And the winner is… TELEVISION! Spectacle and sport in a pandemic


While wishing a plague on the plague, Covid-19 has been useful in one respect. In suddenly stopping normal service, it forced us to reconsider what once counted as normality. This reconsideration covers everything from commuting to communal dining. But one popular practice that has provoked an especially intensive rethink is TV sport viewing.

Not long before the metaphorical lights went out, ironic comments about the excessive availability of sport were quite common. Comedians Roy and HG’s dictum that ‘too much sport is barely enough’ was, in fact, accepted sport-media industry and sport fan wisdom.

Sport going off-air produced instant tales of psychological distress and laments that the withdrawal of live sport action was creating a vacuum in everyday lives. The ‘plug-in drug’ had cultivated a habit that for many was hard to shake.

It was not always thus. In the first half of the 20th century, when public service broadcasters were pioneering sport television in most countries, some commercial TV executives didn’t think that it would catch on.

Sports contests were, unlike drama or light entertainment, too unpredictable. Uneven matches, they thought, would be the equivalent of a murder mystery with a spoiler half way through the program.

Some leaders of sport organisations were no less cautious. What if live sport on television meant that fans would put their feet up at home rather than pay for the inconvenience of a spectacle with inferior sightlines?

Trading Audiences

That problem was quickly solved by trading sport audiences. Real-time outcome uncertainty was an advantage and dedicated fans would watch whatever the score. Live sport could sit in the schedule with plenty of content to fill broadcast space around it.

Television gave sport its biggest source of revenue by paying inflated prices for broadcast rights in return for drawing people to the screen at an appointed time for exposure to advertising. Charging a subscription for the privilege to watch premium sport followed.

Sport fans at the stadium still got the unique atmosphere and bragging rights for being there, plus big screens so they wouldn’t miss watching from home or in the pub too much. TV viewers got their own home studio screens and speakers so that they could simulate attendance, and paid directly or indirectly for entry at the ‘electronic turnstile’.

The outcome was increasingly slick coverage of sport events that acquired epic dimensions, a riot of movement and noise that could attract the attention even of channel-surfing viewers disconnected from sport. That big splash of sights and sounds projected its own importance and immediacy.

Everybody was happy, apart from fans excluded by rising ticket prices and high subscriptions for premium live sport. And some old-school sport lovers who resented their favourite games paying TV’s piper by changing their rules, playing gear and game times to suit it.

Pandemic Pause

But then came Covid-19, first meaning crowd-free contests and then blank sport screens. Sport fans desperately search for TV fare beyond endless replays of classic moments in sport history. The Belarusian Premier League instantly acquired a global audience, as a perverse reward for the ex-Soviet republic’s refusal to acknowledge the pandemic problem.

Documentaries like The Last Dance, a homage to basketball demi-god Michael Jordan, and Sunderland Til I Die about a failing English footbal team, helped fill the sport viewing void on TV streaming services.

When live sport began to return to screens across the world, it was greeted by empty stadia or drastically reduced crowds. Colourful, noisy sport spectacles transmuted into soulless contests played mostly in silence apart from player and coach swearing, the raw thud of collisions between bodies in contact sports, and some ambient noise.

Cardboard cut-outs of spectators with pasted on faces in the stands produced spot-the-celebrity jokes. Giant Zoom screens of fans at home reminded many white-collar professionals of the now-daily work routines they were trying to escape by watching sport on TV.

Enter the technical wizardry of the people who shape TV sport sound. If the sport crowd was absent it had to be invented, if depleted it needed to be enhanced. Digital samples of spectator sounds – mostly minus the abuse – were matched as much as possible to what was happening live in the stadium.

The sound-mixer-turned-conductor cranked up and compressed the noise here, softened and diffused it there. Multiple cameras panned and cut away, zoomed in and out in sync with the sampled sounds. All with the aim of simulation and stimulation in recreating memories of the pre-pandemic live TV sport experience.

Without such artifice, which was already well advanced before the pandemic, echo-ridden two-dimensional screen representations would be exposed, paradoxically, as inauthentic.

The Simulation Game

For the television sport viewer, the pandemic provided a salient lesson in media literacy. We were reminded, if we ever knew it in the first place, that live TV sport is a confection processed just like any BBC, HBO or Netflix drama.

It is a spectacle in which fans are acting out the drama, deeply dependent on the Greek chorus that constantly calls those on stage to account for their actions. Except in this case the chorus is organised into competing teams, and calls to conscience and ethics often drowned out by the urge to win by any means.

The pandemic has reinforced for sport fans accustomed to stadium ambience the importance of their roles as screen actors who pay to be seen. While those who watch from afar now appreciate how much they are in the hands of editors and technical operators to make it all feel real.

In the historic contest between sport and media, the Covid-19 Trophy went to television. In extra time to a fake soundtrack.

Originally published on,
September 19, 2020.
Copyright © David Rowe 2020
Twitter: @rowe_david


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