Sport in the time of COVID-19 presents a paradox. There are no games, no scores, no highlights, and no on-field controversies to speak of, unless one includes the public health menace of the Belarusian Premier League, or the complicated case of eSports.
Yet, even as upsetting stories of deaths and infections multiply, the news and online sports chatter that surrounds our most popular leagues and events continues unabated.
When will sport around the world recommence? Will NRL clubs and players restart competition by retreating to a "bubble" somewhere in outer western Sydney, complete with playing fields, hotel and gymnasium? How much of a salary cut should athletes and administrators accept? What are sportspeople doing during their home “lockdown”? How many games are enough to make a meaningful competition? How out of touch is the International Olympic Committee with the realities of a global crisis? (Answer: Very.)
Sport matters, but not how you might think
Explaining the presence of sport in the media despite its physical absence requires recognition of the fact that sport matters a great deal, although not for the reasons usually discussed by journalists, commentators, executives and PR shills. They’re all desperately trying to hold in place a media and economic landscape that has already changed forever. Even government handouts, should they arrive, won’t alter this fact.
The complete absence of sporting spectacle globally represents an almost historically unprecedented moment, forcing reflection on why so many people habitually watch sport, and have often done so since childhood. Sport consumes hours each Friday night and weekend, as spectators and viewers watch athletes kick, throw, pass, hit, run, and shoot in stadiums around the country, and on television, computer and mobile screens.
For those who dislike sport, this absence is likely a source of amusement or quiet satisfaction. There is a great deal to criticise and reject about professional sport, given its hyper-commodification, sporadic corruption, and perpetuation of social and labour inequalities (see: match fixing, doping, financial irregularities, endorsement of alcohol and gambling, racism, embarrassing rates of pay in women’s sport, transphobia, and more). But the very fact of this rejection emphasises that sport is a central presence and widely shared lingua franca in social life and national culture.
The disruption of a social ritual
What are we, then, missing due to COVID-19?
Social ritual has been interrupted. The weekly and seasonal patterns of watching in groups and alone, as well as attending games with family, friends, colleagues and fellow fans are on hold. Those who enjoy using platforms such as Twitter to express and follow real-time reactions to live matches are stymied. Usually taken for granted, these patterns possess real meaning in the lives of spectators and viewers who organise their time around an arena of communal interest and passion.
These long-established social rituals are, in effect, raw materials mined and processed into lucrative spectacles by the sport and media industries. They’re then sold back to the fans and spectators – with a healthy mark-up for access to pay-TV and streaming services, memberships, tickets, merchandise, apps, and game-day experiences. This doesn’t necessarily diminish the social significance of rituals in the lives of fans, particularly as they inform an identity that’s collectively expressed in public life.
Embedded within these rituals are totemic symbols that represent belonging, common cause and community. Club emblems and colours, membership badges and numbers, jumpers and scarves worn by fans of all ages, flags and mascots, and the “home” ground. Images and statues of great and legendary players shown on television and displayed at stadiums.
The wonderful photograph and statue of AFLW and Carlton star Tayla Harris captures the fact such icons are created, not bestowed. These symbols are reference points in the sharing of experiences and memories that matter intensely to fans (and very little to most others). Such symbols are neither on display nor experienced at this moment in time.
The open and voluble expression of strong emotion is a feature of sport spectatorship. This makes it a unique setting in public life, as more restrained forms of emotional control and regulation are expected in the workplace, on the street, and in the classroom.
Cheering, chanting, booing and jeering. Roaring approval when a player takes a wicket, or scores a goal. Mouthing open disapproval when a wicket falls, or a try is conceded. Singing the club song following a victory. Yelling at the television screen and posting expressive emojis on social media. Making comments about umpires and coaches that would be considered deeply personal or abusive in other areas of social life, particularly when directed at relative strangers.
These behaviours are commonplace features of spectator sport. The affective charge of sport takes a negative turn when it connects to extensive security, policing and surveillance measures designed to lessen the likelihood of anti-social behaviour and fighting among spectators. There’s also a link between sport, alcohol consumption and family violence during the AFL grand final and State of Origin rugby league matches. The current hiatus may deliver at least one major positive.
Sport without crowds is no longer a spectacle
The small number of football and cricket matches played in March before empty stadiums for television cameras were strange to observe. Reflecting on the experience of calling Richmond playing Carlton, renowned commentator Bruce McAvaney said: “You can’t manufacture and fabricate … 90,000 passionate fans and a roar that gives us all a tingle up our backs … It was a mixed bag, and it was confusing.”
Similarly, Melbourne City striker Kyah Simon, while playing in the W-League grand final almost a month ago, observed: “We didn’t have that noise behind our own screams and cheers as a group of 11 players. It sounds like you’re listening to music with no bass, like something was missing.”
Sport without a crowd is no longer a spectacle, especially as crowds possess dynamics that are tied to social and psychological appetites for striking public displays. Much like Zoom, these fixtures were a flawed substitute in generating a sense of social connection.
Games without the roar of the crowd may have kept competitions, and revenue streams, running for a short period, and helped to pass the time for those people watching. But the thousands of empty seats further underlined the solitary and unsettling nature of social life amid a pandemic.
Addressing a social need
Live spectator sport isn’t being played, but the social needs it addresses are still urgently felt in the lives of fans, followers and viewers. Understood this way, the constant sports chatter in the news and online media is about more than markets and industries fighting for their economic survival – although this is also true.
There’s a collective hunger for rituals, symbols, emotions and connections that can offer relief from the social isolation imposed by physical distancing and working from home. Sport, despite its flaws, sustains the memory and promise of connection at a time when lives and livelihoods are in the balance.
This article was originally published by Lens. Brett Hutchins is Professor of Media and Communications Studies and Head of the School of Media, Film and Journalism. He is presently playing Football Manager 2020 with his son instead of watching sport on weekends.