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Sports Without Spectators

August 5th, 2021 by dk

The 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games are concluding this weekend with no fans allowed to witness the competitions. A decades-long trend has finally reached its conclusion. The tail of television broadcasting now wags the dog of spectator sports.

I remember racing home from school to catch the last inning or two of Chicago Cubs baseball games. Announcer Jack Brickhouse always reminded viewers that thousands of bleacher tickets went on sale every game day, but that his broadcast would be “the next best thing to being here.”

I would watch the game, wishing I could be at the park. Wrigley Field had fewer lights and electronic gizmos than any ballpark in the league. The Cubs never had a night game until 1988 because its owners refused to install lights. Scores were updated manually by a person inside the scoreboard who may or may not have been using binoculars to steal signals from the opposing team.

There was no substitute for being there.

Broadcasters made sure of it. If a sporting event failed to sell a certain number of tickets, team owners reserved the right to black out a local broadcast. Watching from home shouldn’t be considered as good as being there.

My, how things have changed. The latest multi-million dollar upgrade at Autzen Stadium installed two massive video screens and a much-improved sound system. Fans inside the stadium will see instant replays on the largest screen in college sports. Tailgaters in the parking lot will watch another screen that’s only slightly smaller.

The goal now is to match the comfort and convenience the audience would have at home. The stadium experience is different now only during commercial breaks and bathroom runs. I’m sure they must be working on those.

I wonder what it’s like for the athletes, knowing that only some in the stands are actually watching their performance directly. Many have their eyes fixed on the Jumbotron. Some will be talking or texting with their phones during. The whooping and hollering is still synchronized, so maybe that’s enough. But I wonder.

The biggest sporting event of the world will now be roughly equivalent to a moon landing. The only witnesses will be the other participants. Everyone else will experience it through a screen. Am I alone worrying that people won’t see the value of showing up for anything, once pixelation replaces participation?

We can stand against this trend because we have Hayward Field, which is now as modern as the sports experience comes, but still not overly digitized. The stadium remains in a neighborhood, surrounded by unrelated functions. It’s not like Autzen and PK Park, where everything nearby exists only to serve the stadiums’ crowds.

Let’s keep Hayward Field firmly in the context of our everyday lives. We should go about our business, willingly oblivious to the events inside its luminous shell. Or we can stand outside, interpreting each cheer as if we were there, because we are.

Wouldn’t it be great if a few hundred seats were always available on the day of each event? It’s not a new idea, but still a good one.


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and archives past columns

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