March 11th, 2020 will always be known to me as the start of the pandemic in the US. This was the day that the NBA’s season was cancelled after Rudy Gobert, a player on the Utah Jazz, tested positive for coronavirus. This, along with the cancellation of March Madness, the delay of the MLB season, and nearly every other professional sport being called off, left sports networks and news websites like ESPN in a difficult position. They went from one of the most news-heavy times of the year to radio silence in the span of a couple weeks. What could they use to fill the headlines of their websites and the hours of their 24/7 news channel without any sporting events occuring? The answer is that they had to get creative. From reruns of famous sports games to documentaries like The Last Dance to hosting an NBA 2K tournament for bored NBA players, it was clear they were desperate for content. They even brought back “ESPN 8 The Ocho”, a reference to the movie Dodgeball mocking how many channels ESPN has accumulated. The Ocho highlights some of the most obscure sports around, including cornhole, sign spinning, and putt-putt. Looking at their website in the early weeks of the pandemic was a sad reminder of the state of the world. The world was experiencing an unprecedented lack of sports at a time when distractions were what people needed most to escape from the grim reality of the pandemic. ESPN, along with every other company, had their fair share of the “In these trying times” advertising, because nothing is more reassuring than hearing a multi-billion dollar company tell you everything is going to be okay. Eventually, they realized that what people really wanted was some form of entertainment, even something as simple as a celebrity Madden tournament.
This wealth of time and space freed up by sports also led sports networks to invest more into the rapidly rising field of esports. Esports were not hit nearly as hard as most other sports because they are online by nature. In the last decade, esports has skyrocketed in popularity, even having its own page on ESPN now. Esports have traditionally been only for younger people, the generation that grew up playing video games, but now, many sports fans from older generations were introduced due to the pandemic. According to Penn Today, Twitch, an Amazon-owned streaming platform mainly used for gaming, increased its viewership numbers by a third from March to April of this year. Esports is now a billion dollar industry, so it is no surprise that traditional sports websites are trying to get involved.
Another way that ESPN and other sports sites adapted this year was by embracing the Black Lives Matter movement and joining the trend of big companies condemning racism and promoting equality. Stories of players experiencing racism or protesting police brutality made it to the front page of sports websites far more often than usual. This is due to both a mix of them trying to seem more progressive and supportive in the public eye and the lack of other content to write about as I mentioned earlier. Athletes across the country were using their newly gained free time to attend protests, start charities to bring the killers of George Floyd to justice, make voting easier like Lebron James’ organization ‘More than a Vote’, and promote equality in other forms. Since the majority of athletes in the NBA and NFL are black, the leagues themselves even began to join the cause by allowing NBA players to add social justice phrases to the back of their jerseys and NFL players to add them to the back of their helmets. It has even gone so far as having games of the NBA playoffs being boycotted. Companies like Nike have also gottne involved like with this ad, released in July. It has become clear that this social justice movement, and the pandemic which accelerated its growth, has had a huge impact on the sports world, and it is not going anywhere until real change begins.
Now that it has been several months, the world has begun to reopen and sports have slowly made their way back. Baseball is playing their season without fans. The NBA and NFL have begun their playoffs with all players living in highly contained bubbles in Orlando and Canada respectively. The Champions League finished its season in Europe. The NFL played its first game last night with a few fans allowed in the stadium. Golf and tennis have continued tournaments with no fans present. All of these leagues have successfully avoided the virus (with a few exceptions), making the sports world feel almost normal again. A debate has arisen with colleges reopening about whether collegiate sports should even be happening with so many colleges going online for the semester. At this point, it seems as though most collegiate leagues are either playing only teams in their conference or not playing at all. I respect colleges for making this decision because while college sports bring in a ton of revenue, it is not worth risking the health of their students. For the sports that have resumed, innovations like the NBA’s virtual fans have applied the internet to sports in new ways. Looking back on the role the internet had in sports related entertainment during the pandemic, it is easy to tell how different it would have looked had there been a similar situation 50 years ago. The ease at which information can travel due to the internet has allowed sports websites and fans all over the world to stay connected and share their love of sports, even when sports themselves are unable to continue. From the new types of content seen on ESPN to the rise in popularity of streaming and esports to the unification of athletes combatting racism online, it is clear that the internet is the reason the sports world was able to adapt and survive everything 2020 has thrown its way.