Future historians will likely gloss over or ignore entirely the events of March 10, 2020. However, that date is likely to have a special significance for those of us that are fans of the Beautiful Game, albeit that the day itself was only one in a series of constantly-moving events in the wide world of sports.
To give this 24 hours some context, March 10 was the last day that I watched my beloved Tottenham Hotspur play live. And although I didn’t realize it as the game ticked down its final seconds, that Tuesday afternoon in the Boston Spurs’ home pub would also be the last time that I would see a lot of my friends and fellow sufferers in a social setting.
The game itself is of little importance – Spurs lost 3-0 to RB Leipzig in the Round of 16 in Champions League, succumbing to an aggregate 4-0 defeat with an unsurprising display, combining lethargy with levels of incompetence that had become the hallmark of the current manager. All the talk after the game was whether we would be up for the match against Manchester United on March 15 or (as was more likely) the players would simply go through the motions of pretending to be a football team.
Within 72 hours, that conversation was null and void.
Human beings are often hardwired to not only remember important events in history but also the moments in their lifetimes that have had a significant impact on society as a whole. For most people, an event that resonates around the world will be etched into their cerebral cortex and allow them to remember exactly where they were when they heard the news.
Each generation is different, naturally, but it’s reasonable to assume that Baby Boomers will be able to tell you their memories of JFK’s assassination or the Moon landings. On the other hand, Generation X are more likely to talk about events such as the Challenger disaster or the day that the Berlin Wall finally fell – an event that accelerated the end of the Cold War and one that had literally nothing to do with David Hasselhoff. And I am quite confident that Millennials will be able to regale you with tales of how they brought down Napster.
For some of us, you can guarantee that the
killing of Princess Diana by the Royal Family death of Princess Di in a tragic car accident or 9/11 will spark some sort of visual recall. In fact, there is an argument that the last decade has upped the stakes in terms of these instant flashbacks, mainly as they play out in real-time on digital and social media.
Psychiatrists call these moments a “flashbulb memory” and they rely on elements of personal importance, consequentiality, emotion and surprise. They are long-lasting and have six characteristic features (according to Wikipedia): place, ongoing activity, informant, own effect, other effect and aftermath. Unsurprisingly, they can be both positive or negative, albeit that element depends on what side of the news a person is on.
These memories are always linked to breaking news or a so-called moment in time, and it won’t be a shock that sports are one of the prime generators of this recollective mechanism that we all have. There is even some evidence that they can cause some form of emotional arousal … which is probably something we don’t really need to talk about.
Memories fade, but scars linger
So why I am banging on about flashbulb memories and casting aspersions on the Hoff’s involvement in the end of the Soviet Union?
Simple, we are in the middle of a global pandemic and most sports have been essentially shelved for what seems like years rather than weeks. And even when it does come back, there is every chance that the experience itself is going to be completely unrecognizable from what we have been used to.
If we rewind to the start of March, there were ominous signs that the sports world was changing and not for the better. The COVID-19 virus had mushroomed from a situation that was significantly impacting China to one that would (ultimately) have a domino effect on almost everything that we took for granted as “normal life.”
Dismissed by many as something that was just a flu turned up to eleven, the coronavirus had already locked down unfathomable amounts of people in the Asia-Pacific region and was making steady progress across Europe. Italy and Spain, for example locked down quickly – not quick enough as it turned out – while the United Kingdom and the USA were treating the potential impact as one that could be solved with a mixture of minimal action and pointing to the herds of unicorns that had appeared in the night sky.
For those of us who had watched in amazement as senior government officials in the latter two countries fumbled their way through a response that was about as coordinated as the average NFL player stepping into a hockey arena and being vaguely effective for an NHL team, the main concern was what it meant for our beloved sports.
Festivals, live gigs and business-centric conferences were already being cancelled or pushed to later in the year, while international events like the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo and UEFA’s Euro 2020 tournament were under serious threat. Basically, anybody who watched sport was either expecting the worst or glancing out of their window to see if Four Horsemen were riding down the street.
When the suspension of everything finally arrived, it came quickly. Football in Italy had been suspended since February in two regions, before the announcement on March 4 that all matches would be played behind closed doors with no fans – on March 9, Serie A was effectively cancelled for the time being. Spain and Holland followed soon after. Germany, France and the UK all then debated the issue before pulling the plug on their respective leagues on March 13. And that was it.
Live football/soccer was essentially dead in the water.
To put that into perspective, the MLS had decided to put the nascent 2020 campaign on hold on March 12, with the NBA and the NHL also pulling down the shutters during a whirlwind 24 hours. Baseball fans still hoped that the regular season would start on March 26, but anyone who has been reading The Turf over the last few weeks will know that America’s game was not going to step into the sporting void that had suddenly been created.
And while the decision to move the Olympics and the Euros to next year didn’t come as a surprise, the cancelation or rescheduling of other events (Wimbledon, the British Open, to name two) was the icing on the cake.
In other words, sports fans were left wondering what to do with all this spare time that would have been allocated to watching their favorite team or even whatever was on the TV at any given moment. The problem was that nobody really knew in March when sport would return or when it did, what it would look like.
Sport is a calendar
Writing for the BBC at what was widely considered to be the start of the pandemic, Tom Fordyce said that sport was a necessary part of life, an escape that takes us away from what he referred to as the serious stuff, “ a game or a race or a neat little self-contained drama makes us feel better or makes us feel worse, but in the process helps us forget about the escalating life-size dramas we feel powerless to control.”
“A routine, structuring our days, ordering our weeks. Saturday morning is better than Monday morning. Wednesday nights are bigger than Thursdays. Five minutes to three on a Saturday afternoon is maybe the best of all.
Sport is a calendar. The end of the Six Nations should mark the start of spring. The searing greens and blues of the Masters tell you winter is beaten and warmth and blossom all around. The European Championships are summer evenings and barbecues and beers taking over from vegetables on the bottom shelves of the fridge.
Sport makes sense, most of the time. There are precedents and organization and timelines. You do this and this happens. You start here and you end there.”
Fordyce was completely on the money. The fact that he wrote this on March 15 is irrelevant. Many of us thought that this would be a brief shutdown and that the pandemic was going to be controlled and eventually go away. Spoiler alert: It didn’t.
As a long-term sports fan the gap in my schedule was something that I never saw coming and had literally no idea how to deal with. Factor into the mix that football was a part of my weekly or weekend routine – go to pub, watch Spurs be rubbish, shout at TV, drink heavily, complain loudly about how much I hated the current manager – and you get the general picture of how much time I dedicate to sport.
The only caveat is that the global football shutdown came at a moment in my life when I was falling out of love with the Beautiful Game. That is a story for another day but, with the benefit of hindsight, I didn’t realize how much I would miss it when there was nothing to watch.
Filling the void
Fast forward to June and the landscape has changed slightly. Live sport is coming back – a rare and precious commodity in itself – but the lack of anything in the last three months has been tough on so many levels. When you are used to a season that runs from August through May every year, going cold turkey is not something that you expect to do.
Let’s put it bluntly, watching reruns of old games or “highlights” of past seasons gets boring very quickly.
I tried to get excited about NBC Sport’s weekly broadcast of Premier League Classics and found the “vintage” baseball footage from the 80s vaguely amusing in terms of how the TV coverage was at the time was not very good.
I did find some football DVDs in my collection that had never been played, which gave me a bunch of flashbulb memories – some welcome, others I would rather forget. I watched the Diego Maradona documentary on HBO and I binged Netflix’s Sunderland Till I Die … the latter is more than eight hours of must-see TV that merely reinforces just how important sport is. I also played a lot of FIFA 20.
On the other hand, the eight hours that I spent glued to NBC’s back-to-back coverage of the last few years of the Westminster Kennel Dog Show could have been put to better use.
Add into the mix that many of us use sport as an excuse for social interaction in a physical location has not helped with the sucking chasm of despair that comes with not having the regular rollercoaster of emotions that are generated by a sports fan.
To put this into context, sport is not just watching professional athletes play their game at the highest level, it’s about the sense of community that being a fan of a club, franchise or a particular game brings to our lives. That is probably the main reason that we became fans.
Brave new world
At the time of writing, I still haven’t really watched any live sport since Spurs’ capitulation in the Champions League on March 10.
Tempting as it was to dive into the Vysheyshaya Liga (the top division in Belarus, the only league that carried on playing in Europe after COVID become a problem) or the K League (South Korea) when they started playing again, these would have been the equivalent of being asked if you want a beer by a friend and getting handed a Bud Light.
The German Bundesliga did resume in May and I tuned into a couple of games, but I wasn’t really invested in any of the teams, the grounds were empty (Borussia Monchengladbach did install cardboard fans, which was intriguing) and my interest has already tailed off. La Liga has just kicked off again and the Premier League is coming back on June 17.
This is both good and bad news – the good is that there will be players and clubs on my TV that I give a shit about, the bad is that the games will be played in empty stadiums, and the decision to finish the EPL season is less about wanting to give Liverpool the title and more about the money that the league would have to return to broadcasters. Again, that’s a conversation I would prefer to have over a beer in my local.
For my American friends, they can look forward to seeing the NBA and the MLS take over the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando in the coming months – a mutually beneficial agreement between the teams/owners and Disney World that I am certain has everything to do with player safety and nothing to do with broadcast rights.
As is becoming the norm in professional sports, no fans will be allowed into these arenas. Instead, there will be all the essential elements that you need for players to function properly – trainers, motivational coaches, medical staff, broadcast media and the brand marketing teams. To say that watching these games as a fan will be a surreal experience is an understatement.
Which brings me back to the flashbulb memories. The fact that sport is an essential part of life is undeniable, but the presence of fans in the stadium is what makes these flashbacks important to us.
Empty stadiums are not visually stimulating, and the lack of atmosphere is going to make watching professional sports (for the moment anyway) very surreal. Yes, I want football to be part of my weekly routine, the question is how badly I want to sit on my couch or in a socially- distanced venue cheering on players in a stadium that is bereft of the essential part of the puzzle … the fans.
Put it this way, will anyone spend time telling their friends that the atmosphere was electric on their deck when a goal was scored or a three-pointer sealed the result as the clock ran down? I am convinced that these memories will fade and have less relevance very quickly. I might be wrong, these is only something that we can assess when sport comes back.
Ultimately, the sporting void of the last few months is soon going to be filled by live games and TV coverage. The ongoing challenge will be whether the rush to reboot the calendar will actually mean that people invest or engage in their favorite sports as they were before the pandemic changed the way we work, live and play. That’s a question that I can’t answer … but at least I will have the choice as to whether to watch or do something else with my valuable time.
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