Then there was a parade and a party, and most people went home happy.
What concluded with the Raptors victory parade in Toronto on Monday was a wild and joyous ride. It lasted for weeks and its effect is not just the team being champions – at last – it’s the communal spirit the event created.
That spirit came about not only because the players on the court tried and triumphed. It was born out of this country becoming a village, thanks to TV and the communal experience of large groups of people watching the games in those Jurassic Parks across the country.
Professional sports in North America have been slow to grasp the power of communal viewing parties. Traditionally, it’s all about filling the arena and then the TV ratings. Bringing people together to a carnival was an afterthought. The arena in Toronto holds 20,000 people. It must be nice to be there. But a carnival is a state of mind: imaginative, playful and nourishing a sense of belonging. The effect is enormous.
Technology can have odd and unexpected effects on society. We live in an age that some people call one of loneliness. We are more connected by social media but less emotionally involved. Our visceral sense of belonging has diminished. And then somebody puts up a giant screen and we are physically there, joined in a rare experience of childish revelry. It is a deeply gratifying, uplifting feeling, one utterly unfamiliar to most adults in ordinary life.
Over the years, I have written about soccer from 17 countries on four continents. Often, what I was trying to convey was the sense of being there. Covering multiple World Cups and Euro tournaments is a great privilege, but it’s not entirely about the privilege of seeing the best teams and the greatest players. It’s about being at the carnival.
Starting with the 1998 World Cup in France, it became stunningly easy to attend and experience the tournament without having a ticket to a single game. Huge areas in host cities were set aside for visiting fans to show up, eat, drink, party and watch the games on giant screens. This became the norm and, at tournament after tournament, the event became something vaster than could be transmitted on TV or reported in a newspaper. At the World Cup in Germany in 2006, some three million people actually attended the games in the stadiums. About 18 million watched those games on the giant screens in the fan zones.
What unfolded in Toronto and so many other cities and towns mimicked that experience: Shared passion unfolding in public, in a spirit of peace, amiability and respect. The respect is for what is allowable – in this groovy kind of powerful, childlike glee, costumes are allowed and social barriers evaporate as people are immersed in a sea of goodwill and benign partisan belonging. In all my years of being among vast crowds in countless cities around the world, I have never once felt afraid. Most of the time, I’ve felt among the happiest people on Earth.
The shooting in Toronto during Monday’s parade casts a shadow over it, but it is anomalous. So many large gatherings around the Raptors’ games have blossomed and gone on for hours and hours without trouble, happening in communal peace.
The victory parade on Monday was just that, a rally to celebrate winning. But it was so large, so public and joyful that it was in fact the culmination of all those mass-viewing parties. During those parties, the ones we envied others for attending, the principle that a professional sports championship series is a form of ritual combat between cities or countries begins to shift. In this instance in Toronto and the rest of Canada, the nexus between social identity and sport became obvious. It was about us. Who we are.
Nobody can plan the effect of communal viewing. Culture, sports and politics converge in unknowable ways. You can just hope that the intoxication comes from a feeling of exuberance that in turn comes from the communal feeling. The hard-fought victories were delicious, and yet what was truly illuminated was what this country is and what it looks like. Politicians and political pundits, take note: the Jurassic Parks are us – we are the parks.
Put it on TV, then put it on a giant screen, invite people to come and watch as the carnival unfolds, and you’ve got a better world for a while because we are reminded who we are.