What’s left of sports these days? Not much. The 2020 Summer Olympics have been put off to 2021. Professional leagues await the all-clear to resume games. College sports? Maybe this fall. And nearly everything else down to the local bowling club has hit the pause button.
Yet this dearth of popular athletics has led to a debate over their inherent value and whether they can return in the same form. Perhaps sports is overdue anyway for a reckoning.
Sports competition, of course, will survive. And it should. At its best, it’s an inspiring expression of talent, teamwork, and hard work, of dominion over physical limitations and a breaking of mental barriers. Ice dancing displays grace and beauty. Gymnasts achieve aerial feats of strength and coordination. In baseball, a shortstop shows the smooth skill of scooping up a ground ball and firing it to first base. Spectators watch with awe and joy.
For many, the sports calendar is part of the rhythm of life. In the United States, college basketball’s March Madness and the Masters golf tournament signal the start of spring. The 162-game Major League Baseball season offers entertainment and companionship for lazy afternoons well into autumn. Then football collides to grab attention until the college bowl games and the Super Bowl. Overlaying these rhythms are the seasons for the National Basketball Association and the National Hockey League.
Behind this fan experience, however, is a multibillion-dollar business, caught up in broadcast rights, tickets sales, and other sources of income. During the COVID-19 interlude, these business models are being severely challenged. One result could be lower salaries for professionals and fewer new stadiums or other upgrades to facilities. Colleges may drop sports that don’t pay for themselves.
Meanwhile, separate from the coronavirus crisis, the world’s most popular game, soccer, has seen a scandal in its international governing body, FIFA. The U.S. Department of Justice has accused individuals working for Russia and Qatar of bribing FIFA officials in exchange for giving the rights to those countries to host the men’s World Cup. FIFA now needs to introduce reforms to ensure its work is transparent and ethical.
With similar introspection, U.S. professional and collegiate sports can rethink their standards while revising their business models. For example, the value of allowing legalized sports gambling needs to be reconsidered before that corrupting influence damages both players and their fan base. In addition, colleges that have turned their sports programs into a lucrative pipeline must refocus on the educational value of team play.
Innovation has long been part of sports, both on the field and off. There is more focus today on safety of players, on developing better skills, and on how games are played.
The sudden absence of sports has left a gaping hole for fans. Whatever value sports brought to them will eventually be filled, even if in altered form. With the right reforms now, sports can be even better than before, especially after this long reflection on its enduring purpose.