Though much of 2020 feels like one long indiscriminate blur, you probably remember with precision the days leading into the shutdown.
A lot of those memories have to do with sports. The Maple Leafs played the Tampa Bay Lightning in Toronto on March 10. We all knew the virus was circulating at that point. It seems wild to me now that any of us showed up. But, aside from some blank patches in the pricey seats, the building was full.
In a nice presaging of how the pandemic would play out from a bureaucratic perspective, there were some health and safety measures in place, but few of them made any sense.
TV reporters weren’t allowed to interview the players at rinkside, but were still doing so in the tunnels. The locker rooms were closed, but the press box was rammed. They put a PA announcement on repeat reminding fans to wash their hands – thousands of people sitting shoulder to shoulder with strangers, breathing each other’s air, but, you know, well scrubbed.
Nobody seemed panicked. That would happen the next night. Utah Jazz player Rudy Gobert tested positive just before a game. I don’t care if Gobert makes 40 all-star teams and wins more championships than Bill Russell. He will only be remembered as COVID’s North American Patient Zero.
Within minutes, the NBA had indefinitely postponed its season. The next day – a Thursday – all the other leagues fell like dominoes. A few events tried to hold on, but everyone eventually succumbed.
A narrative began to take hold – sports had saved us! If not for their shining example, who knows how much longer the rest of us would have spent walking around, shaking COVID-y hands with strangers? At a time when people pined for heroes, sports did what it does so well – stood up to take a bow.
In the middle of all that, what I remember best is Vince Carter. The former Raptor had been on the verge of retiring for what felt like a decade. It was a little game he liked to play with the networks, none of whom were much interested in him outside of catching his parting comments.
Carter understood in the moment that it was over. Finally, he’d got ahead of at least one curve. That anyone still cared at that moment was proof we were in the grip of some sort of collective shock, balanced unsteadily between the way things used to be and how they were going to be. Though we didn’t have any choice in the matter, no one wanted to make the step from one to the other until we’d found some consensus on how bad it was going to be. Contagion bad or The Omega Man bad? Or maybe a combo of the two.
But Carter wasn’t bothered. He was still relentlessly focused on what really matters in his world – himself.
“If it ended today …” Carter said, “… it’d be a weird, but cool, memory.”
That first word on the coronavirus as it applies to sports does a decent job of being the final one, too. The year in sports? Weird, but cool. Not cool for a lot of people. A whole lot less than cool. But cool for sports. Even in the midst of a calamity, they found a way to keep on keepin’ on.
Pro athletes have always occupied a higher social tier than the rest of us. They leveraged that advantage hard, pressuring governments to reopen for them when other industries were still being put under the lockdown cosh. As long as they kept yelling “health and safety,” everyone parted before them.
A few useful things have happened this year. One of them is highlighting where each of us falls in the great, unspoken class structure of our classless society. Can you afford to stay home? Still have a job? Spend a lot of time moaning about boredom? Then you’re one of the winners.
An online wit pointed out recently that if you find yourself very busy at work right now, you will eventually be replaced by a robot. It’s a joke, but not really.
The pros were always top of the food chain, but it has rarely been more apparent. They managed to make people feel sorry for them being stuck in their bubbles and avoided discussion of how they were making millions for their trouble. Not exactly a hardship duty as I understand the term.
Though the owners were losing money, the drop in revenue bought them an opportunity to do cutting-edge research.
The old way of doing things can be a pain in the ass. Stadiums cost a fortune, and start to become obsolete about as quickly as a well-maintained Honda Civic.
Fans in most markets are fickle. If your team sucks, the fans won’t come. Which means they don’t buy beers. Which means you are earning cruise money, rather than super-yacht money.
The real money tree is in the franchise valuation. Those continue to rise like rocket-powered hot-air balloons. It’s so much easier to sell your product to the networks, license a bunch of merchandise and do revenue sharing with all your rich friends, which provides some guarantee of solvency. Even if everything goes wrong, the club makes money whether you do or not.
COVID-19 sports provided one possible avenue to head down, one that’s more Rollerball than Field of Dreams.
In that future, the live experience is de-emphasized. You don’t need a million people in the stands. You need just a few who will pay serious money for the privilege. You focus more attention on the quality of the virtual experience. All of a sudden, the value proposition of hosting 20,000 people every night starts to fall apart. Especially if you believe the coronavirus (or some other global catastrophe) is not a one-off.
On the plus side, you have been reassured that your product is resilient. There was a lot of talk of reduced TV ratings for most leagues (the NFL being an outlier).
Turn that around and there’s a different way of looking at it. That while people felt themselves in existential peril – if not from the disease, then from a society that was starting to creak at the rivets – a whole bunch of them still made time to watch crappy baseball played in front of cardboard cutouts by guys in masks.
If COVID couldn’t knock out sports, at least temporarily – and it didn’t even really put a strong body on it – then nothing can.
In the end, while nothing was normal, all the normal things happened in sports. Tampa Bay won the Stanley Cup. The Los Angeles Lakers won the NBA championship. The NFL ticked on as though nothing had really changed. They did car races, played tennis tournaments and held the Masters in November. Nothing happened precisely as planned, but just about everything did happen.
This was despite the fact that all the promises to only do this in safety went out the window immediately and all over the place. Athletes got the virus with such regularity and were so often caught flouting the basic rules they themselves came up with, that it seems in retrospect like a smart PR campaign. If you’re going to fail at something, do so ambitiously. That way, people get tired of scolding you.
In this up-is-down world, sports got more insular. Though this doesn’t matter in the grand scheme, I highly doubt reporters will get pre-COVID access to players again. Why would they? The teams have proved they don’t need us. That we’ll accept Zoom interviews if that’s all they’re offering.
The pandemic gave leagues permission to take nearly far greater control of how, when and who tells their stories. They’re not giving that power back.
All in all, and given the circumstances, sports won 2020. They did their job at the lowest possible level of competency, removing a lot of what makes their entertainment product entertaining, and people still lapped it up. No wonder it never occurred to any of them to stop. If people will buy this, they’ll buy anything. Which I’d guess they find weird, but also cool.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article included the incorrect month for the Masters tournament. This version has been corrected.