Mapping the Return of American Sports

Back in the era of dining in, maskless faces, free social activity, and worldwide sports, National Basketball Association (NBA) player Rudy Gobert rubbed his hands all over press conference microphones in an attempt to joke about what was at the time, in the United States, at least, a small and novel infectious disease named coronavirus.

Back in the era of dining in, maskless faces, free social activity, and worldwide sports, National Basketball Association (NBA) player Rudy Gobert rubbed his hands all over press conference microphones in an attempt to joke about what was at the time, in the United States, at least, a small and novel infectious disease named coronavirus. Though reporters initially found his gesture funny, Gobert managed to spread the virus to his teammates and single handedly shut down the NBA the next day…karma at its finest. But at the time of the joke, who could have imagined that Covid-19 would spread so prominently in the U.S., shutting down economies across the globe, eliminating thousands of jobs, and altering our way of living? Just as schools, offices, and businesses stopped normal operations, so did the Olympics, March Madness, Wimbledon, and the Masters. It was the first time in the history of modern athletics that every single major sport was cancelled, and for many sports fans, the absence of sports was a cruel blow. However, because sports are a centerpiece in American culture and economy, America has shown great resilience and adaptability over the past eight months to keep its sports alive. Let’s relive the gradual return of American sports throughout the pandemic.

Replaying the Hits

Heading into a quarantine one would think that lockdowns might give more time for watching sports, but since the regular slew of sports channels didn’t have live content to cover, fans were eager to quench their sports thirst. During the initial quarantine, the NBA released daily live stream replays of iconic games from the past which racked up millions of views, and ESPN released its 10 part docu-series on Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls, The Last Dance, to high praise from fans and critics alike, earning the spot as the most viewed Disney-owned documentary in history. Major League Baseball (MLB) modeled this idea by offering its MLB.TV subscription for free. Though banking on nostalgia was clearly not a long term solution, it was certainly workable for the time being.

The Pioneers: UFC

Dana White’s Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) was the first major televised sport to return, and it knocked the ball out of the park, taking advantage of the high-demand market. On May 9, 2020, the UFC held UFC 249 in Jacksonville, Florida, headlined by Justin Gaethje and Tony Ferguson. The card was a homerun for both casual and hardcore MMA fans, selling roughly 700 thousand paperview buys, but comments from American sports television personality Stephen A. Smith, who said that fighters were hesitant to wrestle to reduce transmission of the virus, are relics of the time when fear about coronavirus was at its peak. Nonetheless, the UFC’s bubble model proved an effective return and momentarily satiated the American audience.

Making the Best with What’s Available

The UFC was certainly a hit with the American audience, but it couldn’t possibly carry American sports television on its own. Fans of other sports had to adapt and make do with what they had; TNT streamed a Tom Brady and Tiger Woods versus Peyton Manning and Phil Mickelson charity golf match, and at the same time, die-hard baseball fans in America woke up at dawn to view the Korean Baseball Organization (KBO), which had just signed a broadcasting deal with ESPN. It wasn’t the Tom Brady on the gridiron or Aaron Judge in the batter’s box that we were used to, but it was certainly better than binging replays.

July’s Major Sports Return

It’s fitting that the same league that called off American sports was the first one to call it back on. As the country was gaining more insight on the virus, the NBA, and subsequently other major sports leagues, meticulously planned a return to sports. It all culminated in the month of July, as the NBA returned in a bubble format in Walt Disney World, Major League Soccer (MLS) returned in the MLS Is Back Tournament, the MLB started a 60-game regular season, and on August 1st, the National Hockey League (NHL) finished its training camps and started its end-of-season run. Though sports fans could not attend physically, their wish for major live sports was granted.

Fans in Stadiums?

Though by September the bubble format seemed to be a tried and true method, the National Football League (NFL) decided to experiment with partially filled stadiums. In the season-opening game between the Kansas City Chiefs and the Houston Texans, 15,895 fans were scattered through the stadium. Arenas were to follow state jurisdiction, and the MLB and boxing gradually experimented with the same format. Though the social-distancing look was not as appealing as packed stands, it was refreshing to hear crowds cheer again.

And so here we are. During the pandemic, UFC held major fights, the NBA finished its season at Disney World, and major sports champions have been crowned in empty arenas. It may seem as if we’re back; however, the damage has already been done. Many collegiate and amateur Olympic athletes have perhaps lost their only chance at making the national team and many universities dropped entire programs as a result of financial difficulties.Though the return to sports so far has been difficult and frustrating, our passion for sports has still survived through fans’ tenuous patience, reminding us that sports will always be a centerpiece of American culture.

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