Broncos Fans: Let's Science the Sh*t Out of the Playoffs -or- Sport Science: Sound and the Home Field Advantage

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As someone who often goes by the online moniker “Mile High Hoosier,” you can imagine this past Sunday was a big day for our football family. Being a Colts fan through the years of Jim Harbaugh and Jeff George was tough, but that loyalty paid off when, following a dismal 3-13 season that earned Indianapolis the first pick of the 1998 draft, a young man from the University of Tennessee was inexplicably chosen over Ryan Leaf as the new quarterback. So began the legendary career of Peyton Manning, and, for the first time since the team left Baltimore, it was good to be a Colts fan.

Fast forward ten years. After a disastrous economic downturn, and deciding that maybe working in the automotive industry in the Midwest wasn’t the most promising long-term plan, my family packed up and headed west to Denver. I remained a Colts fans for a while, watching when I could, but it felt like maybe I wasn’t truly adopting Denver as my new home while I was rooting for another football team. (Yes, I am fully cognizant of the overall ridiculousness of loyalty to a group of itinerant athletes). I tried to get behind the Broncos, especially with their quarterback being a fellow Purdue grad, but Tebow came along, and I lost interest altogether.

Then, in 2012, in what I can only assume to be recognition of my brilliant strategy and an attempt to emulate my career path, Peyton Manning joined my family here in Denver*, and all was once again right in the football world.

* Figuratively, not literally. I have yet to receive my invitation to Sunday brunch at the Manning house.

Of course, in such a fairy tale world of football excellence, there simply must be an antagonist. An Agent Smith to my Neo, a Saruman to my Gandalf. This Dark Lord of football evil was named Tom Brady. As a Hoosier, rooting against Tom Brady and the Patriots comes as naturally as catching crawdads in the creek or shooting free throws in the driveway. As ESPN will no doubt highlight all this week, few QBs have come between Peyton and a championship more than Tom Brady. It’s easy to blame the O-line, or injuries, or cheating, but, just like Saruman, it’s hard to argue the man is at least equally as talented as our hero. (I’d give a slight edge to Peyton for vision and brains, and an ever-widening edge to Brady on pure physical skill.)

And so, here we are once again, our White Wizard vying against Dark Lord Belichick and his most skilled and hated Chief. Who will prevail? Only time will tell, but one thing that is known is that the battle will take place here, in our own Tower of the Setting Sun, where, for perhaps the last time, the citizens of our great city will be shouting their support for their Captain.

And shout, you can be assured, they will. Because, despite the rituals and the superstitions, there is only one thing a fan can truly do to affect a football game: be as loud as physically possible when the opponent’s quarterback is trying to communicate. Numerous articles have been written about stadium acoustics and pumped-in sound, but we don’t pay enough attention to the actual science of sound. While fans can’t bring foghorns or redesign the stadium to be even more acoustically efficient than it already is, they can be more effective in how they create, direct, and contain the sounds they do make.

The NFL rules are strict regarding artificial noise produced by the stadium personnel, but there are no rules regarding how loud the crowd can be or what they can do to create this volume.

A quick science review. Sound is created when you vibrate your vocal cords as air from your lungs passes by. Those vibrations are carried in the air to Tom Brady’s ears where they cause his eardrums to vibrate, translating the pressure waves into sound. So, if you’re a Broncos fan sitting in the nose bleed seats, you want to somehow get your vibrations to Tom Brady’s ears. What’s the best way to do that?

Author’s note: here is a fantastic article on the science of outdoor sound that I understood about 5% of. Please take my analysis of this with a grain of salt. If there are any audio technicians who can share some more insight on this, I’d love to hear from you in the comments.

The pitch of a sound is determined by its frequency, or the number of times a sound wave occurs in a given period of time. At higher frequency, the sound wave is impeded by the air. While we here in Denver have the advantage of our air being thinner than in other stadiums, you still want that wave to be as low as possible to travel the entire distance to the field. The lower the frequency, the further the sound will travel. That means, when you’re yelling at Tom, you need to make it a low yell–“Boooo” vs. “Aaaahhhh.”

Top to bottom, low frequency to high. Notice how much more often the purple, high frequency wave collides with the air compared to the red, low frequency wave.
Top to bottom, low frequency to high. Notice how much more often the purple, high frequency wave collides with the air compared to the red, low frequency wave.

Directing the sound wave is also vital. It might be fun to earn the Guinness World Record for noisiest crowd, but, unless those decibels are hitting Tom Brady’s ears, all you’re doing is getting a footnote in a book. Think of sound like water. If everyone in the stands was handed a garden hose and told to soak Tom Brady (please do this, NFL), you’re not likely to set the nozzle on “mist” and hope for the best. Yet, that is exactly what you’re doing when you just yell like an orc storming Hornburg. Instead, you need to force the sound waves to go in a single direction. Protesters and cheerleaders have known the secret to directing sound for years, yet few football fans take advantage of the science behind the megaphone. With a simple rolled up piece of paper or plastic, you can increase the effectiveness of your sound waves.

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Barrel Man’s lower half was well suited for deflecting sound waves. His upper half, not so much. CC BY-SA 3.0

Even using a megaphone, though, you’re going to get some errant sound waves. The best way to keep them in the stadium is a roof, but, unfortunately, we like the sun too much here, and our stadium doesn’t have one of those. However, there is another way that sound gets lost besides out into the blue Colorado sky–into the soft bodies of 75,000+ people. The perfect solution would be for everyone to bring a shield. Not only would the hard, smooth metal deflect the sound waves back onto the field, we could crash our swords against them mightily as we watch Tom Brady pick himself up off the ground over and over again. Alas, NFL stadium rules prohibit melee weaponry, even if it can be fit into a clear vinyl or PVC 12″ x 6″ x 12″ bag. What they will allow, however, is… a clear vinyl or PVC 12″ x 6″ x 12″ bag. Since PVC is a much better sound reflector than a #18 jersey, slip your bag around your neck and wear it in front of you as a breastplate. Any sound waves that emanate from your fellow fans will bounce back, creating a perfect storm of noise that maybe, if we’re lucky, will confound even the mightiest cave troll. (Seriously, is Gronk not the perfect name for a Tolkien cave troll?)**

So, this coming weekend, do your part and gird your loins with science as our Broncos take the field and we cheer on one of the greatest of all time as he faces yet again his mightiest, and hopefully after Sunday, deafest foe, perhaps for the last time.

**Yes, I will readily admit that it’s pure envy that the Patriots get a TE who is not only a freight train, but apparently has the hands of Marvin Harrison in his prime, and if he’d just do the decent thing and transfer to Denver right now, the world would be a much better place.

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