The year 2020 witnessed a paucity of live sport like we have not seen in decades. For fans, it meant staying away from stadiums for a large part of the 12 months. For the writers at Scroll.in, it meant a chance to reflect on events in the past and taking stock of what’s to come. This year-end series is a personal take on what covering sports in 2020 was like.
It was at its starkest during the brightest moments in sport this year. As players and teams celebrated their triumphs, their voices seemed to echo off the empty seats in the stadium. And the silence that followed, disturbed by a few solitary shrieks, almost always seemed to ask the same question: ‘So who have you won this for?’
Too often in the sporting world, we take the fans for granted. We expect them to fill the stands, pay for their seats, generate the atmosphere, play the music, give their heroes a lift, share the grief and most importantly, multiply the joy.
But when the seats emptied due to the pandemic, what was professional sport left with?
It was left with sounds that lacked character. It was left with recorded chants that lacked spontaneity.
When a team was doing well, the fans would break into joyful song.
When a team was doing badly, you could feel a restless collective murmur escape from the crowd. A sense of foreboding.
When there isn’t much happening, they would create a buzz of their own or maybe even a Mexican wave.
Pause for applause
Previously at the end of a remarkable rally at the US Open, for example, the applause was affirmation to the players of the quality they had just produced. It was the stamp of approval and it perhaps made the players try even harder for the next point.
They could love you, they could hate you, they could stand by you, they could abandon you but they were there… always watching you… asking you to do better or worse (depending on who you were playing and who they were supporting).
Medvedev was booed, Djokovic thought they were all against him, Rafa got a boost, Serena was respected but Federer was universally loved.
Just listen to Federer speak about fans in this video from 2016: “What I miss about New York is just the crowd really. Because the crowd always waits for something to happen. They don’t come in and say ‘Okay, today we are going to go crazy’. They are waiting for you to do something and then they will wake up. Then, they are right there... right behind you.”
Federer adds: “I think I miss the fans the most. One of my biggest thrills for playing tennis still is actually playing in front of people. I love New York City, I love Flushing Meadows, I have a lot of friends there but at the end of the day, I am a tennis player and I miss the fans the most.”
When the fans went missing, watching pro sport felt like watching a movie without a soundtrack. You could hear the words but without the appropriate music to back them up, they were just words; words almost without meaning or context.
Just a few days ago, Lionel Messi, after picking up the Pichichi award for finishing as La Liga’s top scorer in 2019-20, told Marca about how it felt to play sport without fans.
“It’s horrible to play without fans. It’s not a nice feeling,” said Messi. “Not seeing anyone in the stadium makes it like training, and it takes a lot to get into the game at the beginning.
“That’s why we see such even games. It’s very hard to win whoever you are playing against. The pandemic has caused football to change a lot, and for the worse. We are seeing it in games. Hopefully, after all this is over, we can get people back into the stadiums and get back to normal.”
Perhaps the greatest con of sports marketers is to tell people that they need to pay to watch pro sport at a stadium. Rather, 2020 made one realise that the shoe really is on the other foot. Take the fans away and what are you left with?
Pro sport after all is a gladiatorial contest and without an audience, it feels like just another game in the street.
If anything, fans are equal shareholders and deserve to be treated with a lot more respect by teams and associations. Hopefully, we’ll see more of that in 2021.
2020 is done but there were lessons to be learnt for all of us and for pro sport, it was a simple one: fans matter, so let them know that. Over and over again.