Why sport's new status as a purely digital product is not sustainable

Elite sport has streamlined itself to become flat-pack entertainment – but there isn't a competition in the world that is not desperate to get the punters back in.

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What’s it like?” These days, that tends to be the first thing people ask when they find out what I do for a living. For years, the sports writer and the fan were confederates in a shared whole: each consuming the spectacle in varying ways, with varying motivations, often (but not always) at varying levels of inebriation. Now, for reasons beyond our control, we are in and they are out. The sporting arena is no longer a public space but a VIP area, privileged, cordoned off, hermetically sealed. And so people ask, with a mixture of curiosity and longing: what lies beyond the red velvet rope? What’s it like in there? And you answer, accurately but unsatisfactorily, because you don’t really know how else to put it: weird. It’s weird.

And it is weird, but the weirdness comes in different forms, and from different places. Within the Test match bubble in which England’s cricketers have been playing this summer, it’s not so much the silence that strikes you as the total sensory vacuum: a colourless, odourless hollowness, devoid not just of the usual hubbub but of the fancy dress, the beer queues, the wafting smell of bacon baps and cigarette smoke. A press box of maybe 60 has been pared down to about a dozen, all distanced, invariably all men. The close-of-play press conferences take place over Zoom, even though the players are just yards away in the next room. At 1pm, instead of shooting the breeze with colleagues over a vivid buffet, we are shown to an individually numbered seat and presented with a single foil-wrapped plate of sad, delicious food: lunchtime in the world’s most exclusive asylum.

At football grounds, the weirdness hits long before you arrive. In normal times, whenever those were, big games generated a sort of blast radius around them, an entire neighbourhood given over to football: fans pouring off packed train carriages, police horses roaming the streets, hot dog vendors and programme sellers and ticket scalpers and howling preachers urging us all to repent or, you know, else. Now, all that remains of this heaving throng is a masked security guard asking to see your Covid self-assessment form and a club attendant with a head thermometer. You arrive shortly before kick-off, watch the game, leave through empty streets: a transaction as perfunctory and unremarkable as a visit to the dentist.

Within the ground, by contrast, there’s a disorienting sheen of normality throughout. There’s still music playing over the speakers. The big screen flickers with the same blend of adverts and match highlights. The face of the manager still beams from the pages of the match programme, welcoming today’s opponents and urging everyone to enjoy the game. Before Crystal Palace vs Everton at Selhurst Park, there’s a minute’s silence for the murdered police officer Matt Ratana. As the referee’s whistle blows, as the players and staff of both teams bow their heads, the only thing still moving is the rolling electronic advertising board, encouraging us to place a bet on the afternoon’s football.

What’s the meaning of all this? For whose benefit is this charade being enacted? Put more simply: if sport takes place and there’s nobody there to watch it, what’s the point? The easiest answer is that sport is now essentially a made-for-television spectacle, the locus of interest has shifted out of the stadium and into the digital sphere, the post-production suites where fake crowd noise and graphics are added, the living rooms and mobile screens where the finished product assembles. The stadium itself is thus analogous to a film set, the players actors in a high-budget costume drama.

There is a widespread view that, for sports increasingly reliant on broadcast revenue, this is what the endgame looks like: that with television contracts to fulfil and sponsors to appease, elite sport has gratefully seized the opportunity to shed its live audience and streamline itself into a sort of portable flat-pack entertainment. The Indian Premier League cricket, currently self-isolating in the United Arab Emirates, is one example: a spectacle that feels, if anything, more authentic for embracing the artifice of made-up teams playing in eerie silence in the middle of the desert. If the physical presence of fans is no longer a consideration, the logic goes, then what’s to stop the circus going anywhere it wants? Las Vegas? Baku? Jeddah? Mars?

The truth, as ever, is a little more complex. There isn’t a competition in the world that is not desperate to get the punters back in. Barcelona brings in £140m a year in match-day revenue alone; Manchester United £106.3m; Arsenal £96.2m (a quarter of its income). The suggestion that anyone here is content simply to lop off this part of the business, all those premium hospitality packages, all those season ticket renewals, all those overpriced burgers and scarves, is not grounded in reality. Further down the food chain, the dependence on clicking turnstiles is existential. English county cricket, Scottish football, both codes of club rugby: none of this will survive even in the medium term without crowds coming through the gates.

And yet, as cases of the virus once again increase, and the shutters swiftly go back down, this is where we are for now. It’s hard not to feel that on some subtle level the relationship between sport and its audience is already beginning to shift: weekly habits being broken, memberships lapsing, an immeasurable but unmistakable gulf opening between the “us” in the stadium and the “them” out there, on the other side of a screen, rich in personal data and ripe for targeted advertising. The crowd is dead; long live the market. The longer the gates stay closed, the stranger and more irrevocable the schism will be. 

Jonathan Liew is a sports writer at the Guardian 

This article appears in the 09 October 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Long Covid

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