It is obvious to everyone that the pandemic has sidelined almost all sport activity that would have been eagerly reported in our news and video media. Americans others around the world have a thirst for constant coverage. In addition, competitive events are a major driver of revenue for professional leagues, as well as broadcast and cable television outlets. When the chances that teams would meet normally began to vanish, the sense of doom was apparent for the thousands of players, merchandisers, leagues and sports journalists. And, of course, there are millions of fans everywhere who are mourning over the possible loss of whole seasons.
But the assumption of disaster is not completely justified. True, there is obviously far less play-by-play of everything from soccer to baseball. Live (but not archival) coverage is mostly limited to golf or Korean baseball. But most sports reporting is not just about what is happening on the field.
Sports journalism is actually organized around narratives of competition, with a standard subset of reliable storylines: games from the record books to recall, players moving up or down, off-season trades made for strategic or financial reasons, narratives of personal triumph over hardship, reports of the wounded pride of those who have been benched, or news of clubhouse rivalries that have gone public. And there can always be noisy discussions about which city, college or high school gets rightful bragging rights for its teams. When all else fails, virtually any unbridled hubris from a sports superstar is good for a few thousand words or an hour of sports talk. These kinds of themes are what continue to occupy news sites and mass media talkers, who would no more think of giving up their time slots than turning in their press passes.
Sports enthusiasts and lovers of romance novels share more than you might think.
I say all of this as someone who rarely pays attention to sports coverage. But its so ubiquitous it is hard to miss. Among others, The New York Times has hardly noticed that no one is playing anything. And then there is the recent biography of Robert Iger (The Ride of a Lifetime, 2019), former CEO of Disney-ABC. He reminds his readers that the greatest sports producer in television history structured every event around the idea of an unfolding tale of triumph against long odds. Roone Arledge at ABC set the mold for television with Wide World of Sports, where a younger Iger worked as a lieutenant. There would be no relying on just the action of the athletes to report. There was always more drama in a Jamaican bobsled team, the humble backstory of a figure skater, or fog that has shut down an olympic event. Later in his career Arledge would easily move into new realms, like a spectacular Frank Sinatra special in Madison Square Garden, or managing ABC’s growing News Division.
The real point is that sport is but one narrow category of narrative, and narrative always outlasts its subjects. Sports enthusiasts and lovers of other narrative forms–romance novels, for example–share more than you might think. The standard tropes remain key to understanding both. Villains are to be identified, their victims pitied, and heroes need to show up to save the day. There are usually fools as well, but it’s usually enough that the just are. Throughout a story, character remains dominant and defines what will happen at a certain plot point. And, of course, these roles can change. New events always pose a risk to a hero’s stature. And villains are made to be reformed.
So if there is a ‘deep structure’ to sports portrayed on television or elsewhere, it is surely the durability of the story form. It’s the structure of almost everything we know. Those old afternoon “soaps” on ABC and it’s Monday Night Football have more in common than we might think.