OPINION: D.A.: Lessons Learned from a Sports Year in Pandemic

D.A.: Lessons Learned from a Sports Year in Pandemic

On this date last year, I attended the final sporting event on Earth. At least it felt that way.
I had flown down to Florida for my annual spring training trip, and after the NBA, NHL and college basketball shuttered its doors in the days prior, any moment MLB would do the same. A Mets/Cardinals exhibition felt like the last step on a disintegrating bridge for Indiana Jones. Here's what I wrote at the time:

Life in America has changed nearly overnight, this week being as tumultuous as any in decades. Not only do we need to learn how to work from home, take care of families as schools are closed, and try to overcome the fear that follows this virus. We must do it without the solitude of sports, which has always been there prior. It's a small price to pay to get the sickness under control. It's certainly the right thing to do. But the feeling of no sports until further notice, whether that's weeks or months, is disorienting. On Thursday, sports hung up a "Closed By Owner" sign on its front door. I witnessed it in person, and it felt like getting shot into space, watching Earth recede in the window, and heading into some unknown darkness.  

Sports did come back, but it was months before it was safe to do so. We waited out March, April, May and most of June before anything felt complete. I began interviewing professional anglers during the shutdown. NASCAR, UFC and golf started the comeback. The NBA and NHL bubbles were next. Baseball's "Opening Day" followed. Inside the void, and in the ensuing 12 months, we learned valuable lessons about leagues, athletes, and most importantly, ourselves.

Nostalgia is powerful. ESPN stumbled onto a gold mine when "The Last Dance" debuted. Originally set to run during the NBA playoffs, the docu-series about Michael Jordan's Bulls became our lifeline to sports for 5 weeks in the spring. In the most incredible slanting of reality, we began discussing events from 30 years ago as though they were happening in real time. Who stiffed Isiah Thomas from the Dream Team? Who was most responsible for the end of the Chicago dynasty? Why would George Karl piss off Michael? Events that had long been adjudicated were now open for fresh analysis. Tapping into Jordan's legend, while uncovering new footage and current interviews, made for compelling theater. It may have been a whitewshed version of Michael's lore, but it was great television.

Live fans are vital. No matter how seasoned a scoreboard operator, nor how advanced the visual technology, the loss of spectators was jarring. Canned crowd noise, Zoom-style virtual fans, and creative court displays couldn't hide the yawning lack of juice inside the stadium. Cardboard cutouts looked sloppy and uninspired. Digital fans seemed artificially excited yet lacking sufficient noise. Empty seats were depressing.
We discovered even 5,000 fans were far superior to none, and from now on every league will demand new ways to get people to the park. The firehose of money comes from television rights holders, but those execs expect an atmosphere for their billions of dollars spent. Sports in an empty garage doesn't feel very much like sports.

The media doesn't have to travel. While the pandemic strengthened the need for fans to be in the building, the opposite became true for those covering the games. My show right now operates with five different members in five different places. After a dramatic learning curve we had to figure out in real time, the show today sounds almost exactly like it did when we were all in the same studio. We figured out timing, pacing, teleconferencing, and immediate electronic communication. Everyone did. We all had to. Beat reporters log into Zoom press conferences. Play-by-play broadcasters are calling games off a monitor in a studio. Multimillion dollar sets were replaced by home offices and laptop cameras. The consumer doesn't seem to be noticing much. There's no outcry or drumbeat to get the media back on the road. A way to save money with exorbitant rights fees increasing? Media outlets will continue this practice long after the pandemic ends.

Leagues can be fluid. Since the dawn of American sports, there was a preseason schedule set in stone and nothing could challenge that. Months, even years, in advance you knew when, where, and what time an event would happen. You could book your hotel for a Super Bowl five years prior. As soon as the MLB schedule was released in August, you could count on the Marlins and Padres playing at Petco Park on July 7th of the following year at 7:35p PST. You couldn't know who was pitching, hitting, or managing, but the event was certain. No longer. The NFL created filler weeks in case games needed to be rescheduled. The NBA built a fungible schedule to slide matchups around.
College basketball engineered two-game series to get in all the conference matchups. College football scrambled to find new opponents within the same week. We'll see league offices continue to experiment with flex scheduling to maximize revenue.

The NBA just held an All-Star Weekend. The Texas Rangers are inviting a full house for Opening Day next month. The NFL wants full capacity in September. Competition will surely get back to what we remember. But along the way some of the sporting space changed. For good.

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