“Take me Home to the Ball Game”
Florian Bachmann – Deafening silence roams through a stadium that normally accommodates around 50.000 frantically cheering fans while 22 people on the field chase, more or less unenthusiastically, the ball from one side to the other. On the 11th of March 2020, the first Bundesliga (the highest German football league) match between Borussia Monchengladbach and F.C. Cologne was played without fans due to the COVID-19 outbreak. Usually this match would, more often than not, stir up emotions to, probably, an unhealthy level.
Of course, it is easy to diminish the importance of football, or sports in general, especially during a serious and devastating global crisis like the current pandemic. However, without wanting to downplay the shattering events and situations that occur at the moment, from entire countries being shut down to people dying because of the lack of ventilators available, it should still be possible to think rationally about a topic that many, if not most of us, are normally interest in: Sports.
Also, even if professional sport is just an emotional relief system for many people around the world, its downtime has some serious implications as well, ranging from the loss of income of people working in and around the industry, to legal implications in planning the rest of the season, including economic repercussions.
To fully grasp the extent of the current situation one has to understand the rapid and dynamic development that has taken place over the last month regarding cancellations and postponements of sport events. Only at the end of February the first concerns, especially in Italy, grew regarding mass events like football games. Consequently five games of the highest Italian football league, including the anxiously awaited game between Juventus Turin and Inter Milan, were cancelled amid public health concerns. Other major European leagues, howeverdid not seem to be as concerned at the time and so there was no talk of cancelling games in other leagues or increasing potential safety measures. At the beginning of March then the rest of Europe rapidly began to grasp the full extent of this development. The Champions League game between Valencia and Bergamo was only played in front of one fan: Vicente Navarro, a lifelong season ticket holder who went blind in 1984 and still continued to attend every game until his death in 2016 and who was honored with a statue at his old place in the stadium.
Nevertheless, the German Bundesliga continued to go ahead as scheduled, despite heavy pressure from the politics and the public. Only four days before the “ghost-match”, described above, over 50.000 people flocked to the Borussiapark, Monchengladbach´s stadium, to the see the eagerly awaited game versus Borussia Dortmund. At that time the media and several local politicians already urged the club and city to reconsider holding the game without any particular safety measures amidst the rising number of Corona cases, especially since Monchengladbach is only a 20-minute drive away from Heinsberg, Germany´s Corona epicenter. Yet, the threat was played down although everyone promised that the disease was taken seriously. Two days later, in Stuttgart, the top match in the Second Bundesliga (the second highest football league in Germany) between VfB Stuttgart and Arminia Bielefeld, the last match held in front of over 54.000 fans. Thankfully, the game was so blatantly boring and life-sucking that most fans seemed understanding when the German football federation decided to continue without fans for a while (there might have been other reasons as well, but everyone who watched the game understood it).
Football aside, other major sports were equally affected by the dynamic developments of the past month. After resisting to confront the issue of postponing the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo this summer, Shinzo Abe announced recently announced that the historic tournament will be held in 2021. The FIS skiing world cup, already dealing with a rather short season which was heavily impacted by unfavorable climate conditions, had to be completely cancelled before the final races in Cortina D´Ampezzo (Italy) and Åre (Sweden) and robbed the fans of the possibility to see a tight finish between the season´s two best skiers. Also, the ice hockey world cup, which was supposed to be held in Switzerland in May, had to be cancelled as well as several major marathons and tennis tournaments.
Although American sports did not seem to be as affected by this in the beginning, the COVID-19 outbreak speedily caught up with the new world. After Rudy Gobert, a player of Utah´s basketball team joked about potentially having the virus and touching every microphone in the press room, only to find out he indeed had contracted with the Corona virus two days later, the complete NBA season was put on hold. Shortly afterwards other major sports leagues like the NHL (hockey) and the MLB (baseball) followed its example.
Despite not being able to see our favorite sports club perform, in what discipline whatsoever, the current situations brought up some pretty interesting legal implications. In football for example most contracts between the clubs and their players end at the 30th of June. The question that directly pops-up is whether these contracts would remain valid if the whole season is to be postponed until after this deadline. So far, nobody has found an answer to this.
Furthermore, cancelling entire seasons, like Belgium just announced, proves to be complicated since clubs in danger of relegating to a lower league, based on the current standings, naturally oppose such measures if the season would still be counted until that moment, while clubs on their way to achieving success in the current season naturally oppose cancelling the season and declaring it void.
The most serious consequences nevertheless relate to the people working in and around the sports business. Think of the people working in the stadiums, be it at the food stands or as a parking attendant. For those people a vital source of income all of a sudden completely fell flat for an uncertain period of time. Zion Williamson, rookie of New Orleans´ NBA team, pledged to fund all workers of a food chain in the arena for one entire month and many football clubs already promised to spend large amounts of their wages to keep their clubs alive and help out workers who are economically endangered by the current situation.
Is professional sport the most important aspect of our societal life that we should talk and think about at the moment? Definitely not. But is it still possible to be annoyed by the fact that you cannot watch your favorite football team succeed at the weekends (or in my case rather to fail) or worry about the economic situations of smaller clubs and their employees? It sure is.
Lastly, sport is about emotions and we do not have to feel guilty to use it as an emotional relief system, even in dire times like this. Just think of the Liverpool fan who refused to shave his beard since the club won its last championship in 1990, then think of the fact that Liverpool only was two games away of winning the championship: Now go on and explain to this man that he should not worry about professional sport at the moment.