Call me a pre-pandemic sports person, but the pandemic-era sports were missing something for me. What was missing? Writing helps me think, so I hope you’ll stick with me as I write through this—I have no outline, no agenda, just some things on my mind. Maybe I just need to get some things off my chest.
At the beginning of the pandemic, there was no baseball for a while, no March Madness, no NFL pre-season (not that anyone missed that!), for a while it looked like there might not be any sports at all. But then there were games to watch, so what was the problem? Well, one thing that was missing was the fans–the roaring crowds.
Sports require fans. If a tree falls in a forest but no one hears it….
The crowd creates an atmosphere. That’s why watching a Duke home game at Cameron Indoor Stadium can be so fun—their fans are the Cameron Crazies. I understand why they had to go to no fans in the stadium, public safety comes first, and the cardboard cutouts are a nice touch, but they simply do not make me want to watch. No crowd at Cameron and it completely loses its appeal.
Another example—the Lambeau Leap from a Green Bay Packer player. It’s nice they still did it when they scored, but with no fans, it’s just weird. It’s not like I need an endzone celebration to make me want to watch–but it’s a sign of something. Something that is missing.
The roar of a crowd on a big play. Or the passion at an NHL Playoff game in Canada—before the game, they sing the Canadian National Anthem, and after the first line, the singer holds his or her mic to the crowd to let the crowd sing. Chills! It’s what it’s all about. The game is for the fans then suddenly there were no fans. Without that, it just misses.
Maybe it bothers me more now than it would have a few years ago. But creating content in and around sports has me thinking differently about it all. That and I simply have less interest in the outcome of a game (most of the time). Maybe if something like pandemic sports had happened back then, I would have been happy just to watch my team play and maybe win. But there’s more.
Over the years, I’ve developed more of an interest in the psychology of sports. I want to see how both teams handle whatever comes up. I want to know the stories behind many of the players. I want to experience the crowd. I’ve become fascinated by how sports can bring people together. Don’t get me wrong, when there’s a big game for a team I grew up rooting for, I’m there (well, I often utilize my DVR to record live sports, so I’m there eventually), but it often (not always!!) doesn’t matter to me who is going to win. I mean, it matters, but not to the same extreme as it used to. I reserve the right to change my opinion on this! I’ll admit, the Ohio State vs Clemson semi-final game with limited fans had me in. All in.
The thing is, the chance of winning it all is really slim. The Dallas Cowboys have won five Super Bowls. That’s a lot! But there have been 55 Super Bowls, so that’s about a 9% win rate—even the best teams eventually lose most seasons. And if you’re rooting for a team that’s not the best? There are teams, like the Cleveland Browns and Buffalo Bills that have never won a Super Bowl. If winning were all you cared about, you’d be miserable most of the time. There needs to be something else. For me, and I think for a lot of other people, that something else is the experience of it, and also the way people come together around sports.
Maybe that’s why I missed the crowds so much.
But it’s not like I wasn’t watching sports at all during the pandemic. For example, when I started writing about this topic in February, my son and I were both about to shut it down for the night, but instead, we started watching the Golden State Warriors vs. the Dallas Mavericks, because it was on. Neither of us had watched much basketball to that point, for all the reasons I said earlier. The game just hadn’t grabbed us. But I guess we just felt like making an exception.
That’s when Steph Curry hit a ridiculous three-pointer. And then Luka Doncic countered. And then on and on. It was such a fun game.
My son and I talked about Steph and Luke. We talked about basketball. We talked about friends. We talked about the Super Bowl that was upcoming. We talked about working out. We talked about driving. We talked about food. It’s not like he and I are ever short on topics—he can talk, and so can I! But in that moment, that night, it was watching that game that brought us together. I mean, we were already together, but the game let us connect and make for a fun late night.
That’s just one example. During the pandemic, we weren’t watching sports as much as we used to, but it was still a great way to connect, and I’m sure we weren’t the only ones. I heard about people Face Timing during games, or even just calling each other—watching the same thing at the same time and then talking about it is a way to connect with people we maybe couldn’t see in person. Nobody can talk about COVID-19 (and everything that goes along with it) all the time. Talking (or texting) about a game for a while—it’s not being sad about the past or worried about the future, it’s just being present, enjoying the moment for what it is. It helps.
It’s a reason to go outside, too, instead of being cooped up in the same place all the time. We can go to a field hockey practice for my daughter. My family and I can kick a soccer ball around while we watch the field hockey session nearby. A pick-up game, or even just throwing a ball around, is a great way for friends or family to connect outside safely. It’s just fun.
So maybe I’m wrong. Maybe pandemic-era sports weren’t missing anything after all. Something was missing, that’s for sure, but maybe sports were one way to get some of it back.
And as I finish this piece in late May of 2021, crowds are coming back to the sports venues. And wow, what a difference it makes.
There are some kinks to work out for sure–for example, mobbing Phil Mickelson as he walks to the 18th Tee (72nd hole of the PGA Championship) on The Ocean Course at Kiawah Island is a bit aggressive. Or Spike Lee acting like he is going to de someone up in Game 1 of the Atlanta Hawks vs the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden.
But people are ready for the re-opening and they are ready to participate in the experience. Some will for sure need to tone it down a bit! But as long as the crowds don’t go overboard, it’s clear that sports are better when there are people there (near and far) to share in the experience.
As the singer-songwriter, Jack Johnson said, “I’ll tell you one thing, it’s always better when we’re together.”
Oh and the matter of sports bringing people together–here’s that article.