clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The eerie surreality of sports in the Covid-19 bubble

Many sports leagues have come back to TV in the past month. Only one has gotten it mostly right.

Adam Eaton of the Washington Nationals bats in a stadium full of empty seats on July 26.
Patrick Smith/Getty Images
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

On July 23, I turned on my cable box for the first time in months. Though I have never been a routine sports viewer, I was excited to watch the Washington Nationals and the New York Yankees play the opening game of the truncated 2020 Major League Baseball season. There was a normalcy to the idea of a televised baseball game that I had been craving without realizing it.

The game itself was largely unremarkable, until it wasn’t. The Yankees won 4-1, after the game was called in the sixth inning due to rain. But the way the game ended spoke, at least a little bit, to the sheer chaotic nature of sports in the age of Covid-19. The shortness of the 2020 baseball season — which will comprise just 60 games before the playoffs begin, compared to 162 in a regular season — means that there’s little room for rain delays to be made up later. Games that are halted in the sixth where one team has a lead will just become games won by that team, erasing one of the fundamental ideas of baseball: that any team can catch up, even in the bottom of the ninth, no matter how far behind they are and no matter how unlikely a comeback may be.

But even beyond the rain delay, there were other omens of the world we live in now. Dr. Anthony Fauci, who rose to prominence as one of the few people in the federal government who seemed to offer good advice during the earliest days of the coronavirus outbreak, threw out the first pitch. It went wide of the catcher’s mitt — like, incredibly wide — which seemed like the sort of symbol for America in 2020 that an editor might have cut from a fictional tale for being so obvious.

And then there were the stands. They were empty, outside of the occasional player who went to sit in them to practice social distancing. Instead of a crowd, the Nationals and Yankees played to a dull simulation of one, a burbling crowd noise that occasionally filtered through on the ESPN broadcast of the game. Every so often, the speakers in the stadium would play a ballpark favorite like “Red Red Wine,” but it would echo through the emptiness. Right from the start, MLB was perched on a cliff’s edge, trying desperately not to fall over.

And it didn’t even take a week before games started getting canceled and many people within the league expressed grave concerns about its safety measures. Even baseball, our most socially distanced sport (the pitcher and batter stand 60.5 feet apart from each other!), couldn’t shut out the world for long.

NBA: Philadelphia 76ers at Houston Rockets
The NBA has placed virtual “fans” in its stands for games. The effect is unsettling.
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

When I watch sports now, I am struck by how much the simple act of doing so stems from a desire to capture some semblance of my life before quarantine, when sports weren’t an everyday part of my life but I could watch them on TV whenever I wanted and frequently saw them playing in public places. You never notice how much something had simply become a wallpaper in your day-to-day existence until it’s stripped away.

The other day, for example, I watched a hockey game, not because I like hockey (I couldn’t tell you a thing about it beyond the broad basics), or because I liked either of the teams (the Columbus Blue Jackets and Tampa Bay Lightning), but because I wanted to have something on in the background to make it feel as if the world still exists. The seats in the arena were empty, covered with blue tarps to make it seem as though there weren’t supposed to be fans, as though there were never supposed to be fans. The game felt a little like a simulation in this context, like trapping two bugs in a jar and shaking it to make them fight.

The reason behind this emptiness makes sense both on the obvious level — it’s the best way to prevent the spread of Covid-19 — and on a perhaps less obvious level. Like several other professional sports organizations, the National Hockey League has instituted a “bubble” policy, wherein the players disappear into a quarantine zone that isolates them from all but their closest family and their teammates. The league has two of these bubbles, one in Toronto and the other in Edmonton. After a weeks-long period of frequent testing, the various teams involved are declared virus-free and can play. (If one team or another in the bubble comes to have a dramatic championship narrative this season, the movie made in 2050 or so will be amazing, I’m sure.)

So the emptiness becomes a way to protect not just fans but also players. Sports like hockey require close contact, so they require the isolation that eventually removes Covid-19 from the equation. The players of the NHL really are trapped in a jar, doing battle for those of us who shake it in the name of entertainment.

Of all professional leagues that have resumed play, only the National Basketball Association seems to have really thought through what it means to watch sports on television and how to present them from empty arenas. The league has constructed its own bubble in Orlando, at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex at Walt Disney World, often dubbed the “Disney bubble.” And within that bubble, both the league and its TV broadcasting partners have created something genuinely entertaining.

It helps, I think, that Americans often have a stronger sense of basketball as a sport played without a crowd already. Somewhere in your city right now, there is likely a pickup game being played among friends on a public court, to an audience of nobody, and should you drive by, it would feel normal and natural to see it (or, at least, it would have in pre-Covid times). Baseball used to have this sort of association for Americans, but the slow loss of large, empty spaces where kids might play games has caused that association to wither away.

But the absence of fans has also allowed basketball — always a kinetic sport full of big action and quick bursts of athleticism — to reach something of its televisual apex. Without having to account for fans on the sidelines that camera operators have to work around, the way the sport is filmed (which is particularly evident in replays from the sidelines) has become more fluid and dynamic.

In one game I watched, the replay camera pivoted at just the right point to capture a crucial shot from just the right angle, so we could watch the player’s hand release the ball at the right point. It was clearly computer-assisted — no human camera operator could move that quickly, that smoothly — but the ability of the camera to start right on the sideline before moving to center court without the clunkiness of working around spectators present during “regular” games felt subtly different from similar shots I’d seen in the pre-Covid era.

Not every decision the NBA has made is a good one. In particular, the presence of creepy, computer-animated “fans” in the stands creates a discombobulating uncanny valley effect. Sometimes they look like they belong in one of the NBA 2K video games from 2006 or so. (Some MLB teams have attempted to fill their seats with physical cardboard cutouts of fans. That effect is even eerier. I, for one, think more teams should follow the lead of some South Korean baseball teams and put stuffed animals in the stands.) And the efforts to recreate some of the sounds of a regular sports broadcast — occasional music, the rumble of a crowd — continue to feel slightly misguided to me. There’s a purity to just listening to athletes play that I wouldn’t mind more of a focus on.

But unlike MLB and the NHL, the NBA really does seem to have thought through how to minimize what it loses from not having fans present, and how to maximize what it gains. I never quite stop thinking about the surreal nature of watching sports during the coronavirus when watching an NBA game, but it’s much, much easier to focus on the game all the same.

Still, there are some things sports in isolation simply can’t recapture. Home-field advantage, for one, essentially disappears when there are no fans to cheer, and the excitement that builds organically in a tense game is muted, slightly, without the element of the crowd losing its mind at every twist and turn. Sports in the era of Covid-19 can feel almost normal, but never completely normal. They’re still dancing on that cliff’s edge.

One of my favorite genres of YouTube video is pop songs run through filters to make them sound like they’re playing in cavernous, empty public places. Perhaps the apex of this subgenre is Cecil Robert’s “Toto- Africa (playing in an empty shopping centre),” which delivers exactly what it promises on the tin.

Many videos of this ilk center on malls and shopping centers, but also popular are songs playing in the next room at a party or being heard from just outside the club. All kinds of music are represented, including this video, which includes a solid hour of Christmas carols and hymns you can listen to as if you were standing just outside of a church on Christmas Eve.

I first became obsessed with this type of video in 2017, in the immediate wake of Donald Trump’s election, when I felt an aching desire for something approaching normalcy in the face of an ever-intensifying news cycle. Hearing “Africa” in an abandoned mall felt at once like a way to return to my childhood in the “less complicated” ’80s and ’90s but also an acknowledgment that the place I imagined from my childhood had never really existed. It was just as full of anxiety and sadness as my adulthood was — I just wasn’t yet an adult to understand the stresses that kept people up at night.

Jia Tolentino, who wrote the definitive piece on this subgenre of YouTube video for the New Yorker, probably put it best. She wrote:

Our lives increasingly play out in virtual spaces: instead of going to malls, we surf on Amazon; many of us would happily forgo the mess of a party to stay home and flirt through an app. Listening to music, too, is now mostly frictionless, and this quality is why the little shadow world of music that Robert, allyson m., and others inhabit is so appealing to me. It’s nice to think of a handful of young people playing around on Ableton on their laptops, in their bedrooms, trying to reintroduce a sense of physical space into a listening environment of digital isolation: conjuring the sort of scenario in which, say, you’re down the hall from your older sibling who loves the Beach Boys, or in a place where, for a change, someone else controls the music—in a crowd, or at a mall, or in a pounding bathroom—someplace where you’ve taken the chance of being lonely in public, instead of retreating and clicking around alone.

I have thought of these videos often when watching sports these past few weeks, particularly baseball with its cavernous spaces full of echoing sound. Baseball is my favorite of the major American professional sports, not least because I love going to Dodger Stadium, spending way too much on hot dogs, and watching the sun slowly settle on the western horizon as the game enters its middle stretch. There is a contentment to this idealized experience, a place not unlike a movie theater or live performance venue where one’s own emotions and life can be put on hold, if only for a moment.

Televised sports have always been a simulacrum of that live experience, but at their best, they’re a very good one. Even if you never attend a live sporting event in your life, watching one on TV creates the idea that someday you might. But in the emptiness of these stadiums, as “Red Red Wine” plays to no one except those of us who might pretend nothing has changed, it is hard to escape the feeling that nothing might ever be the same again. There is some place we’d like to get back to, but at this point, we will no longer be able to do so without having been utterly changed.

Play ball.

Will you become our 20,000th supporter? When the economy took a downturn in the spring and we started asking readers for financial contributions, we weren’t sure how it would go. Today, we’re humbled to say that nearly 20,000 people have chipped in. The reason is both lovely and surprising: Readers told us that they contribute both because they value explanation and because they value that other people can access it, too. We have always believed that explanatory journalism is vital for a functioning democracy. That’s never been more important than today, during a public health crisis, racial justice protests, a recession, and a presidential election. But our distinctive explanatory journalism is expensive, and advertising alone won’t let us keep creating it at the quality and volume this moment requires. Your financial contribution will not constitute a donation, but it will help keep Vox free for all. Contribute today from as little as $3.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.