One of the first signals that COVID-19 was going to be different was when the NBA decided to suspend its season. Soon all the major sports in the US followed suit. Two months later and while there are many reports and speculations about when and how (and if) to restart, none of the major US team sport leagues are starting up yet. NWSL looks to be the first team sport back, scheduled to come back in late June with a tournament.
Putting aside any of the questions about the justifications for the initial, and the continued, suspensions of play, it is clear that the leagues want to come back and fans want them back.
The desire for sports to return highlights the importance and value of sport for spectators. This pandemic induced absence points us towards why we look at sport so differently.
Sport provides an escape form the mundane, from the grind of our daily lives. This is true, of course, but I also think it is the least important aspect of why we watch sport. Many recreational and leisure activities and interests provide an escape. People can lose themselves in their music or books. They can escape into a world created for their pleasure and streamed to their home 24/7. Sport is one avenue of escape, a great one, but one among many. If it were just a matter of escapism, the TV ratings for the replays of classic games would be a lot better. Everyone knows how The Sopranos ends, but people still rewatch it again and again. If sport were just another form of recreational escape, we would rewatch the 2004 World Series in the same way. Some do, but most sports fans don’t. And it is not merely that we know the Red Sox won.
The Value of Spectating
Part of it is that we know the Red Sox won. Knowing the outcome takes away a lot of the drama and excitement. But knowing how a great TV show or movie ends also removes a lot of the suspense, and yet we enjoy getting caught up in the story all over again. There are, of course, many sports fans who enjoy re-watching games for similar sorts of reasons. But it is very different experience.
Notice, also, that even when we don’t know (or remember) the outcome, there is something missing from watching a recorded sporting event. Tape-delays and game replays feel different from a live match. (Think of the complaints about tape-delays during the Olympics.)
Sport unfolds before us: all its drama, narrative, glory, disappointment, arises spontaneously out of the actions of the participants. It is happening now; before our very eyes. Even thousands of miles away, we feel a part of the unfolding action. We are a part of it by witnessing it.
Personally, even a delay of a few minutes disrupts the experience. There is a part of me that knows that the goal has been scored (or it has not) even as I watch the play that leads to that goal develop. The magic has already happened; I know it even if I don’t know what happened yet. This is even more acute in person—and part of why we still go to games—and why we will go back in droves when we are able to.
To be a spectator of sport is not mere vicariousness. It is not analogous to watching a movie or TV show, or a live concert or theatre production. I watched the finale of The Clone Wars (fantastic, btw) the day it dropped on Disney+. But this was just because I was so excited to see how it ended—had I waited a week it wouldn’t have changed my experience at all. This is not at all like the reason I get up early on Saturday mornings to watch Liverpool. Even just watching the replay (ignorant of the winner) a few hours later is different and not as satisfying. To miss the live game when it airs is to miss something that one cannot recreate later.
No doubt, we can experience dramatic, exciting action in many forms: but these are scripted or planned. Sport is not aesthetics or artistic performance (though it shares aspects of these). An improv routine that fails to be funny or witty is a failure. A match that is building towards some dramatic comeback that does not materialize is not a failure of the match. It is a disappointment to the team, and its fans, that was not able to complete the comeback, and it’s a relief to the winning side and its fans. Sport can disappoint its fans in way other performances cannot. That disappointment is, in fact, a necessary part of sport. A musician that repeatedly fails to perform to expectations will soon have no more gigs and no more fans. In sports, we call that the New York Jets and they have no shortage of fans.
Consider as well the difference between watching a game and watching a sports movie—even a well-done sports movie. Sports have ridiculous moments that could never fly in a movie. No writer would ever write the Patriots’ Super Bowl LI comeback against the Falcons: no one would find it believable.
The thing I want to emphasize here is the ‘liveness’ of sport; its in-the-moment spontaneity. This is something almost totally unique to sport. It is this liveness, this being a part of it through witnessing it, that is so much a part of the value of watching sport. I don’t know what sport will ultimately look like when it returns in full—but whatever shape it takes, the unmatched thrill of live sport will return and I will relish it.