Spectating Spectator Sports: COVID-19 is dismantling stadium culture, one screen at a time

Spectating Spectator Sports: COVID-19 is dismantling stadium culture, one screen at a time

In the hierarchy of watching spectator sports, ‘Being There’ – getting tickets, going to the stadium, shouting ‘INDI-AA, INDIA!’, joining the crowd, blah blah blah – has always been held supreme. It has certainly been considered above watching the game from the ‘boring’ confines of home. The question that the Covid pandemic now allows us, all this while hiding behind the mob-snob, to roundly ask from the rooftops is: Whatever for?

Let the paisa drop: Watching spectator sports from home has always been and always will be, a finer, more joyous, less harrowing experience than watching it from the stands. And don’t let any season ticket-holding mobster tell you otherwise.

Blasphemous as this may sound, think about it. From the sports purist’s angle, the players ‘down there’ are not blurs or dots on your TV or smartphone screen. Without the incessant din – marketed as ‘roar’ – of the crowd, you can follow not only the play much more methodically, but also make out the difference between a Mbappe and a Kimpembe, and one hipster-bearded fielder from another. And all without worrying about coming across to strangers in front of, behind and beside you as complete sports duffers.

Granted, watching sports is also a social activity. Feeling part of a crowd can arouse our tribal instincts – what Virat Kohli in July, when speaking dolefully about the prospect of playing before empty stands, described as ‘that magic happening inside because of the atmosphere’. But if you want an atmosphere, why don’t you go to the next Kumbh – maintaining two-metre social distancing norms and wearing a mask, of course?

Standing at the stands (and sitting at the seats?) inside sports venues means crowds – and not just in the romantic, ‘I Was There’ on your t-shirt communal sense. It means standing in line, holding your piss lest you miss a wicket or goal or a long rally, not getting phone network to send your selfie from a floodlit heatbowl to folks subjected to airconditioned ‘torture’ back home, etc etc. And all for…?

Ah, atmosphere, you say? If you won’t believe that corporate sports, bless its soul, nudges sports fans to fill up stadia so that sports fans get a more wholesome audio-visual experience back home, you better believe the fact that telecast rights of games fetch far, far more moolah than ticket collections. In other words, the idea of a ‘stadium atmosphere’ held so precious by most folks is actually so similar to that used by film production companies to fill up sets. In other words, spectators at venues are the extras.

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True, ever since we watched this blighted season’s Bundesliga, Germany’s top football league that from mid-May served as the yardstick for all other sports events in these times of Covid, we have found the empty stadia, the eerie emptiness punctuated by echoes from players on the field and team staff from the sidelines sounding as if from inside an empty school washroom, odd. Crowd simulation – comprising canned supporter chants, roars and boos a la canned laughter in TV sit-coms – in football and cricket telecasts have somewhat fooled our brains (read: calmed our nerves) into thinking that all is ok. But this is how a sports fan should experience sports.

The fact is that there was no other way for spectators in ancient Rome to watch gladiators fight it out to the death in stadia. But as any modern-day Maximus, Mukherjee or Saxena will tell you, today’s blood-baying sports fans have technology on their side — and they have had it on their left and right flank, off and on side for some time now in the form of camera and telecast tech. So, Covid and its spectator-distancing norms is not the burden we have to bear while constantly murmuring to ourselves, ‘new normal-new normal’. Here’s actually an opportunity to recognise, see and shine the spotlight on the future of spectator sports: SFH, or Spectate From Home.

The celebrities we caught a glimpse of on our screens in between overs, in any case, went to the cricket ground and watched the proceedings in VIP lounges, mostly on giant TV screens. The whole point was for the rest of the world to watch them watching a match. So for all their mob-snobbery, the rest of the face-painted, flag-waving, ‘Look Ma, I’m on camera!’ spectators in the stands were just extras, necessary to fill up the stands so that the match looks, well, spectacular.

‘The louder the crowd, the bigger the match’ is a formula that has, thanks to the coronavirus, run its course. Even if you’re not a purist, and you want a merry sports night that goes beyond enjoying the thrills and the spoils of watching the sport, trust me, it will make far more sense — and bring a higher quality of adrenaline and endorphin rushing to the surface — if you bring some friends over, have the beer and snacks at a social-distanced distance of no farther than your refrigerator, and SFH.

Rather than fall for the biggest pre-Covid ruse in the world and spend hours to-ing and fro-ing and being at a sporting arena. Frankly, people should be paid to fill up stadium stands, not pay for tickets.

The future of spectating spectator sports – SSS© — is here. Let the streaming begin.

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