A quiet place: Life on sports’ new stage

Sports are well-known for many things: the fast-paced action, the loud fan chants, the competitiveness, and of course, the excitement. When the pandemic hit and forced everything to come to a halt, it felt almost counter-intuitive for the sports world. All of a sudden, stadiums went silent, training grounds were left empty, and fans, athletes, and staff alike all had to put themselves in quarantine for a greater good. 

But then, after months of uncertainty, the ball has started to roll once again. Gradually, the sports world is beginning to regain its life—albeit, not in the normal ways by which sports usually operate. Certain things needed to be changed and adjusted for the gears to start moving again, given these circumstances that no one is exempt from. These changes, although for the better in the meantime, are not without their ripple effects. 

The new normal

After over a hundred silent days without sports, the noise is slowly starting to creep its way back into the world. The German top-flight football league, the Bundesliga, was one of the first leagues to start playing again after taking a break amid the pandemic, and other football leagues followed shortly after, including the English Premier League, Spain’s La Liga, and Italy’s Serie A. However, with these restarts came drastic changes that are considerably foreign to these big competitions. 

Given the circumstances presented by the pandemic, sports and leagues have to consider the safety of everyone involved, particularly in ensuring that COVID-19 does not wreak greater havoc by spreading among teams. Health protocols are thus being prioritized: regular testing of players and staff members, and limiting close contact between people present at the games. The Bundesliga’s players, for example, are tested on days before games, and players who test positive will be required to be quarantined for 14 days, along with anyone who may have been in close contact. 

On another note, the NBA will also take extreme measures to keep their players and staff safe for when their games resume. The NBA is set to restart on July 30, under strict protocols. All their games and practice sessions will be held at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex, located in Disney World’s Orlando resort. In addition to this, players and staff will be housed in hotels surrounding the area for the duration of the remaining season. These precautions were set in order to limit the exposure of the players and staff members, while getting the season back on track. 

Aside from the precautionary health protocols, another major change that came with the restart of sports, particularly in football, was the fans—rather, a lack thereof. All the games that have taken place for these major football leagues have been played behind closed doors. Watching games live would mean sports fans putting their lives at risk by going out in large crowds while the pandemic persists. Understandably so, sports will have to resume without any spectators for the well-being of sports fans, athletes, coaches, and staff. 

Instead, some television networks have opted into overlaying audio tracks of fan cheers in the background of the games they are broadcasting. The fake fan noise sounds authentic, and can even change to match the events unfolding on-screen, but this is something that only the fans watching from home can appreciate so they can feel as though not much has changed. 

For now, fans would mostly have to settle for watching competitions behind the screen. It may be different and perhaps is not as exciting as watching games live, but it could also help bring attention to different sports—with the introduction of streaming services like ESPN and Fox Sports Live enabling sporting leagues to reach a wider audience all over the world.

For the teams on the ground, though, some have opted to fill the seats of their stadiums with cardboard cutouts of fans, to fill in the emptiness left by closed-doors games.

Change of pace

The adrenaline rush that is felt from hundreds and thousands of fans screaming during the last few minutes of the game will be absent as leagues come to terms with the new normal. This is a huge change for the sports community, who are well used to the loud chanting and shouting from big crowds in the stands; now, every goal, three-pointer, service ace, and home run would no longer be met by the cheers of thousands.

More often than not, the thrilling atmosphere inside a sports arena or stadium contributes to the level of competitiveness in sports. Fans and supporters are a crucial factor in inspiring athletes to bring their A-game to every competition. The large crowd and lively cheers are also considered as strategies to disrupt the momentum of the opponent. Without them, sports ends up soulless. 

Another dimension to this, though, is that spectators are one of the predominant stakeholders in sports, and one cannot downplay the significant role of money in the sporting world. Sports teams and associations secure their revenue through ticket sales, merchandising, sponsorships, and advertising, using these to expend player wages and transfer fees, as well as compensate team staff.. 

Fans constantly invest themselves in a sports team by attending games and purchasing their merchandise to feel a sense of connection to the athletes that they are supporting. With the lack of physical support, significantly reducing the influx of funds, it would immensely affect the whole sports industry, even disproportionately impacting staff at the bottom of the payroll, teams with relatively less financial backing, and sports leagues with little investment to begin with.

On a tight budget 

For most of these athletes and employees, sporting competitions are their only means of earning money or getting a good education. Due to this pandemic, we are seeing a shift in the industry so that it could adapt to the new normal—leaving some behind to an extent. 

Since the pandemic directly hit the sports industry, wage cuts and layoffs are likely for sports personnel due to the limited budget that the teams’ management holds. The National Hockey League in the United States, for example, had decided to temporarily reduce the pay of some of their office employees by 25 percent.

It is not just the employees who are taking a hit during this pandemic; student-athletes are also greatly affected. The University of Santo Tomas has decided not to offer any athletic scholarships for the next Academic Year. Meanwhile, Colegio de San Juan de Letran (CSJL) has reportedly withdrawn from nine events of the National Collegiate Athletic Association for Season 96—which, ironically, CSJL will host.

Locally, only non-contact sports such as tennis, golf, and cycling were allowed initially, but the Philippine government recently permitted professional basketball and football teams to resume their training as long as they observe health protocols, following requests from the Philippine Basketball Association and the Philippine Football Federation. With some sports slowly going back to their routine, one could hope that everything would be back to normal—but this is not the case.

Even with training sessions gradually being permitted, local sports tournaments may not be able to resume immediately, or at least not in the way we would expect. Testing kits are still limited and right now, these leagues are probably not the priority for viral testing. It would also not be realistic to spend millions of pesos to test everyone involved, including the spectators, meaning that large crowds of fans will have to wait a lot longer before they can return to the stadiums.

These are only some ways in which the sports world has evolved with the times. Though it is still uncertain when sports will have the freedom to go back to normal completely without fears or anxieties, fans, players, and staff members can for now take comfort in the fact that the sports they love have come back to life—even if in a form unfamiliar to them.

By Drew Beltran Acierto

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