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At Large | What is sport for in the age of coronavirus?

At a time when the league table does not matter, our rights holders must adapt to a different role.

19 March 2020 Eoin Connolly

A confession, first up. This column was supposed to be about coronavirus last time around – about some of the questions that sport was going to face in the coming months and the trends that might emerge in unusual times.

That version was rapidly overtaken by events and became, in tone and content, redundant. We knew weeks ago of the potential threat of Covid-19, of the trauma it was already causing in countries around the world. We knew a week ago that worse was coming but had clearly not absorbed how bad it could get and how quickly.

We might not long ago have imagined that sport would face disruption in all this but could chug along in some restricted form. Instead it became the canary in the coalmine as a spate of cancellations and postponements of major events rolling into an almost total shutdown. In one nation after another, it has been a harbinger of a limited life in this unprecedented pandemic response.

LP Hartley wrote a book, The Go-Between, about a shocking discovery. As an aside, the story features a cricket match that is incidental to the plot but rich in thematic portent. The novel opens with a telling line: ‘The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there.’

Just now, the past feels like home. The present is alien territory and everywhere you look, the borders are going up.

It is not hard to understand just why people will be missing sport so much. It provides certainty and normality – a sense that somewhere, at least, things are as they should be. It is something else to talk about. It marks calendars. Without it, here we all are in an age of indefinite protocols.

Of course, none of this is forever. That is the first sliver of optimism that we can grasp, even if we fear what lies between us and a regular life resumed. The next is that all of this upheaval is our response to troubled times, together.

So in that spirit, what can this business do to best use its time in isolation? Plenty have their own crises to attend to, plenty with teams and leagues to save, lawyers and chief financial officers with agreements to redraw and contingencies to execute. More on those to come.

The rest of us, if we’re lucky, still have jobs to do, and doing them well in the current environment would be a contribution in itself. For some, that will still bring time to reflect, to assess, and be creative. There will be room to play – a word that gets emptied of its meaning in sport’s relentless trudge through normal circumstances.  

Already, sports media, clubs and leagues are exploring ways of staying relevant, digitally, in their enforced hiatus. Some are dipping into the archives to relive old experiences, others tinkering with interactive challenges or crowdsourcing content. Athletes are showing glimpses of their own socially distanced lives. Nascar has launched a short esports season in partnership with iRacing.   

The longer people are confined indoors, the more inevitable it becomes that competitive gaming and in-home exercise products grow in appeal. This may be a moment where esports leagues and Peloton and Zwift to gain mainstream recognition. But existing organisations will be working hard to make the most of their digital networks.

There is a commercial imperative to that kind of engagement but it holds another value, too. Sports bodies head communities that are profoundly important to millions of people. Keeping those groups active while fans are being held separate can be a welcome service. The same is true from an industry perspective. With so many working from home there will be a need to reconnect in day-to-day communications, by moving conferences to the digital space, perhaps, or finding new ways of making things happen. 

These are days when we are being reminded of our responsibilities to one another, and the significance of the choices we all make. It is a curious thing that so many leading athletes are being tested ahead of frontline medical staff but many in sport have still shown some awareness of their own role in society. Most teams in the National Hockey League (NHL), for example, have guaranteed pay for temporary staff while games are missed, and they are not alone in doing so. Fifa and the German national soccer team are among those to kick into a coronavirus fund.

Yet sport still has a responsibility to itself, and that is the challenge it will have to meet in the long term. The financial implications of all of this will be severe and the task of salvaging existing contracts is bound to be difficult but the biggest will survive. For those at the lower end of sporting pyramids, and at the grassroots, there is an existential threat. Inequality in sport has not broken out in the past few months; it is a systemic problem, a microcosmic representation of an economic order built upside-down.

If the last few weeks have shown us anything, it is that extraordinary things are possible in both a positive and negative sense. The risk of pandemic catastrophe has been underestimated in the long term but a radical fightback has been possible almost overnight. It will be worth remembering in the future. The duty of care is not an emergency measure.

In all honesty, outside of my professional capacity, what happens when sport resumes is not an immediate concern. Like anyone else, my first thoughts are of the health and wellbeing of loved ones. Those that follow are of other threatened freedoms. For many of us, I am sure, it will be those simpler pleasures – shared company, contact, the happy buzz of a busier life – that will be more eagerly anticipated.

The push continues to get some semblance of normality back. The Olympic Games in Tokyo are still on the slate as planned. It might be as much of a relief now, for some, if another choice was taken. Organising them now will take sensitivity as well as improvisational craft.

It will not be an easy call. There is an unmet need for reassurance but, really, there is no bubble around any of this. The world needs a hand on the shoulder, but we’re all six feet apart.

That distance will close in time. Until then, stay sane, stay safe, and all the best.

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