Yesterday on ESPN+ I caught the “Derby d’Italia,” as the rivalry between Italian Serie A football giants Juventus and Inter Milan is known. It was like tuning in to watch what we used to call a cascarita, or pickup game – you could hear the players yelling at each other, calling for the ball, and the thud the ball makes when struck, things you normally don’t hear when you tune in to watch a professional game. The surreal spectacle played in a massive closed stadium – so that’s what Cristiano Ronaldo sounds like hectoring teammates! – was broadcast globally, courtesy of the coronavirus; a match perilously caught between society’s conflicting impulses to carry on with the game of life and to do whatever it takes so that a pandemic can’t carry on.
Sport will not be the most essential aspect of life disrupted in coming days and weeks by public health concerns. But I am not prepared to say it will be the least essential. Sport fandom connects people to each other, and to place, like no other form of global popular culture – it’s integral to our identity.
Around the world, sport is a great exception to the retreat we see globalization making on other fronts. A stark example of this is the English Premier League, against the backdrop of Brexit. Consider that school kids in the old West Midlands industrial city of Wolverhampton (a constituency that voted resoundingly for Brexit) are fretting about the fate of the Mexican wolf these days. Why? Because their local football team (“Wolves”) struck an inspired partnership with the WWF to help the endangered animal, spearheaded by the team’s own “Mexican wolf,” striker Raúl Jímenez, the top scorer of the Chinese-owned, Portuguese-managed team.
Closer to home, sports bind North Americans together too, across our borders. Don’t underestimate (even if it is hard to quantify) the degree to which Mexicans’ deep passion for the National Football League softens and widens perceptions and understanding of the United States. And has his beloved baseball mellowed President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s views of the United States throughout his adult life? Again, unquantifiable, if appreciable.
US professional sports leagues, on the other hand, can and do quantify the current significance and future potential of the consumer market to their south. The NFL played its first regular season outside the United States in Mexico in 2005 (after years of taking pre-season games there), and is currently committed to bringing one game a year. The National Basketball Association, for its part, is adding its first G-League team not affiliated with an existing NBA franchise in Mexico City, a move widely interpreted as a possible precursor to adding a top-flight Mexican NBA franchise. The NBA has also been bringing regular season games to Mexico for the past five years. Not one to be left behind, Major League Baseball is bringing the Arizona Diamondbacks and San Diego Padres to Mexico City in April for the first ever regular-season games played in the Mexican capital.
The world’s top sport is especially intertwined across the River Grande. The United States and Mexico have developed one of the more compelling regional rivalries in FIFA. The clubs of their domestic MLS and Liga MX leagues are also competing intensely for North American talent and supremacy, finding more and more ways to play each other (CONCACAF Champions League, the new Campeones Cup, an all-star showdown) as European clubs have long done across borders on their continent. A cross-border quasi-merger of leagues is intriguing, albeit complicated.
Mexican-Americans have done so much to build the MLS, and their patronage is rewarded by signings of such stars as Carlos Vela (LAFC), Chicharito Hernández (LA Galaxy), and Rodolfo Pizarro (Inter Miami). But the flows cut both ways: US broadcasts of Liga MX depress MLS viewership, while preserving immigrants’ emotional ties to their communities of origin and the fandoms of their youth. Last December, almost three times as many TV viewers in the United States (3.3 million) tuned in to watch the championship match of the Liga MX season between Club América and Monterrey than had watched the MLS Cup between Seattle and Toronto a month earlier (and it’s interesting that of those 1.3 million viewers, about a third watched in Spanish on Univisión).
Mexico and the United States will share the 2026 FIFA Men’s World Cup with Canada, and that will serve as another landmark recognition of how interwoven our North American sporting markets have become. But for now, the coronavirus reminds us of how fragile and precious these cross-border sporting bridges are in troubled times. I can remember as a sports-crazed kid learning history being struck by the utter sadness and despair hinted at by the 1936-to-1948 and the 1938-to-1950 gaps between Olympics and World Cups, a time when sport and civilization had to take a break.
We are not facing anything like that now, but whatever we are in for in terms of more games played behind closed stadium doors or cancelled and disrupted tournaments in the short term, appreciate the cross-border sporting bonds we have developed, and what they tell us about ourselves and the state of our world.
* Andrés Martínez is a professor of practice in the Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University and the editorial director of Future Tense, a Washington, D.C.-based ideas journalism partnership between ASU, Slate magazine, and New America.Twitter: @AndresDCmtz