Someday, hopefully not too long from now after we’ve been sufficiently vaccinated, life will return to normal, and sports fans will once again cram into stadiums and arenas.
Maybe in time for the NBA playoffs but almost surely by next NFL season. Whatever trepidation we might have will fade, and we’ll find ourselves shoulder to shoulder with strangers, screaming, high-fiving, even hugging. It’ll be as if 2020 was a distant memory.
“A lot of the excitement of sports is generated out of face-to-face interaction, people packed into a stadium or lining up on Fifth Avenue to cheer a victorious team,” said Orin Starn, a cultural anthropologist at Duke who specializes in sports and society.
“Sports is not like physics or Wall Street finance. That’s all about numbers and calculations and abstractness. Sports is about people bumping up against each other on a field, lined up together and crowded in the stands. Sports is about physical contact in all sorts of ways, so I think that core is going to stay.”
And yet, some of the changes brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic will continue to affect us, certainly for the near future and maybe even for the long run.
Believe it or not, that’s not necessarily all bad.
There were rumblings even before COVID-19 that, at 162 games, the MLB season is simply too long. Snow and cold tend to wreak havoc with the first few weeks of the schedule and then the postseason, and even the best of teams get fatigued down the stretch.
Now, the 60-game season this year is too short. But double that, and you’re on to something. It would allow the season to start later, end earlier and give teams additional days off in July and August.
To pull off the compressed season this year, teams stayed in their geographical regions. Playing so many interleague games gave MLB the opening to introduce the universal designated hitter it has long wanted, and — get used to it, purists — it’s likely here to stay.
The NBA’s “seeding games” and play-in were necessities because the playoff field wasn’t set when the season was halted March 11. But it proved entertaining enough that the NBA will use a modified version this season.
There won’t be the need for the seeding games — if there is, we have bigger issues — but the teams that finish the regular season in seventh through 10th place will have a three-game tournament to determine the last two playoff spots in each conference.
The NFL, meanwhile, has realized it can do more with less.
Back in the spring, the idea of doing workouts and holding camps virtually seemed impossible. But coaches and players adapted. Now, with the NFL drastically cutting back in-person interaction as cases surge around the country, virtual meetings are second nature.
“Our experience with the offseason training and doing that virtually, I think our clubs got really comfortable with a lot of that,” commissioner Roger Goodell said in a Dec. 16 conference call. “And I think we’ll see more of that.”
Even better, Goodell said he can see “a lot of things living” from the NFL’s virtual draft, which had all the makings of a bad variety show but wound up being wildly entertaining and enjoyable. Coaches let their guards down a bit as they “welcomed” viewers into their homes. Kids and pets made cameo appearances.
Bill Belichick even had jokes, making it look as if his (adorable) dog was handling the Patriots’ draft.
“It’s been a lot of fun,” Dolphins coach Brian Flores said. “I haven’t spent this much time with my family — my kids, my wife — in a long time, and it’s been great.”
Also great? Seeing women’s sports finally get the spotlight they deserve.
The NWSL and WNBA had an expanded TV presence, and it translated into increased ratings. While there was much hand-wringing about ratings drops for the NBA, NHL, MLB and golf, the WNBA Finals were up 15% from 2019, and the NWSL saw its ratings skyrocket by almost 500%.
Yes, you read that right. Make women’s sports accessible, and people will watch.
But as with every other aspect of life, there will be some lasting effects from -COVID that are not welcome.
College sports has always been a bit unseemly. But any pretense about the high-and-mighty value of the amateur experience was thrown out for good this season with football coaches, administrators and even fans insisting that unpaid players get out there and play and fulfill TV contracts even as COVID-19 ran rampant through their towns and teams.
And if that money grab wasn’t shameless enough, many schools are using COVID-19 as an excuse to cry poor and cut smaller sports. Never mind that they are spending millions to buy out football coaches and keep programs across the country fat and happy.
“The virus has exposed certain truths about our society that we didn’t want to see before,” Starn said. “In the case of college sports, the virus has made clearer than ever that college sports is a business.”
That doesn’t mean we’ll stop watching.
The last nine months have proved the incredible lasting power of sports. These aren’t just fun and games. They’re integral to the very soul of our society, offering us comfort and familiarity, providing a place to find common ground.
Our relationship with them is different now, tempered by the worries and fears that have taken occupancy in our minds. But that is temporary.
“There’s never been a society in the history of the world that’s been more crazy about sports than the United States,” Starn said. “I’m expecting we’re going to see sports coming back stronger than ever. And maybe with more interest than ever.”
Sports change, but sports always endures. That’s one thing COVID-19 can’t change.