Most of the world’s top sports leagues had been in uninterrupted operation for several decades, dating back to World War II or even all the way back to the Spanish Flu in 1919, which brought the Stanley Cup Final that year to a crashing halt after multiple players on both teams fell ill.
No matter what social upheaval was taking place in the world, sports was a way for us to come together in the spirit of competition, says Peter Schieffelin Nyberg, the CFO of the Charlotte-based Camino Community Center.
Year in and year out, exciting world-class competition was brought to the masses, allowing fans to forget about their troubles and their overdue bills, if only for a little while. Sports became a passion for many people and even an obsession for some.
Then all of a sudden, the sports world stopped. The NBA was the first major North American sports league to shut down in early March, to be followed quickly by the NHL and MLB. The latter league, which was in the midst of its spring training preseason schedule, initially expected to be closed down for two weeks. Now it’s not certain if there will be a season at all this year.
Just as lockdowns forced many people out of work, giving them even more free time, so too did one of their main sources of entertainment shut down completely. That’s left many people struggling to find new ways to occupy their time.
The Current State of Entertainment
As Peter Schieffelin Nyberg points out, it’s not just the time spent watching sports that has been freed up, but also the time spent watching sports highlight and discussion shows, reading sports stories online or in newspapers, and discussing the latest game or insane play in online forums or around the water cooler.
Sports shows have tried to fill the void recently by focusing on social issues and how they’ve affected athletes or how athletes are responding to them, but viewers have tuned out in droves. ESPN’s ratings have hit record lows, reminding sports networks that most people don’t want a side of politics with their sports; many of them watch sports precisely to get away from those issues.
Some sports fans have hopped on the e-sports bandwagon to scratch their itch for exciting competition. The live game streaming platform Twitch has smashed its viewership records during the lockdowns, continuing to be lead by the monumental success of Fortnite, which pulls in millions of viewers for major events.
ESPN has begun airing NBA 2K league games in an effort to capitalize on the e-sports boom, though that league has struggled to attract sizable audiences prior to and during the pandemic.
What to Expect
Even when major sports leagues return, Peter Schieffelin Nyberg wonders if they will have the same impact and generate the same passion without fans in attendance to set a raucous atmosphere. It’s almost certain that the politicization of sports will also persist, turning yet more fans away from their former favorite pastimes and leaving them scratching their heads as to how to fill their days.