BARCELONA (Reuters) - The usually scorching derby between Sevilla and Real Betis kicks the La Liga season back into action on Thursday but while the Sanchez Pizjuan stadium will be eerily quiet without spectators, the television broadcast will offer a far livelier experience.
With virtual crowd visuals and noise, La Liga hopes to compensate for the enforced empty stadiums when the season resumes after a three-month break due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
La Liga's partnership with Norwegian broadcasting technology firm Vizrt means viewers will see to-scale images of seated fans wearing the home club's colours in "virtualised" stands.
They will also hear simulated noise created by video game developer EA Sports FIFA, drawn from a back catalogue of chants from actual stadiums which will adapt to game events such as goals, chances and fouls.
"Our aim was to reproduce the same entertainment experience that viewers had before so we developed and selected technologies to create the same atmosphere," La Liga's audiovisual director Melcior Soler told Reuters.
"This is something which is not so strange in the entertainment industry. Sitcoms and late night shows add applause and laughter and we think the audience will understand that this will give a better atmosphere to the games."
Yet not everyone is pleased by the prospect of a simulated fan experience.
"The use of virtual images and sounds in the television broadcasts of what they are trying to sell as the return of football feels to us like a lack of respect to the fans they want to replace," said Emilio Abejon of fans group FASFE.
"We've spent years protesting against the fact that La Liga wants to make us the props for their broadcasts but with this move they have gone one step further. Now all they need to do is replace the players and they'll have reinvented video games."
La Liga responded by saying: "We want to give viewers a good experience and that's why during this unusual time we have opted for virtualisation of the stands. Everyone watching it will know it isn't real, but it will enhance the viewing experience.
"We want fans back into the stadiums as soon as that can be done responsibly. Fans are key to the atmosphere around football, both in the stadium and on TV."
La Liga president Javier Tebas had warned that clubs would face collective losses of up to one billion euros if the season was not completed but also stressed that it would not feel as if football had truly returned until fans came back to stadiums.
THREE BILLION VIEWERS
La Liga is the second most popular football competition in the world behind the Premier League, with organisers saying last year it reached a cumulative global audience of three billion.
The 'Clasico' between Barcelona and Real Madrid is the most watched club match in the world, reaching 600 million people.
Soler expects the return of the competition will have a similar impact in Spain as Germany's Bundesliga, which received a record audience when last month it became the first major European league to return.
He also hopes to make the most of a head start on the Premier League and Italy's Serie A, which resume on June 17 and 20 respectively.
"We think we'll have a bigger audience than usual, especially in the first round of matches. We'll have games every day so it will be like a World Cup without a final," Soler said.
"We didn't do this to take advantage of anyone else although it's very good to have this extra week, it's good to start one week before for worldwide audiences."
(Reporting by Richard Martin; Editing by Toby Davis)
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