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How will the fan experience continue to evolve?

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Present day and once sports return in the future, the global pandemic has changed things forever.

COLLEGE WRESTLING: MAR 07 Big Ten Wrestling Championships Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

I’ll begin by addressing a tweet we received on our site Twitter account this week after posting an article about a football recruit committing to the program:

I don’t blame Larry for feeling this way and I’m glad he tweeted this. It got me to rethink things again, which happens often these days. We are in an unprecedented time in human history and sports has not only halted across the globe, but also seem unimportant at the moment. I’ve struggled myself with being able to write about Rutgers sports in the past few weeks and explained my feelings here. Based on Larry’s tweet, which raises a very fair point, I wanted to explore further.

The obvious response is that we are a fan site that covers Rutgers Athletics. And until college sports are cancelled forever, we’ll continue writing about our beloved Scarlet Knights. I even suspect if sports ceased to exist, I’d still find a way to keep On The Banks going. Every day would be throwback day.

The larger point I want to touch on is that the global pandemic that is COVID-19 has changed life as we know it forever. The scope of this, which sadly seems far from over, will ultimately be one of the largest tragedies in human history. While human nature yearns towards a return to normalcy, and that will ultimately happen to a large degree over the years that follow, for those of us that will live through this, it will never be forgotten. We will be changed in some way forever.

Much like those of us who work in New York City and still think of 9/11 during daily commutes like I do, there will be mental road blocks to get through once this pandemic has passed.

Will shaking hands continue to be general etiquette moving forward? Will finger guns make a comeback?

But from a sports perspective, how will this change the fan experience once the games resume?

The fan experience has been evolving in many ways ever since sports began. From how fans dressed at games, to how they followed the action and how following off the field news regarding your favorites teams became a sport within itself.

Fans used to attend games dressed formally for years and years, which was commonplace in society back then. As modern times brought more casual styles, sports fans began wearing branded attire to represent their rooting interests. The foam finger, banners, chants and even the wave became part of the fan experience.

What has changed the most, even more than the product on the field over the years, is how sports teams are followed. We aren’t that far removed from fans only being able to follow games by listening on the radio. Once television began broadcasting sports, there was just national games of the week until regional coverage developed years later after Rutgers business school graduate Bill Rasmussen created ESPN and changed sports coverage forever in 1979.

For college sports fans this was important, as it wasn’t until the Supreme Court ruled in 1984 that the NCAA telecasts violated Sherman Anti-Trust laws when real change occurred. Teams and conferences were now able to control broadcasting rights after years of the NCAA regulating college football games to mostly just one national game of the week. ESPN was the first platform available to air multiple games and we’ve seen tremendous growth ever since. Of late, streaming services are now a way of viewing sports like never before, even on your phone.

The definition of what constitutes as media has evolved as well, as independent blogs and fan sites such as this one have become acknowledged, embraced and credentialed by pro teams and athletic departments across the country. I now write game previews on the train to work and game recaps from my couch at home. Readers can access these minutes after a I publish them, not wait until the next morning’s newspaper.

Social media platforms are also a major evolution in the fan experience. Every professional and college team has a Twitter account, Facebook page and Instagram page. Teams and even players interact online with fans like never before. Geo Baker uniting the Rutgers fan base during this tough time with the #StepBackChallenge is a positive example of how social media has enhanced the fan experience in modern times. Of course, fans can sometimes take things too far and it became a hot topic this college basketball season regarding how negative comments affect the mental health of players, but we can delve into that another day.

Which brings us to now. What will the fan experience be once the games resume in hopefully what is just a few months from now? How quickly will stadiums, arenas and ballparks fill up once sporting events reopen?

With technology today, fans have more options to follow their teams the way they prefer than ever before. The current climate is such that planning a trip to the grocery store resembles the complexity of a game plan developed by Steve Pikiell or Greg Schiano. While it won’t always be this way, like I mentioned, reminders of this current situation will give us all pause in different ways in the future.

I’m optimistic fans will ultimately return to watch their teams live in action in the near future. Fans have a unique power to impact the performance of teams and the outcomes of games that is both unquantifiable and magical. What happened with Rutgers men’s basketball and the RAC this past season highlights that point in a major way.

I do think it will take some time for thousands of people attending a game to feel completely comfortable again. I also think this is a great opportunity for teams and colleges to create new ways for fans to engage and connect remotely. And being admittedly biased, I don’t think there has ever been a more important time in the brief history of fan sites like this and the many others SB Nation have in regard to the impact we can have, as our sports culture evolves from the experience of this global pandemic.

My hope for sports and the much bigger picture with life across the world is that the appreciation of everything good is elevated from this collective human experience we are currently enduring. I’m an optimist, if you didn’t know by now after reading this site for the past five years. I believe people will end up being a little nicer, a little more considerate, and a little more focused on positives in every aspect of life and less focused on the negatives. When it comes to sports fans, I hope it makes us appreciate the journey even more so, taking the losses less hard and enjoying the wins even more so.

As Rutgers fans, I hope the same but also that we come together even more so than before. Differing opinions on the direction of teams, coaching and player performance is what being a fan is partly about and should always exist. I just hope more civility is present in the future, both online and at games between each other and rival fans. More importantly, when college sports does return, we have more to look forward to regarding Rutgers Athletics than in many years and perhaps ever.

With that, I’ll end by saying despite the world and our nation going through a terrible time at the moment, our site will continue to cover whatever positives arise regarding Rutgers Athletics in the interim. If something we cover makes you smile or even forget the reality of the day, then we’ve succeeded. Really the point of sports in my mind is bringing people together for a common goal, sharing family experiences and traditions through the love of a team or college and supporting them fully. And I’m confident that will never change for all fans of sports, including Rutgers.