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Michael Cunningham: One year later sports still aren’t as much fun

Michael Cunningham: One year later sports still aren’t as much fun

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It played out like one of those disaster movies in which the threat is first noticed on a TV news report in the background. The main characters mostly ignore the danger and continue on with their lives as normal. Then, suddenly, the menace is thrust into the foreground, all heck breaks loose and nothing is normal.

The novel coronavirus was a terrible thing happening Over There when I was at Braves spring training in Florida last year. Less than four days later, COVID-19 was a terrible thing happening here, there and everywhere. The virus was spreading exponentially. Tens of thousands of people were dying.

Soon our sports leagues reluctantly accepted that the games could not go on under those conditions.

The World Health Organization designated the novel coronavirus a pandemic March 11, 2020. The NBA would shut down later that night (from the perspective of our time zone). The NCAA, MLS, NHL and MLB followed suit the next day.

All those leagues would eventually play games during the pandemic. The games weren’t the same, though. They still aren’t. They won’t be until the pandemic is over.

That’s obvious to anyone who’s watched games on TV with empty arenas and manufactured atmospheres. It should be clear to people who’ve since gone to stadiums that allow spectators with severely limited capacities. Those were the proper responses to protect public health — in too many cases the restrictions didn’t go far enough — but it turns out fans in the stands are an essential element to making the games enjoyable.

Now they feel perfunctory and gloomy. That’s especially true because the lack of spectators is compounded by other visible signs of the pandemic. Participants wearing masks. Rosters missing some of the best players for days or weeks.

There’s also the constant possibility of postponed and canceled games. It’s harder to build anticipation and excitement for games when you can’t be sure when (or even if) they’ll be played.

A live audience isn’t necessary to enjoy playing sports. It’s an important part of watching them. Even if I’m not there, I need others to be there. If they aren’t, the experience as a TV viewer can be a bummer.

I was surprised to learn this about myself. I’ve long been able to enjoy the elements of games that have nothing to do with spectators. I love the strategy. I appreciate the extraordinary athletic feats. Shoot, I write a weekly football column in which I (mostly) joylessly focus on the numbers in an effort to pick winners against the point spread.

But it turns out that even the part of my brain that views games with detachment needs the part that feels things about sports. I need to hear how people react to the strategy playing out. I need to see spectators get excited by witnessing those extraordinary athletic feats. Otherwise, what’s the point of all?

Honestly, I should have known all this. That idea that fans are necessary for sports to be fun is a big part of our culture.

Think about sports scenes in popular entertainment. Few fans and little energy in stadiums, arenas and ballparks is shorthand for a sad, downtrodden team. It’s a sign that people don’t care. The few people in the stands are viewed as desperate sad sacks. Some wear sacks over their heads to signal their misery.

That scene plays out in real life for bad teams (sometimes with the sacks) or those playing at the lowest levels. During the pandemic it’s been the scene for all teams. It’s become normalized, but experiencing games that way in person or watching it on TV will never feel normal.

No wonder TV ratings are down sharply for nearly all sports during the pandemic. That’s not about politics, as some culture warriors would have you believe. People just haven’t been as interested in watching sports with COVID-19 dominating real life. If they want entertainment, there are plenty of options that allow an escape from reality and don’t depend so much on the communal experience.

(The NFL was the exception to the big TV ratings decline. The league rightly concluded that people would watch its game in any form or fashion. That’s the advantage of being the major sports league that’s most propped up by gambling.)

Our games won’t be the same until the COVID-19 vaccine is widely distributed and more people return to stadiums. Consumer demand for local business was declining even before operations were restricted by government authorities in response to the pandemic. Demand hasn’t recovered in places where business restrictions were relaxed, especially for recreation. Sports won’t be normal until gathering in crowds is safe and responsible, and financial security improves for more people.

It’s wild to look back a year ago and see how long it took our sports leagues to accept that reality. They tried pressing on after the WHO declared the coronavirus a pandemic on the morning of Wednesday, March 11. Dr. Anthony Fauci’s declaration that “anything that has large crowds is something that would give a risk to spread” ruled out spectators. The NBA and NCAA still wanted to stage basketball games for TV.

The NBA was out once Jazz center Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19 the night of March 11. The NCAA tried to keep going. It is unencumbered by an obligation to respect the labor rights of its athletes and motivated by fear of losing its main moneymaker, the men’s NCAA basketball tournament. By the afternoon of March 12, college sports also was forced to acquiesce and stop playing games.

The NCAA is planning to hold its showcase event starting next week. March Madness won’t be nearly as fun as usual. All the games will be in Indiana with attendance limited to 25% capacity of arenas. If a team withdraws because of COVID-19 protocols, its game will be declared a “no contest” and its opponent will advance to the next round.

As I was writing this column Thursday morning, Duke announced that it is withdrawing from the ACC Tournament because of a positive COVID-19 test. The Blue Devils had a shot at earning an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament if they didn’t get the ACC’s automatic bid. Now Duke’s season likely is over.

It’s the latest sign that the games continue on during the pandemic, but they still aren’t the same.

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