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At Large | Live sport is proving irreplaceable but it didn’t need to be this way

Rights holders and broadcasters are scrambling to get live sport back on the air but need to understand they are left with an activity gap, not a content gap.

9 April 2020 Eoin Connolly

You may or may not be familiar with the cartoon strip xkcd. 

Billed as ‘a webcomic of romance, sarcasm, math and language’ and authored by physics grad and one-time NASA roboticist Randall Munroe, it applies scientific logic to everyday life to insightful, satirical and often absurd effect. It goes big on theory, and even bigger on little stick figure characters.

If you have any interest in sport and have ever been on a social network, there is at least one entry you probably will have seen.

In the best traditions of the series, it is wry, clever, endlessly memeable and harmlessly pleased with itself. It is also technically correct – the best kind of correct, to borrow from another bit of hand-drawn, science-heavy comedy – but it misses a bigger point. What we are learning very quickly about the appeal of live sport is that the input matters almost as much as the output. 

Sports broadcasters have a problem. Granted, it is a small one in the wider context of the Covid-19 crisis but it is pretty fundamental to how they do business. The absence of live sport has removed the binding agent of predictable mass audiences. It has also hollowed out schedules, with the usual rhythms of pre-event chatter and post-event analysis not so much disrupted as stopped in their tracks.  

Rights holders are constrained by epidemiolocal science, public health directives and ethical mores – in most cases, anyway – as to when they can resume anything like normal service, but the radical solutions under discussion have demonstrated the gravity of their situation. Taking their cue from the sports entertainers of WWE, which recently staged a pre-recorded, multi-location WrestleMania 36, they are leaving nothing off the table. 

The message from some is that recognisable live sport will not be on the agenda for some time. In an interview with the New York Times, Bundesliga chief executive Christian Seifert laid out detailed plans for the return of German top-flight soccer in early May but noted that fans might not to return to stadiums for the rest of the year. This, he said, was a “bid to get back a short piece of normal life” conducted in support of and under the direction of the German government. 

Other competitions, including the Premier League, are exploring their own options for a comeback but do not yet have as clear an idea of when it might be safe to do so. For broadcasters, the medium-term prospect of empty stadiums will raise all manner of production and aesthetic considerations. 

Meanwhile, UFC president Dana White is insisting its next pay-per-view event will go ahead on 18th April at a location he would only confirm this week as “ESPN”. White claims to have secured a venue where he can “pump fights out” for the next few months. Initial reports suggested that UFC 249 – originally slated for Brooklyn’s Barclays Center – would be staged on a private island, but it now appears that White will circumvent a temporary ban on combat sports in California by heading for the Tachi Palace Casino Resort on Native American land owned by the Tachi-Yokut Tribe.

Either way, that is where we have got to in 2020 – an elite sports promoter drumming up a premise for a Street Fighter sequel. 

Unsurprisingly, the primary motivations for all of this are financial. It is possible, but harder to envisage, that this much energy might be put into efforts to stage live sport if rights contracts had already been honoured. Nevertheless, the last few weeks have already shown just how powerfully, and differently, live sport behaves from other modern media. 

In the immediate wake of March’s shutdown, many rights holders and broadcasters looked to the archives and to existing original content. That has had its merits as a way of maintaining contact with fans in difficult times. But this was only ever going to be a partial response. 

For one thing, as an industry, sport has until very recently underestimated the potential of great non-live programming. And even if it had not, its place is very different in the on-demand streaming world – where big live events stand apart, sport is another drop of a genre in the oceans available on Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Disney+ and the podcast platforms.  

More than that, though, the problem is that the absence of live sport has not actually left a content gap. It has left an activity gap. Not for nothing were many fans oddly compelled by the spectacle of marble racing in the early days of the shutdown – they were exercising viewing muscles that will otherwise go slack. 

If nothing else, this hiatus should be used as an opportunity to think more deeply about the function of live sport in our culture. To be fair to Munroe, the best approximation of a major live sporting event in the past couple of weeks was based on something not unlike his weighted random number generator. 

The Virtual Grand National – a simulated edition of one of British horse racing’s signature occasions, using algorithmic projections of real horses – drew a peak live audience of 4.8 million on free-to-air ITV, with bookmakers raising UK£2.6 million for healthcare charities from money staked. Community and curiosity played a part in that success but ultimately, the organisers were able to tap into something innate to the race itself.

The Aintree course is an infamous leveller, and betting patterns around the Grand National are notoriously random among casual fans. In that spirit, a virtual race performed the same role as our other virtual fill-ins – Zoom calls that replace meetings, lessons or trips to the pub, or talk show hosts welcoming us into their living rooms for chats with distant guests. 

What makes live sport really compelling is less about the outcome than what is invested in it. With that in mind, the space that rights holders will be paying close attention in the coming weeks will be esports. Gaming is one of the last spheres of live competition standing right now and was another inevitable switch for rights holders like Formula One and Nascar when their own series were suspended. 

There is value in the exercise, though, that will go beyond filling broadcast hours. By parachuting in former greats and stars of other sports – cricketer Ben Stokes and soccer's Thibaut Courtois have already got behind the wheel – and seeing who follows, they can learn a little more about the dynamics of modern fandom. Moreover, by observing how audiences on platforms like Twitch interact and form communities, they can have a better idea of where it is going in the decades ahead.

The experience of live sport is irreplaceable, on TV and in person. It is not unimprovable. When we are all lucky enough to be together again, spinning narratives from random numbers, maybe we can enjoy it all the more.

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