Coronavirus pandemic: A world without sports is one of loneliness and longing

  • For the sports lover - fed on a daily diet of live sport from cricket to football, badminton to tennis, kabaddi to wrestling - time now stands still

  • An IPL without fans is like cricket without it’s beating heart. There is a reason several disciplines played inside a stadium are called spectator sports

  • The PSG vs Borussia Dortmund in the last-16 leg was akin to watching a ‘high-intensity workout’

Across the planet, beyond time-zones and geographies, sport was the soothing glue, the common prayer, the one faith that held us all together. We believed if everything failed, sport would always be there to lift us out of the morass this world has sunk to.

It’s a strange world we inhabit. A world where prayers continue but not in places of faith. Gyms and bars are eerily empty as we shadow box, practice yoga and watch fitness videos on YouTube at home.
And then there is sport surrounded by a bizarre, surreal silence. Stadiums are empty, playgrounds and parks deserted, like the scenes played out in the 2007 movie, I Am Legend where Will Smith plays Robert Neville, a scientist doing his best to reverse the effects of a man-made virus.

Suddenly television has a completely different meaning. For the sports lover - fed on a daily diet of live sport from cricket to football, badminton to tennis, kabaddi to wrestling - time now stands still. The TV might as well be dead. No IPL is akin to the doctor saying ‘Carcinoma.’

An entire Premier League postponed, and you wonder if weekends would ever be the same. What about Tuesday and Wednesday nights? They might just junk the 2020 Champions League. Or play without fans inside the stadium. Self-isolation? Quarantine? And the first reaction is ‘Great, at least I will peacefully watch live matches on TV.’ Hasn't quite worked out that way, though.

 Coronavirus pandemic: A world without sports is one of loneliness and longing

Neymar's goal against Borussia Dortmund in their last-16 Champions League match came in front of an empty stadium. AP

The PSG vs Borussia Dortmund in the last-16 leg was akin to watching a ‘high-intensity workout’. Without the roar, cheers, rattle, dazzle, the ebb and flow of stadium noise like a wave in a stormy sea, you might as well be watching two teams play a practice match. Believe me, Neymar’s dive to head home and give PSG the lead in the 28th minute was as exciting as watching a tortoise race.

You might as well watch with Bjorn Borg’s resting heart rate, a reported 45 clicks per minute. Without the fans inside the stadium, the match looked like a parody - a silent film running in a loop.
Los Angeles Lakers' star LeBron James commented a week back, “I ain't playing if I ain't got the fans in the crowd.” You might as well play on Mars and send a live stream to Earth.

An IPL without fans is like cricket without it’s beating heart. There is a reason several disciplines played inside a stadium are called spectator sports. Sunil Gavaskar, on being asked of an IPL 2020, behind closed doors said, “Whatever is best for everyone that has to be taken into account. And if it's best for everyone to play in front of empty stands, so be it.”

VVS Laxman said, “You see the way IPL is followed, millions of people watch it on TV whereas the spectators who come to the ground will be around 30-40 thousand, based on the capacity of the ground. Yes, as cricketers you want to play in front of a large crowd but eventually, if it is risky then we are better off playing in empty stands, making sure everyone’s wellbeing is taken care of and the people sitting in their drawing rooms can enjoy the live action.”

Play the entire IPL inside closed arenas and valuations are bound to drop by half. Sponsors don’t pay just for ‘fans inside the drawing room’, they pay billions because Delhi's Kotla, Chennai’s Chidambaram, Kolkata's Eden Gardens, Mumbai’s Wankhede and Bangalore’s Chinnaswamy pulsate with energy and raw passion on match days with crowds jostling and cheering.

In a recent interview, golf star Rory McIlroy said he’d understand if fans were kept away from Augusta National. “I think people would see a lot more of the golf course,” he said. “It would be kind of cool. But obviously, I’d rather play the Masters with people there than without.”

It’s like watching two of the weakest teams battle it out to not finish last in the Pool. They have every right to play. But no one turns up to watch. And the match is one long echo where what is said in the dugout to the players screaming and shouting can be heard. Sometimes, it is so quiet that you can hear every word said by a player.

But, maybe, what Laxman says has a ring of truth. Teams across the world are not putting in the extra yards to bring fans to the stadium. Team’s revenues are not affected with or without fans in the seats.

According to an article in the Intelligencer, in 2017, the NFL brought in revenues of more than $17 billion, and Major League Baseball earned more than $10 billion; a small percentage of all that revenue came from attendance. Most of NFL’s revenues came from a new Thursday Night Football television package and increased media payments from other properties while MLB’s numbers came from expanded partnerships, local television ratings, and its own media-rights deals.

Attendance has been down each of the last seven years in MLB, and MLB’s revenue has been up every single season. No, wonder, both Gavaskar and Laxman, as commentators, are smug in the knowledge that the audience is sitting inside the living rooms, rather than in the stadium’s dusty bucket seats.

Yet, it is different for every sport. The Olympic Games happen every four years. Imagine, the Qatari World Champion high-jumper, Mutaz Essa Barshim, lining up for the final jump at the Tokyo Olympic Games. He is at 2.39 and a centimetre more would give him gold. The stadium is silent. Barshim can’t ask the fans to clap to build up a rhythm. He can only imagine thousands of fans sitting behind him, egging him on, all clapping in unison.

Barshim runs in, jumps off his left foot, the Fosbury technique flows him over the bar. He has done 2.40. The gold is his. The only sound inside the stadium is Barshim’s scream, a celebration of Olympic gold. Even the commentators, excited at the Qatari’s first Olympic gold can’t sustain their excitement pitch; the editors inside the Live OB vans can’t inter-cut to the fans, nor to Barshim running towards the fans, the Qatari flag draped across his six feet four-inch torso. It is as antiseptic as it can be.

Tim Lewis wrote recently in The Guardian about the Champions League match between Valencia and Atalanta at The Mestalla: “Valencia had to make up a 4-1 deficit from the first leg. But, because of the coronavirus outbreak, the fixture was played behind closed doors. Watching the match on TV was eerie: you could hear the players shouting for the ball or celebrating or appealing for a foul. At times you had to remind yourself that it wasn’t a training exercise.”

It's difficult to imagine a world without the drama, antics, the racy atmosphere inside a stadium where the din of fans, screaming their lungs out creates a bubble of expectancy, a mystique, a noise that the worshippers of a cult called sport can’t do without.

A deserted Etihad Stadium where Manchester City were due to play Burnley in Premier League on 14 March, 2020. AP

A deserted Etihad Stadium where Manchester City were due to play Burnley in Premier League on 14 March, 2020. AP

The expectancy is what we miss – the countdown to the weekend or battling sleep knowing that the post-midnight Champions League tie is a must-watch. Above all, sport gave us a meaning – to understand, compare strengths and weaknesses, to prepare us for a loss. Like a giant bean stalk, sport wrapped its vines around us, smothering us, giving us a joy that really cannot be re-created by any eGame or pressing buttons on a remote. Neither can you find joy and happiness in a stadium with closed doors!

Gary Lineker, (someone help him) is making his way back from the abyss (without football/sport) by watching marble racing. Yes, you read it right – Marble Racing! In fact, the turquoise one led, then fell back to fourth before making a grand comeback to clinch it. Lineker later tweeted: “One of the greatest comebacks in the history of sport.”

We are slowly, but surely, losing our marbles.

Somebody asked me, "Hey, is sport more important than world peace." My answer was immediate, emphatic – "Sport is world peace."

The fan waits.

Updated Date: Mar 18, 2020 11:39:57 IST



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