Yesterday, sport prevailed over the pandemic. The world tuned into another mesmerizing clash between the two titans of the English Premier League in recent years, witnessing Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City reassert itself over Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool. In Qatar, Mexico’s Tigres became the first soccer team from this part of the world to make the FIFA Club World Cup, beating Brazil’s Palmeiras in a semifinal. And in Tampa, Florida, a retiree from Boston inspired millions of older Americans in yet another big football game on the day.
Those days when sport was ground to a halt by Covid-19 last spring seem very distant. Leagues around the world came back, and for the most part have proven that with proper caution, the games can go on, delivering us fans not only with entertainment, but with a comforting sense of continuity amidst the turmoil, and a sign that this existential threat can be surmounted.
At yesterday’s Super Bowl, the NFL delivered all the right messages of perseverance and unity, honoring those who have fallen to the virus and those who have sacrificed so much to combat it. The NFL has at times been mocked for its saccharine embrace of flag and military, but at this Super Bowl its theme of resilient, let’s-rally-together patriotism, reinforced by some of its corporate sponsors, was a welcome tonic.
The league’s actions, however, could have been more aligned with its messaging. The NFL should have played the game behind closed doors, as Liverpool and Manchester City did at Anfield, not necessarily because of the risk to fans or stadium (which can arguably be managed), but as a tribute to the moment we’re in and an important signal to the millions of Americans who insist on minimizing the present crisis. The league should have also ensured its players did a better job of observing protocols (Tom Brady walked into the stadium from the team bus not wearing a mask), and should have exhorted sponsors to be creative about incorporating pandemic protocols into their advertising, even humorous ones. Imagine if all those Bud Light “Super Legends” had come together wearing masks. Why not? The commercial would have only been more impactful. Not going that extra step suggests the NFL is still trying to have it both ways – still catering to the slice of the population that lives in denial or in conspiracy fairytale land.
The games must go on, but that doesn’t mean our health crisis is over. It just means we need the games more than ever, and we can adapt them to circumstance. Similarly, essential businesses should remain open, but that doesn’t mean we can sound the all clear; it is all the more reason to wear masks.
The next challenge for sport is pulling off the major international competitions held over from 2020 – the Euros and the Tokyo Olympics, both slated for this summer. People on both extremes of the pandemic-politics spectrum believe that proceeding with such events is a signal that we can get on with our regularly scheduled lives, and accordingly oppose or enthusiastically support carrying on. The more sensible course is to hold these events in a manner that recognizes the circumstances, because they are important to humanity and can safely entertain and bring together mass global TV audiences like nothing else. Sport can serve as the most powerful vehicle for public service messaging imaginable, about the current crisis, proper behaviors, and the challenges ahead.
The NBA playoff bubble in Orlando remains the gold standard of how to pull off a big sporting contest in the middle of a pandemic, and could serve as a model for these international tournaments. The Olympics pose far greater logistical challenges, considering it brings together so many athletes from all corners of the world, and the number of venues it requires spread across a massive metropolis. But the summer of 2021 is also not the summer of 2020, as we can now deploy not only testing but vaccines (and should) to ensure a safe Olympics, even if it is one that looks very different from past Games (athletes’ relatives don’t really need to be there, for instance). To scratch the Olympics altogether would be to surrender to nihilistic despair; this is not 1940 or 1944. To pretend these Olympics can resemble ideal notions of a “normal” games would be an exercise in hubris.
The importance of sport, the unique role it plays as a universal shared experience, has been magnified by the pandemic. Sport is, among other things, the most important form of media. All those ads for Paramount+ (the next iteration of CBS’ streaming service) last night might have elicited groans from viewers who already feel oversubscribed to too many streams. And so the only way Paramount+ can distinguish itself from all the other services with plenty of good sitcoms and movies is by acquiring the rights to the UEFA Champions League (ok, Star Trek fans, I know, I know, they also will have you for other reasons). Similarly, NBC Universal has admitted that the rights to the Premier League are the main driver of new subscriptions to its streaming service, Peacock.
The pandemic will also accelerate sport’s ongoing globalization. The northern English showdown yesterday featured a Spanish coach facing a German coach on behalf of Boston and Abu Dhabi-based owners. Tom Brady’s paycheck comes from the same company as Paul Pogba’s at Manchester United. This “conglomeratization” of sport is gathering momentum, as US sports tycoons and private equity funds snatch up more and more soccer clubs (many on sale due to the pandemic) around the world. Closer to home, it’s been reported that former Houston Astros General Manager Jeff Luhnow is trying to organize a bid for a Mexican soccer team, and we should expect plenty more US-Mexico cross-border soccer investment and integration in advance of our shared 2026 World Cup.
Oh, and did I mention that the winning Tigres goal yesterday in Doha was scored by a Frenchman?
* 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