Sport fans and COVID-19
The world of professional sport has been altered considerably during these times, and everyone has been forced to stop and reassess the status quo. Major sports leagues across the world including football, basketball and motor racing were brought to a grinding halt when the pandemic hit.
As soon as multiple athletes across different sports were reported positive for COVID-19, the immediate fallout affected media coverage, sponsors, and other actors that worked on producing what we see on the television. Events were shut down indefinitely, with many questioning when and if we will be able to return to ‘normalcy’.
The summer of 2020 was supposed to witness the Tokyo Olympics and the European Football Championships – both large scale events with a lot at stake. They were postponed, which has had a drastic effect on sponsors, players and sports associations alike. While the flow of money stopped, what was more evident is that fans would not be able to enjoy their favourite sports with no end in sight.
Over time, as countries have learnt to grapple better with the situation, measures have been put in place to reintroduce professional sport within this new reality. Football has slowly been started in places across the world, with elaborate plans laid out for the return of other sports like basketball and motor racing.
However, there is an eerie feeling to this return. The cheery supporters have been replaced by pre-designed audio mixes and zoom freeze-frames to give the impression that someone is watching, probably enjoying the sport. While these decisions follow common sense, they also raise important questions about the long-term impact of the same.
The entailing discussions have been around whether fans are really necessary to put on a show. While the atmosphere within arenas and stadiums is an important part of sport, it seems that we will have to do without for the time being. But it also signifies the creation of a ‘new normal’.
When sports organisations and leagues are innovating around measures related to social distancing and limiting personnel, it must not be forgotten that fans are important stakeholders in it. Broadcasters have expanded the ways they can bring sports directly into people’s homes, with free-to-air content increasing in popularity. However, the stadiums full of fans should still hold an important place when we imagine a post-pandemic world.
Stadiums play a significant role in sport. While they are obviously a place to play the sport, they are a place which house countless emotions and memories for people. Live sport is an essential feature of the lives of millions of people across the world. The stadiums are a site for this dynamic to play out, signified by flags, symbols, and chants. Watching a match isn’t just an exercise in supporting your team, it contributes to a larger idea where people have a common space to come together and share an identity.
In the pre-COVID world, access to live sport was anyway in danger with a rise in ticket prices across the most popular leagues. This was coupled with rising prices of a subscription to watch them on television or online. While the pandemic has opened up avenues where people have been able to access a wider variety of content at reduced costs, it does put into perspective how important fans are considered by the organisers and sponsors.
The bringing back of professional sport has been a priority for those fans at home, but the bigger focus has been around how sponsors will get their money back. We must remember that fans are the most important stakeholder in all of this. Arenas and stadiums without fans should not set a precedent for the future but should be considered nothing more than a stopgap. Sports are not the same without fans, and as the world deals with the pandemic, the future should still be focused on improving access to live sport for everyone.