We’re almost there. Inching closer towards a world more familiar. At least in the ballpark?
Or is that the problem? Because as the world still reckons with the repercussions of the COVID-19 Pandemic, we’re still not allowed in the ballpark. Let me be clear, that is unsettling. And not in the sense of depravation, there is plenty to watch, as every major sport is back in some fashion. Turn on ESPN, FS1, or even the Tennis Network and you will find live sports, pretty much on-demand. And while upon initial glance it looks benign, stick around a broadcast for a while to see cavernous empty stadiums, social-distancing, and masked personnel of all sort patrolling the sidelines. Those are all good things. Obeying the guidelines of our once “new normal” (it’s just normal now), are the persisting key to a return to the lives we knew before.
When a situation is exceptionally difficult, or events occur in a sequence that seems overwhelming, the kids call it, “having zero chill”. 2020 certainly was that. And it looks like 2021 could surpass 2020’s infamous legacy. If 2020 was the LeBron of bad years, 2021 is starting out like “The Last Dance” MJ.
Why am I doing this? Writing such a dreary piece this early in the year. Well for one, I, like you, am holding my breath in anticipation of an expedited recovery for Tiger Woods. Maybe you’re reading this article and just started thinking about the time you saw Tiger live at Pebble Beach as he rewrote golf history as his silver club swept through each blade of dew-covered green grass. The heroics of players like a Tiger Woods or a Tom Brady, or even of Jayson Tatum, are what make sports magical. But even more magical? Getting to be there with 50,000 fans, making your own part of history together. So, what difference does it make? Whether we are there or not, it’s still the same sport, right? Wrong. I’ll explain.
Sport is our great escape. As a staunch music and film supporter, that means a lot coming from me. Right this minute, you can go outside and kick a soccer ball. You can walk down the street and play pick-up basketball at your local park. In sports, we are active participants, so without even realizing it, we are forming a deeper connection than anything we participate in passively. But the current disconnect the public has with sports runs deeper than that. Our absence from stadiums, arenas, and aquatic centers fractured the foundation of our love affair with sports. Since one night a year ago when the NBA shut down, things haven’t be the same. Rudy Gobert tested positive. Sports went away. And we moved on. Our games are back, but was once an extraordinary escape is now a gloomy reminder of the times we live in. Still not convinced? Well, don’t take my word for it…
Jemele Hill, formerly of ESPN, now a columnist for The Atlantic, argues that masked players on the sidelines, socially-distant interviews, and constant postponements or cancellations, have taken spectators hearts’ out of the game. Even the behemoth that is the NFL took an Olympic dive in ratings. Nielsen tells us that in 2020, the league witnessed a seven percent plummet in viewership, the worst ratings dip since 2017 when the NFL reckoned with controversy surrounding CTE and player safety. It’s commissioner Roger Goodell searching for answers like The Weeknd flailing backstage at the Super Bowl halftime show.
All week long, whether I’m assembling another championship-caliber fantasy baseball team or checking free agent movement, I live sports. It’s a lifestyle, one I share with millions of others worldwide. A cornerstone of what brings us back time and again is the camaraderie and a bond stronger than vibranium. For sports to come back, to truly come back, we have to come back too. We are not a race sustained by looking at each other through screens, we are better together.