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The Crowd's Energy Is Bad for Your Ears

On the other hand, at least the players can still hear themselves think.
New York Islanders fans celebrate a goal with a chant. (Photo: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

New York Islanders fans celebrate a goal with a chant. (Photo: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

"We're going to feed off our crowd's energy tomorrow," Golden State Warriors point guard Stephen Curry told reporters back in June as the team was preparing for Game 5 of the NBA Finals. Whether players really can utilize the fans' enthusiasm is open to debate (and it probably depends on the sport), but one thing is pretty sure: All that noise is bad for your ears.

Sports writers and bloggers have had a bit of a love affair (read: obsession) with how earthshakingly loud it gets in sports stadiums, particularly when covering the NFL. Last year, the noise at the Kansas City Chiefs' Arrowhead Stadium reached 142.2 decibels—roughly the same as a passenger jet flying 100 feet overhead. Of course, it's not just football; the University of Kansas' Allen Fieldhouse tops the list of loudest college basketball arenas at a still-deafening 122 decibels.

This is the stuff of bragging rights among fans and sports franchises alike, but a bit lost in the popular discussion are questions about the design of these stadiums. Can players hear themselves think? Is there a chance fans might risk their hearing going to a game? And how does architecture affect that?

To investigate, University of Nebraska–Lincoln undergraduate Brenna Boyd turned not to the field, but to the ice. From an architectural perspective, the big difference between hockey and other sports is the presence of the roof. In hockey "sound gets trapped in the space and reverberates back in," Boyd writes in an email, while the open roof of a football stadium, for example, would release some of roar of the crowd to the outside world.

Working with Architectural Engineering and Construction Professor Lily Wang, Boyd set up sound meters around Omaha's Century Link Center—including the student section—and recorded the crowd at four University of Nebraska–Omaha Mavericks games during the 2014–15 season. She also surveyed players to see how loud they thought the crowd was, and how well they could hear their coaches and fellow teammates.

As one might expect, the Mavericks student section was loud, averaging about 95 decibels and reaching an ear-shattering 132 decibels during a match with rival St. Cloud University. That lined up with players' experiences—on average, they graded their fans 69 points on a 100-point scale from "silent" to "loud." Remarkably, players didn't report having much trouble hearing teammates, though they had a bit more difficulty hearing their coach.

Still, the results are a word of warning to fans. "[M]ost peak levels are higher than recommended to avoid hearing damage, and same with the [loudness]," Boyd writes. "Basically, if you are going to go to a Mavs game, you will experience damage to your ears which may cause hearing loss."


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