Following sports in the time of COVID-19

By Ben Lyttleton

A lack of professional sporting competitions is affecting fans, reshaping both their behavior and their relationship with teams.

How is everyone coping without sports in their lives? Once you’ve read about the cancellation of all major sports events due to the novel coronavirus pandemic, and seen the reactions from the managers, players, and sports organizations, what is left for the billions of fans across the globe? The world still turns, albeit with less drama, less diversion, and less color in it. For many, a world without sports is monochrome.

Perhaps the more pertinent question is: If we only fully notice something like sports when they’re gone, what can this period without them tell us about ourselves and our heroes? What can we learn about our relationship with sports that could help us going forward, once the crisis has passed?

Sports fulfill different roles for different people, and the current hiatus affects us all in different ways. I now understand just how much rhythm soccer provided to my weekly calendar. I found comfort in this regularity; no matter what else was going on, sports were there, sometimes acting as a social connector, other times an emotional release.

Sports are woven into our culture, and although I may not be alone in missing them, I feel more alone. What have I lost? A sense of community, belonging, and socialization that sports bring — through either playing them with friends or watching them together. I’ve lost the anticipation of sports’ ongoing narrative. (No one really thinks Liverpool FC, currently top of England’s unfinished Premier League, will blow a 25-point lead if play resumes, but what if…?)

I’ve lost sports as a social unifier, but I also miss the unscripted and unpredictable drama that live events provide — the emotional escape from reality and the simple entertainment. As Jorge Valdano, the former Real Madrid coach and philosopher–columnist, wrote in his latest piece for El País, “Socceris a glorious simulation of reality.”

In the same column, Valdano also bemoaned the lack of proportion in all the hand-wringing over the commercial aspects of the game, and recalled the story of a sailor who leaps into the sea to save a drowning child. A week later, a woman approaches him and asks, “Are you the man who saved my son?” “Yes, madam,” he replies. “Then you are the man I’m looking for,” she counters. “Where is the boy’s cap?”

Filling the gaps

Without sports, as London-based media firm SportsPro explains, “we all are in an age of indefinite protocols.” Life narrows to the necessary and the routine. But there are changes we are already seeing in our behaviors and approach to sports. Amid our indoor confinement, this is the moment for at-home exercise products to go mainstream. For example, British fitness trainer Joe Wicks has started streaming PE lessons globally on YouTube; his first lesson had more than 3 million views.

Competitive gaming is also getting a boost; NASCAR moved quickly to launch an e-sports season last year, before the coronavirus surfaced, and the Third eSailing World Championship began in February with more than 170,000 entrants. Leyton Orient FC, a team in the lower English soccer leagues, announced a global e-sports tournament, #ultimatequaranteam, played on the popular FIFA 20 video game, that ended up involving 128 clubs across Europe.

More and more athletes are fulfilling the prophesy of Tom Vernon, the owner of Danish club FC Nordsjælland, who said that the new definition of greatness would be how players use their platform as a force for social change. According to Vernon, finding a purpose, and following through on it, is one way to judge success.