Voices from closed stadiums: The corona crisis as a potential vehicle for sports development

Karin Andersson, Sara Karlén, Jens Radmann & Susanna Hedenborg
Dept. of Sport Sciences, Malmö University


Introduction and purpose

According to statistics, the Swedes are among the most active people within the European Union ­ sixty-nine percent claims to exercise regularly (European Commission 2018). The physical activity performed range from recreational walking to commercial gyms and organized team sports. The survey clearly illustrates that regular exercise is a part of everyday life for many. When the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) a pandemic, a large amount of the world’s population was confined by curfews and other restrictions of movement. Yet, the Swedish strategy – guidelines as opposed to a lockdown – rapidly caused strong reactions worldwide (Weible, Nohrstedt et al., 2020, 227). Although the media portrayal of Sweden has generally implicated that Swedes “go on as usual”, the relatively mild recommendations have had a tremendous effect both on individuals’ everyday navigation of physical activity, and, more broadly, on the conditions for sport organizations. Strikingly, a survey that looked into sport clubs in Sweden with large numbers of supporters (hockey, soccer, floorball, handball, and speedway), reveals that out of 140 clubs, every fifth organization currently has a debt with the Swedish Enforcement Authority (SVT Sport, 2020). Additionally, the Swedish Sports Confederation (SSC) has reported that approximately 1800 sport related events had to be cancelled because of the pandemic, and they estimate that the Swedish sport movement lost about 500 million SEK in revenues during spring 2020 (RF, 2020).

In order to gain a deeper understanding of how the governmental measures to limit the spread of corona virus affected physical activity, exercising habits, and the conditions for sport clubs, to both exercisers, sport supporters, and coaches, a project called “Voices from closed stadiums: The corona crisis as a potential vehicle for sports development”[1] was initiated. The purpose of the study is to report on how sport and exercise is affected, currently performed, and navigated both from a larger perspective – macro level – and on a lived individual micro level. The insights of the study will shed light on how class, age, housing, and gender have an impact on recreational habits, physical activity, and consumer choices, during the corona pandemic – vital data that maps the re-organization of everyday life during a crisis.

The study mainly engages with the following research questions:

      • Which impact does socio-economic status have on exercise habits during the corona pandemic in Sweden?
      • How has everyday life sport habits changed for exercising Swedes?
      • How are exercisers, athletes, organizers and supporters affected by the cancellation of matches, races, contests, and other gatherings?
      • Does the crisis trigger new ways of exercising and competing? If yes, will these persist after the pandemic?
      • Since physical spaces such as the fitness studio could now be considered risky environments, what alternative spaces are used to perform recreational activities?
Two football players greeting during Corona. Photo by Lars Bo Nielsen for Unsplash.

Methodology

The study is a mixed methods approach consisting of both quantitative and qualitative tools; an online survey and semi-structured interviews. The questionnaire has been filled out by  1134 respondents. It examines people’s physical habits and attitudes toward sport and physical activity during the crisis. Furthermore, the survey groups respondents according to age, gender, socio-economic status, housing, and if they consider themselves leisure-time exercisers, sport-supporters, (professional) athletes, or coaches. The study includes informants from twenty-three different sport-disciplines. Additionally, sixty-two semi-structured interviews have been conducted over zoom or telephone and transcribed verbatim.

Background: The Swedish Sports Landscape

To understand how sport practices in Sweden have changed during the corona crisis, it is meaningful to provide a brief overview of how and where sport is usually practiced. Firstly, the choice of sport activities in Sweden is generous and offered by non-profit organizations like SSC (Swedish Sports Confederation, founded in 1903) and a large number of commercialized businesses such as gyms. SSC has 3,1 million members and is further subdivided into 72 specialized sport federations that conduct organized club activities. Their philosophy is based on egalitarian values and support from members. Additionally, Olympic sport disciplines are largely represented by SOC (Swedish Olympic Committee), which, in turn, has 41 specialized federations. According to statistics, and unlike larger fitness chains in Sweden such as Sats and Worldclass, SSC and other sport clubs do not make significant profits. They rely on voluntary work, sponsorships, and donations. The popularity of their club activities reveals that sport is an integral part of Swedish popular culture. It follows that the immediate closure of various of these profit and non-profit facilities are likely to have changed everyday routines of its frequent visitors. What this means more exactly will be explored in the next section.

Findings

The results have been organized thematically to highlight some of the distinctive outcomes of both the survey and the interviews.

Activity Levels

Activity levels among respondents generally remain stable. Some even claim to be more physically active, due to having more spare time but also since physical activity has provided stress relief. Respondents over 60 years of age, who technically are considered a corona risk group, say they’re avoiding crowds and collective sport practices. However, they remain active through walking and jogging. Those who report less physical activity are, for example, students enrolled in sport programs, and supporters. One student says that “all sport sessions were cancelled, and my classes became virtual, therefore, I move much less, since I am only in front of the computer”. However, anyone who wants to follow the guidelines from the state might also miss out on trainings, “When you have to stay at home even with very mild symptoms, you miss out on all the common trainings with the team” (high school student). Some supporters say that their lifestyles have become more sedentary, since “jumping up and down on the stadium gallery” has been replaced by on-screen activities. Overall, practitioners of indoor sports were more affected by the governmental guidelines. Erik, a leader of a Judo club in Southern Sweden, says that all regular trainings, except one outdoor endurance session a week, had to be indefinitely cancelled, whereas a respondent active in outdoor orienteering describes an increased number of members in his club. This does not necessarily mean that former indoor exercisers are less physically active, but rather that their way of being physically active have changed.

CoronaVirus makes us wear mask everywhere, even for cycling workout. Marina Bay, Singapore. Photo by Victor He for Unsplash.

Spatial Relocation

Following rules of how many people may congregate in one space, as well as advice on avoiding public transportation, respondents needed to find new venues for physical activity. This caused some to undertake new outdoor activities such as OCR (obstacle course racing), orienteering, golf, and mountain biking. One respondent running a golf club reveals that their number of visits has increased by thirty percent since corona restrictions were instated, although the number of members remained the same. Prior enthusiastic gym goers found compromises such as outdoor life: “the workouts at the gym are paused, instead, I mainly spend time in nature, and exercise through everyday activities” (coach). Not only exercisers seem to find new spaces for their sport interest. Freja who is a dedicated sports supporter says “it has been a shift, shifting club-life to outdoor activities”. Many convey that they chose these activities since they were available in their immediate surroundings; spending time close to home also caused some to form a deeper connection to nature in their direct vicinity. Respondents were to some extent limited by their living situation. For instance, the weather in the north of Sweden did not always allow for outdoor activities.

Belonging

The measures to contain the contagion have inevitably influenced the possibility of both performing sports together and coming together to cheer sport. Generally, the data reveals that a majority find satisfactory substitutes such as running and digital activities. Among the investigated groups, supporters mostly mention aspects of belonging. Erik says, “it is ceremonial to be able to go to the stadium, I miss it, mainly the feeling of belonging, the collective feeling of cheering together”. Furthermore, the governmental guidelines put a strain on the possibilities of practicing supporter traditions. Ellen, a soccer fan, says that “it is difficult for me as a supporter to keep social distancing, since I like being in the middle of the crowd on the gallery, hugging and being pushed back and forth”. Within the group of coaches, some conveyed that a way of strengthening belonging to their community was to send out newsletters while the club was closed. Among exercisers, some miss joint classes at the gym and organized trainings, but most seem generally content with outdoor exercise or other less “risky” options, such as increased interaction on social media.

Corona and New Insights

Since corona affected most aspects of the sporting landscape, it has enabled a revaluation of habits, which offers room for lasting change. Oskar is a leader in a floorball club in the south of Sweden. He concludes that the changes in how his players practice now made him realize that, especially for children, the training could be more versatile after corona as well, “working out outdoors and mixing age groups is not an issue but rather something positive”. Several coaches mention that they have had to engage in new strategies of motivating fellow exercisers, which they wish to continue employing in the future. Isabelle, a leader of a running club in Stockholm says that the corona crisis and its restrictions has shown her that “the social part of performing sports in a group is just as important as the sport itself” – an aspect she had not previously considered. Some, mainly supporters, declare that they believe people will cherish live-sports more post corona. They also realize that being a supporter means more than watching a game – it is just as much about socializing together before and after events. Lastly, several respondents comment that the financial situation that came with the pandemic has shown them that sport organizations need to be more self-reliant.

Photo by Alyssum Mormino for Unsplash.

Discussion and conclusion

The first part of the study reveals valuable information concerning how exercisers, coaches, and supporters have navigated their physical activity and sport interest during the corona crisis. Overall, outdoor sport disciplines such as golf, orienteering, mountain biking, and obstacle runs have experienced an uplift in practitioners, whereas indoor sports, such as basketball, judo, and figure skating more or less had to cancel most activities.

There are crucial differences between the investigated constellations – exercisers, coaches, and supporters. Although physical activity per se does not seem to have changed dramatically in any group, factors such as profession, age, and housing play an important role. For instance, relocating organized trainings to new spaces is a central issue to, especially, fitness professionals (coaches). They describe frustration in keeping people motivated when trainings, tournaments, trips, and competitions are cancelled. They also feel insecure concerning the correct precautions – they feel overwhelmed when clients acquire information about how to work out safely during corona. Accordingly, it seems as if the role of being a coach has gone from acting as a sport expert to being a motivator of sorts, encouraging practitioners and offering moral support. Conversely, to exercisers, changing venue for sporting activities was not equally problematic. Many have enjoyed trying new sports, home workouts, or outdoor life in ways they had not done before. Among these respondents, those residing on the countryside generally describe the least changes – they continue taking walks in the forest, performing garden tasks, or going horseback riding. Some of these interviewees point out to have noticed an increased interest in outdoor life and even complain that there are presently too many people hiking outdoors.

Supporters convey that instead of traveling to games they are trying outdoor sport disciplines or recreational activities, which means that their navigation of physical activity strongly aligns with those of exercisers. However, a striking find is their relocation of social interactions. While many supporters claim to enjoy collective activities, others concurrently congregate outdoors with families, potentially to substitute the feeling of belonging that they otherwise gain from live cheering. Nevertheless, some young adults and supporters also admit to perform less physical exercise due to an increased level of on-screen activities. In addition, changing venues does not only reveal something about personal preferences but also speaks of changes in consumer behaviours. Some respondents and clubs needed new or simply different equipment to navigate their training. Also, due to canceled sport events and guidelines discouraging from traveling with public transportation, movement patterns that could have an environmental impact changed significantly. Economically, the pandemic has had unprecedented consequences for many sport organizations. Organizers of events in endurance sports have had to adapt or cancel their races, resulting in economic losses. Although many respondents communicated that they continued to pay memberships and buy souvenirs to support their sport clubs, the data indicates that economic losses have been severe, and concerns were raised that not all sport disciplines have the same opportunities of receiving financial aid.

The first results also provide a base for further research. The research team will now investigate certain outcomes more closely. Especially, a future endeavour is to use the material to generate new knowledge to prevent further crises within the sport landscape, as well as to develop sustainable solutions for the Swedish sport community. For example, the researchers are currently cooperating with fellow scientists affiliated with the Mistra Sport and Outdoors research program to analyze the results in relation to topics such as environmental sustainability regarding knowledge, transports, water and land usage, events,  equipment. and policy.

Copyright © Karin Andersson, Sara Karlén,Jens Radmann
& Susanna Hedenborg 2020

References

European Commission. 2018. Special Eurobarometer 472. Sport and Physical activity.
RF, Riksidrottsförbundet. 2020. Ekonomiska konsekvenser av corona/covid-19 för idrottsrörelsen 12 mars till 13 April 2020. Published on March 18.
SVT Sport. 2020. Var femte idrottsklubb är hos kronofogden. Published on August 24. https://www.svt.se/sport/corona-och-idrott/var-femte-idrottsklubb-hos-kronofogden
Weible, Christopher; Nohrstedt, Daniel; Cairney, Paul; Carter, David; Crow, Deserai;Durnová, Anna; Heikkila, Tanya; Ingold, Karin; Mcconnell, Allan; Stone, Diane. 2020. “Covid-19 and the Policy Sciences: Initial Reactions and Perspectives.” Policy Sciences 53: 225-241.

Research funders

Malmö university
Mistra

Research group

Susanna Hedenborg, Professor, research director, contact person
Karin Andersson, Research assistant, PhD Candidate
Karin Book, Senior Lecturer
Alexander Jansson, PhD Candidate
Sara Karlén, Research assistant
Lars Lagergren, Associate professor
Johan R Norberg, Professor
Aage Radmann, Senior Lecturer
Jens Radmann, Research assistant
Annika Rosén, Senior Lecturer
Daniel Svensson, Associate Senior Lecturer in Sport Management

Footnote

[1] The original name of this project is “Röster från en stängd idrottsvärld: Coronakrisen som en möjlig grund för utveckling”. The primary investigator of this project is professor Susanna Hedenborg together with a team of fellow researchers: professor Johan R Norberg, Dr. Lars Lagergren, Dr. Annika Rosén, Dr. Karin Book, Dr. Aage Radmann, Dr. Daniel Svensson, doctoral student Alexander Jansson, as well as three project assistants.
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