While the sensory input from an empty gym will never reflect that of a raucous arena, a vivid, hyper-phantastic imagination can conjure fans and project a comforting image of support with at least some of the emotional resonance of the real thing. “There is a very well-known connection between imagination and emotion,” Stuart said. “And emotions are one of, if not the most important, motivator in the human psyche.” On Saturday, after their victory against Schalke, Dortmund players assembled in a row, staring at Westfalenstadion’s vacant south terrace—which, in another time, would have housed 25,000 screaming supporters—and, as they’ve always done, they applauded the efforts of what the soccer world has dubbed the Yellow Wall. It was a show of acknowledgment and appreciation for some of the biggest fans in sports, a ritual upheld even in a time of uncertainty. It was imagination at work.
That connection between imagination and emotion is a muscle that fans build their entire lives. And it reveals itself in different ways: as petty as engaging in greatest-of-all-time debates on Twitter, as sentimental as passing sports allegiances down to a loved one. Fandom is a sense of community held together by the power of collective imagination; the feeling of belonging to a greater whole, even if the individuals have no physical or spatial relation. Now, as ghost games temporarily unravel the live stakes of athletic performance, athletes will have to develop that muscle themselves, to bring sports back to the shared, ruminative landscape it has always been.