While flicking through the channels in search of something to watch last weekend, I stopped on a scene that hinted at the NFL's near future. It came during a tennis match, of all things.
OK, let me explain.
I came across a live broadcast of the Italian Open Saturday afternoon. As the sun set in Rome, Novak Djokovic, the world's No. 1 tennis player, was being pushed to his limit in a semifinal by an underdog from the host country.
Pandemic protocols were in effect at the stadium. The stands weren't full. Fans wore masks. Many sat several seats apart.
But as they watched their countryman try to pull off a monumental upset, they were going nuts the old-fashioned way.
It was a far cry from the typical tennis scene with hushed crowds respectfully applauding. This was more like a WWE event with unhinged fans standing and bellowing.
Whenever the Italian won a point, he tossed his head back and screamed, thrust his arms in the air and shook them, exhorting the fans to make even more noise. Which they happily did.
You could feel their passion shaking the stadium, and I detected something else at play, too. You didn't need a psychology degree to understand these fans were ready to cut loose after being stuck at home for so long due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The place was absolutely rocking.
It drove home how much I'd missed fans and how they could enhance an event – make it the best version of itself.
Without them, in this case, the match would've consisted of a couple of guys hitting balls in eerie silence. Even if they played terrific tennis, which they did, the event would've been weird and far less dramatic.
That's what we lived with for a year as the NFL and other leagues and sports powered through the global health crisis. Most contests went on, and at times, with fake crowd noise piped in, watching on television was an OK experience. All things considered, the 2020 NFL season was compelling.
But for those who were playing, coaching or watching in person for some reason (a smattering of fans went to the occasional game), the experience was hardly normal.
The WWE-style tennis match was a vivid reminder of what makes sports so much fun, and best of all, as I watched, it hit me that this is what we can expect from NFL games in 2021.
Noise. Partisanship. Fans going nuts.
With millions vaccinated and case counts declining, Commissioner Roger Goodell recently said the league expects full stadiums this fall. The virus will have the final say on that and I won't try to predict its course, but there's certainly reason to be hopeful.
The start of a return to normalcy is already underway. A relatively normal baseball season is kicking along with reduced-capacity crowds; the usual roars aren't sounding, but it's way better than 2020. A similarly reduced crowd was at Pimlico for the Preakness last weekend. On Sunday, the NBA's Washington Wizards' home crowd was "loud … and engaged," the Washington Post reported.
You can see (and hear) things moving in the right direction. And I'm guessing everything happening now will amount to a warmup act for the 2021 NFL season.
For so long, it was difficult, if not impossible, to envision a great crowd gathering for a football game and sending roars into the sky. But the Ravens are planning for it at M&T Bank Stadium.
As restrictions begin to loosen, being an NFL player or coach almost surely will be easier in 2021. There's a prevailing sense throughout the league of having endured the worst of the pandemic, with better times now ahead.
Those tennis fans in Rome surely could speak to it. They were disappointed in the end when their countryman lost to Djokovic, but I can guarantee you they still went home smiling.
What great fun they had.
It's where we're all headed, I think, or hope, and not one moment too soon.