Sport is gone, at least for the time being. The arrival of the coronavirus pandemic has taken it from our screens, courts and stadiums – the postponement of the Tokyo Olympics until 2021 is the inevitable final part of a wave obliterating elite sport and beyond. The evenings, afternoons and weekends when we would be obsessively watching professional athletes are suddenly free. As a result, given this sudden and stunning loss, many of us are bereft.
Or are we? Perhaps it’s too early to tell. We may certainly miss watching our favourite spectacle, but we may not miss everything else that comes with it – most notably, what often feels like contempt for the paying consumer, and in particular those who go and watch their favourite teams and athletes, often at huge expense. We are in extraordinary times. Not since the second world war has professional sport come to a global halt; and, with each passing week, its audiences will increasingly assess what role this entertainment usefully plays in their lives.
The smarter people at the helm of major sport will be worried about this. After all, the last huge institution to take the adulation of the masses for granted was the Catholic church; and, despite still pulling in impressive attendances, it is not hard today to notice the large number of vast chapels with empty pews in many countries. The next few months will be vital to reflect on the position of sport in public life.
At present, those running sport have an important factor in their favour: as country after country begins to endure a partial or total lockdown of non-essential services, the withdrawal symptoms will be severe. For the time being, many people will crave the escapism that sport offers, and the nostalgia will be out in full force: desperate for drama, we will revisit classic matches as fondly as if they were our favourite television series. Whenever live sport returns, many of us will meet it with more joy than ever.
Yet many dedicated sports fans may demand something better. Coronavirus has provided a moment of self-reflection for sport as bracing as that which the 2008 financial crash provided for the economy. Just as that crisis gave rise to the Occupy movement and its accompanying list of demands for a fairer society, we must ask what demands there might now be for a fairer fandom.
Taking football as an example, some of the clubs are aware of this need to strengthen or rekindle their bonds with the surrounding community. We can view Manchester United and Manchester City’s joint gift of £100,000 to local food banks in this context. We can also note that this sum, while a generous amount, is less than the weekly wage of many of their top players. Elsewhere, some of the game’s prominent players – Leon Goretzka, Joshua Kimmich, Robert Lewandowski and his wife Anna – have given more than €2,000,000 to address the challenges posed by coronavirus. Several of Germany’s football fan “ultra” groups, meanwhile, have responded to the current crisis by calling for wage rises, helping at-risk groups, fundraising for Italian hospitals and contributing to blood donation drives.
If football, and sport more generally, is to retain its place in the good graces of the public after what will be a traumatic time for many, then its institutions should be even more benevolent than individual athletes or fans. And it should reconsider the wider relationship with fans in the coming months and years. In future, what can be done to maintain bonds with devoted fans and communities – and not just its wealthiest customers?
No matter how happy people will be to see sport coming back, they will have navigated several hard financial realities without it, and spent what little cash they had to spare elsewhere. A society where so many are already living just a couple of pay cheques away from homelessness will have sustained yet another blow. How will it look if sport, oblivious to this suffering, continues to charge exorbitant fees for access to its events? How will it survive if it refuses to distribute its resources more fairly towards its foundations?
The greatest danger to sport is that, in its absence, many of these people will have found other ways to fill and enjoy their afternoons and evenings. I was speaking recently with a passionate football fan and regular match-goer, and asked how he was feeling about his team’s chances of avoiding relegation if the season resumed. To my surprise, he answered that he didn’t really care – coronavirus had made him reassess his priorities. And that is bad news for sport, because its huge profits partly rely upon obsession, on people not having a sense of perspective. For sport to survive, it must continue to matter.
In the months to come, professional sport must therefore show us – or prove to us anew – that it is more than a distraction; that its senior figures care profoundly about matters beyond the pitch, the stadium and the balance sheet. We have seen some of that with the postponement and cancellation of international and club football and the Olympics, among many other events: acts of responsible leadership that eventually placed public health ahead of self-enrichment.
With a mass pause imposed on us all, it is time for sport to rethink its social contract with those who adore it; it is an opportunity to reassure those worshippers who may have become disillusioned that they can one day renew their faith.
• Musa Okwonga is a poet, journalist and musician, and co-hosts the Stadio football podcast