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Dan Bickley

Fanless experience looms for Cardinals home games, Phoenix Open

Arizona Cardinals fans cheer on Larry Fitzgerald during the second half of an NFL football game against the Detroit Lions, Sunday, Sept. 8, 2019, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

Sports fans have been replaced by cardboard cutouts, virtual faces and a vast emptiness that poses no threat to those playing the game.

The results have been staggering. But serious questions loom in Arizona:

If turnstiles are shut down during the NFL season, how will the Cardinals fare without the weekly communion between Valley fans and superstar Larry Fitzgerald, those intimate moments where one key play can ignite the crowd and a momentum rarely heard in these parts?

“Larry! Larry! Larry!”

Those moments usually spawn positive outcomes in Glendale.

Meanwhile, how will the Waste Management Phoenix Open pose any threat to professional golfers without hundreds of thousands of people in attendance, representing the only hazard on the course? What if there were no stiletto heels clickety-clacking down the cart path? What if the ongoing pandemic robbed the tournament of its frat boy, people-watching, Caddyshack energy? Would the tournament be better off to take a gap year and regroup?

For now, the sociology of a fan-less experience has been fascinating.

Without all the noise, the NBA has seen a steady torrent of great individual performances. Players seem focused and relaxed. Referees aren’t swayed by the home crowd. In an era when player-fan confrontations seemed to be spiking in the NBA, this might be a welcome reprieve.

Major League Baseball doesn’t seem that different, a sport that lulls an audience to sleep in the best of times. Except for the ninth inning. Those feel different inside a pandemic.

Playing on mostly-empty courses, the PGA Tour has seen a rise of the middle class and a new wave of explosive young talent. Golfers who shriveled under the gaze of galleries are letting their talents shine. Marquee stars (Phil Mickelson, Tiger Woods) who fed off the crowd and turned it against weaker-minded opponents are desperately seeking new fuel sources. NHL players barely seem to mind, as hockey fans are shielded by a plexiglass barrier in normal times, noticed only when throwing fish or hats on the ice.

But Fitzgerald’s crowd-sourcing is an important part of any football season in Arizona. A key third-down reception can lead to an outburst of emotion from Fitzgerald, which instantly raises the decibel level in Glendale. He is a guaranteed energy source at all home games. That will be had to replace and impossible to miss.

Declining COVID-19 statistics in Arizona represent an encouraging trend, but state officials and the Governor’s Office will ultimately determine if some percentage of fans will be allowed to attend Cardinals home games in 2020. Some teams have already pulled the plug. To date, the Jets, Giants, Raiders and Washington’s football team have declared no fans allowed in the season ahead. But the Cardinals have not closed the door on some level of fan participation in the months ahead, and that’s a beacon of hope that stretches well beyond Glendale.

The Waste Management Phoenix Open coincides with Super Bowl weekend, and might be the most fan-dependent sporting event in America. The 16th hole has become a bucket-list event for golf enthusiasts, and not because the hole is pristine, taxing or historic. It’s because of the hecklers, the mob mentality, the coliseum feel and the drunken anarchy that influences a golfer’s psyche long before they get to the No. 16 tunnel.

In 2018, the WMPO attracted over 719,000 fans, the biggest turnout in PGA Tour history. Pro-Am attendance exceeded a championship Sunday on most other tour stops. Over 216,000 people attended Saturday’s third round alone, a day when the Waste Management Phoenix Open staked its claim as the biggest party in sports.

Without the fans, the TPC Scottsdale has no defense. Without the fans, it might be wise to take a year off.

Reach Bickley at Listen to Bickley & Marotta weekdays from 10 a.m. – 2 p.m. on 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station.

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Dan Bickley bio
Dan Bickley is the most influential sports media member in Arizona sports history, having spent over 20 years as the award-winning lead sports columnist for The Arizona Republic and and almost two decades as a Valley sports radio talk show host. In spring 2018, Bickley made the decision to leave the newspaper to join the Arizona Sports team as host of the entertaining and informative midday show Bickley and Marotta, as well as bring his opinionated and provocative column exclusively to
Bickley’s journalism career began in his hometown of Chicago, where he was part of a star-studded staff at the Chicago Sun-Times. He chronicled Michael Jordan’s six NBA championships; covered the Olympics in eight different countries and attended 14 Super Bowls; spent three weeks in an Indianapolis courthouse writing about Mike Tyson’s rape trial; and once left his laptop in an Edmonton bar after the Blackhawks reached the Stanley Cup Finals.
He has won multiple awards, written two books, formed a rock band, fathered three children, and once turned down an offer to work at the New York Times.  His passions include sports, music, the alphabet, good beer and great radio. After joining Arizona Sports 98.7 FM, he couldn’t be happier