warrant such a format.

The connection between the three groups in a sports stadium (fans, players, personnel) can now be drawn upon in that they are all apart of one large feedback loop. For instance, if a referee makes a supposed “bad” call, or a call that the fans do not agree with as it might be detrimental to the team they support, their reaction will be to drown the court with boos to express their distaste. Because of this, the referees will now be put under more stress when making future calls as they are biologically under more pressure and consequentially are more anxious in an effort to not upset the home crowd once more. The players will either be positively or negatively affected depending on how they each personally respond to the now increased noise level in the stadium. And still the fans will be affected by this increased noise level as they will make the conditions more conducive to damaging their own hearing. Each part is dependent on one another, with the crowd noise being the basis of the web.

Works Cited

Arms RG, Crawford BE. 1995. “Resonant Cavities in the History of Architectural Acoustics.” Technol. Cult. 36(1):104–35

Balmer, Nigel J., Alan M. Nevill, Andrew M. Lane, Paul Ward, A. Mark Williams, and Stephen H. Fairclough. 2007. “Influence of Crowd Noise on Soccer Refereeing Consistency in Soccer.” Journal of Sport Behavior 30 (2): 130.

Barnard, Andrew, Scott Porter, Jason Bostron, Ryan Termeulen, and Stephen Hambric. 2011. “Evaluation of Crowd Noise Levels During College Football Games.” Noise Control Engineering Journal 59 (6): 667-80.

Cranston, Cory J., William J. Brazile, Delvin R. Sandfort, and Robert W. Gotshall. 2013. “Occupational and Recreational Noise Exposure from Indoor Arena Hockey Games.” Journal of Occupational and Environmental Hygiene 10 (1): 11-6.

England, Beau, and Jeffery Blythe Larsen. 2014;2013;. “Noise Levels Among Spectators at an Intercollegiate Sporting Event.” American Journal of Audiology 23 (1): 71-8.

Morris, Gary A., Bassam H. Atieh, and Randal J. Keller. 2013. “Noise Exposures: Assessing an NCAA Basketball Arena on Game Day.” Professional Safety 58 (8): 35.

Nevill, A. M., N. J. Balmer, and A. Mark Williams. 2002. “The Influence of Crowd Noise and Experience upon Refereeing Decisions in Football.” Psychology of Sport & Exercise 3 (4): 261-72.

Newcomb, Tim. “What Makes Seahawks’ CenturyLink Field the Most Raucous Stadium in the League?” SI.com. January 15, 2014. Accessed November 12, 2015.

Novak, David, and Matt Sakekeeny, eds. 2015. Keywords in Sound. Durham: Duke University Press.

Shepherd, Micah, Stephen A. Hambric, Neal D. Evans, Daniel J. Domme, Andrew W. Christian, Bryan P. Cranage, Kieran Poulain, Andrew J. Orr, Andrew R. Barnard, and Michael D. Gardner. 2011. “Rating of the Loudest College Basketball Arenas for ESPN Magazine.” Proceedings of Meetings on Acoustics 12 (1).

Swanepoel, De Wet, and James W. Hall III. 2010. “Football Match Spectator Sound Exposure and Effect on Hearing: A pretest-post-test study.” South African Medical Journal 100 (4): 239 42.