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As COVID-19 sidelines fans, sports teams fill stands with robots and mannequins

As COVID-19 sidelines fans, sports teams fill stands with robots and mannequins

In coronavirus times, recreation is mostly a pipe dream. Sporting events are being called off left and right: The NBA season, the Boston Marathon, and the 2020 Tokyo Olympics (which was postponed to 2021) are just a few of the casualties. Deprived of typical content, sports broadcaster ESPN has begun filling its airtime with athletic feats in sign spinning, cup stacking, and cherry-pit spitting—reruns, of course, since no spitting contest would fly these days.

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But a few professional sports leagues around the world are still playing on. And deprived of live, human audiences, they’ve begun filling their stands with a new breed of spectator, one with total herd immunity. Behold, an army of robot mannequin fans plastered with photographs of ticket-buyers’ faces—which will cheer on baseball players in Taiwan and soccer players in Belarus.

“Welcome to the future,” states the official website of the Chinese Professional Baseball League, creator of the Fans of Tomorrow.

According to the league’s website, the Rakuten Monkeys, a member team owned by Japanese online retail giant Rakuten, will kick off its season inside an empty stadium peppered with 500 “new fans.” The fans are mostly mannequins dressed in Rakuten jerseys with banners affixed to their forearms. According to the website, “a few of them will be robots.”

It did not say what the robots would do. Perform the wave? Purchase hot dogs at the seventh-inning stretch? Who knows! The possibilities are, well, rather limited.

“Since we are not allowed to have any fans in attendance [to comply with CDC guidelines], we might as well have some fun with it,” the Monkeys’ general manager Justin Liu told the website.

Belarus, meanwhile, is the last European nation still hosting viewers at sporting events amid the pandemic, although audiences have shrunk over fears of contagion. For its Belarusian Cup semifinal match this week, football club Dynamo Brest boosted its home crowd with at least 30 dummies topped with headshots of “virtual fans,” who bought tickets but decided to sit out the games.

According to the Associated Press, the dummies wore “a motley array of old shirts ranging from a purple 2016-17 Real Madrid away jersey to early 1990s Aston Villa in claret and blue.”

Welcome to the future, folks! It is here, in all its glory.

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