Something to celebrate

There were, of course, three hugely uplifting pieces of national news this week: around vaccines, spectator sport and grassroots participation.

For all of us at Sportside – and across the nation seemingly – the return of grassroots sport on December 3 was the news we had been anxiously waiting for.

The central ethos behind our app is that while sport can be a wonderful individual pursuit, being able to connect and play is so good for mind, body and soul.

Yes, we have been able to run, walk or cycle with an individual during lockdown which has been vital for mental and physical health, as well as fostering old friendships and building a few new ones – and not to mention the number of PBs that have been broken. But the lack of community has been all too noticeable.

Media organisations and sporting celebrities campaigned hard to exempt grassroots sports from this lockdown, particularly for children whose mental health is so vulnerable right now, and it appears their protests have been listened to.

Regardless of what tier you are in on December 3, all gyms, swimming pools, golf courses and leisure facilities will be open to you. Now it is up to us to use them – and use them responsibly.

The news of the return of spectators, though, was almost as important – if not more so – to those who so desperately craved participation sport to return to pre-Covid levels.

While the various sporting bodies have managed to resume matches, leagues and cup competitions with great success and the broadcasting companies have done incredible jobs in covering the games (and in so many cases with the canned crowd noise so expertly managed!) it has been a desperate time for the die-hard sports spectator for whom there is no substitute for actually being there.

When the lockdown ends next Wednesday up to 4,000 fans will be allowed at outdoor events in the lowest-risk, tier one areas, falling to a maximum of 2,000 people in tier two, but none in tier three.

Indoor venues in tiers one and two can have a maximum of 1,000 spectators and the number of fans must not exceed 50% of any venue capacity.

And while it is going to be a very different experience for those who are lucky enough to attend matchdays from next week, just the sensation of walking into a stadium and taking your seat for the big match – whatever the occasion – will be a game-changer.

We already had a taste for what the ‘new normal’ fan experience might be when pilot events were staged in the immediate aftermath of ‘Lockdown 1’ from July 26 to October 3.

Back then, attending supporters were advised to wear a mask,  take extreme care when shouting, singing or celebrating, avoid hugs, high-fives and any close contact with people who are not within their social or support bubble, as well as remaining in seats at all times and avoiding face to face contact with other fans. And all of that will remain the case but, with up to 4,000 fans at an outdoor event, the impact for players and a club will be immense.

The huge number of post-match interviews with footballers, rugby players, golfers – all sports – where the lack of atmosphere has been noted and the need to have supporters back has been inescapable and is proof to any who may have ever doubted it, that it really is the fans who keep these clubs alive. 

It appeared for a while that this need for bums-on-seats was a bit of a myth. Surely the television deals brought in the money for all these major sports while gate receipts from supporters actually attending the match were becoming more and more irrelevant.

The past few months of live sport played out in front of empty stadiums has debunked that myth once and for all. It was telling that the American TV audience for The Masters was down by over 50 percent, while the NBA finals, baseball world series and ice hockey’s Stanley Cup all suffer similar slumps across the pond.

And over here, the pay TV channels attempts to ask viewers to pay an extra £15 to watch Premier League matches was risibile. Clearly stay-at-home viewers were already finding it a diluted experience as they continued to pay their hefty subscriptions to watch matches with a lack atmosphere.

No, televised sporting occasions need fans to watch them just as much as TV viewers need their fix of sport. For, without people watching sport on their televisions across the country, many sports will see their participation numbers suffer due to lack of exposure.

Not all players need the adulation of the crowd however – as Daniil Medvedev proved when he won the ATP Finals at the 02 last weekend.

Medvedev, who has always enjoyed a mixed reception from tennis crowds across the globe, beat Dominic Thiem in three sets on Sunday night – but left many television viewers perplexed with his reaction, simply looking to the players’ box, shrugging, emptying a couple of balls out of his pocket and walking without expression to the net to commiserate with his opponent.

“It’s going to be my thing,” explained the Russian afterwards. I don’t celebrate my victories and that’s the way I like it.”

Medvedev was in the minority last week. We – and the UK’s sports fans – do have a victory to celebrate this week, albeit with a face mask on. The return of grassroots sport allied to the return of spectators to stadiums will give the nation a great boost and give hope to sports that were in grave danger of decline.

It has never been more important to connect and play.

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