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Sports History When There Are No Sports

Analyzing How the Sports World is Reacting and has Reacted During a Pandemic

For those of us that are sports fans, this is weird time.  Heck, for those of us that aren’t sports fans this is uncharted territory.  But one thing our modern society has always been able to rely on is sports to carry us through. 

People are drawn to sports because they are a microcosm of our society.  There are feel-good, human-interest stories that reveal and continue through every game, match, and contest.  It’s easy to watch and root for a team that wears your city on their jersey; even more so when your city, state, and country are going through a crisis. 

Today is March 24th and the world is experiencing a crisis of fear and isolation as a result of the COVID-19 virus.  As of today, the NBA, NHL, and MLB have suspended operations; golf in general, including the Masters and the PGA Championship, has been postponed until further notice; college basketball and the NCAA March Madness tournament have been cancelled; and the Summer Olympics in Tokyo are delaying the games for 12 months into 2021. 

Sports broadcasts have resorted to news on the NFL offseason and replays of classic games.  The sports sections in newspapers have little to nothing to report on.  And golf seems to be the only recreational sport that is permitted – albeit you must never touch the flag stick and ride in your own individual carts. 

Today, we take a break from Best.Day.Ever.’s scheduled “Generating ROI on Company-Owned Event Tickets” to bring you a blog post about sports in times of crisis.  Let’s look at how the sports world has responded through various times of conflict and panic in the last century or so. 

Great Depression | 1929 – 1933 

Heading into this crisis that was sparked by a massive sell-off in the markets, baseball reigned supreme and college football was launching into a new era sparked by conference alignment and heated rivalries. 

Sports continued to be played, despite an intense struggle to draw fans that had little to no disposable income.  This drew new levels of frustration from teams, as many had recently built stadiums during the peak years of the Roaring Twenties.  Reports of attendance dropping by more than 40% forced players to take pay decreases during the same time that Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig were competing for a home run crown. 

A young National Football League was also suppressed, with the final game of the Chicago Bears season only capturing the attention of 700 in-person fans.  And yet, some good still came from sports – a game between the Notre Dame All-Stars against the New York Giants drew 55,000 fans to the Polo Grounds in NYC and raised more than $110,000 for the Committee on Unemployed.  This marked an important transition that helped galvanize fans and paved the road for the NFL to become one of the premier sporting attractions in the country. 

In essence, sports provided an escape from reality during this period of sadness and turmoil.  It was in 1932 that the Babe had his most iconic moment, calling his shot before blasting a home run in the 1932 World Series.  Millions of people tuned in to the radio broadcast as American Jesse Owens won four gold medals at the Summer Olympics in Berlin.  Los Angeles, LA (summer) and Lake Placid, NY (winter) became just the second and third Olympic host cities in United States history, and despite the heavy financial undertaking it took to put the games on, Los Angeles became the first ever city to turn a profit. 

And when FDR introduced the New Deal and associated programs like the Works Project Administration, the country was to embrace the proliferation of sports that would ensure.  Between 1935 and 1941 alone, the WPA spent about $1 billion on various recreation and sporting facilities through more than 40,000 projects and initiatives. 

Source: Cultural History of the United States 

World War II | 1941 – 1945 

Fast forward a decade or so, and America is once again involved in a precarious situation, being pulled into the great world war following Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor.  Football had been gaining in popularity, baseball was still America’s sport, and basketball, boxing, horse racing, and hockey had core audiences that attracted millions.   

But resources would be scarce during war time – most notably, athletes.  Able bodied men ages 18 to 35 were being drafted and called upon to serve their country.  MLB considered suspending their season, and all racing sports were banned for the duration of the war to allow gas and rubber to be used in Europe and the Pacific.  350 colleges and universities had to suspend athletic programs including football until the war concluded.  The NFL lost more than 1,000 players, coaches, and referees to the forces 

To keep baseball going, Philip Wrigley, the owner of the Chicago Cubs, put together the All-American Girls’ Professional Baseball League.  It consisted of 15 Midwestern teams and lasted through the mid-fifties.  Additionally, several players came out of retirement to keep the MLB schedule going. 

To keep the NFL viable in the state of Pennsylvania, the Pittsburgh Steelers merged with the Philadelphia Eagles to form the SteaglesThe following year, the Steelers joined with the Chicago Cardinals to become the Card-Pitt Combine. 

The National Basketball League, which was founded in 1937 and was at the time the premier professional league, struggled to find bodies to sustain the league during this time.  It opened the door for a rival league, the American Basketball League to open immediately following the war, and by 1949 the two leagues would merge to form the National Basketball Association (NBA). 

One crucial element of this time was the migration of the nation’s most athletic bodies to the armed services.  Teams were formed across all divisions of the armed services, and it is thought that these games were as competitive and entertaining as their professional counterparts.  Truly, sports helped galvanize and bond the troops together during a time that community and brotherhood was needed most. 

Source: Pearl Harbor Visitors Bureau & Warfare History Network 

Vietnam War | 1955 – 1975 

Off the tails of WW2 launched the cold war, a time in which Americans lived in fear of and against the widespread adaptation of communism, notably led by the USSR and the People’s Republic of China.  A war broke out between North and South Vietnam that brought communist led parties to defend the northern territories along with the guerrilla warfare specialized Việt Cộng, against the anti-communist backed allies, including the United States of America. 

For the third time this century, able-bodied men would be subject to the draft, although not the extent that they were in WWII. 

This period was widely considered a great era for sports.  The rise of the baby boomers lent an audience size that the country had never seen before.  Here is a look at some of the landmark sporting events that took place: 

  • UCLA Basketball, led by legendary head coach John Wooden, won ten (10) NCAA Tournament Championships.  The team featured future NBA All Stars Lew Alcindor / Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bill Walton. 
  • Cassius Clay / Muhammad Ali put a beat down on Sonny Liston twice (1964 & 1965)Floyd Patterson twice (1965 & 1972), Joe Frazier (1974), and George Forman (1974). 
  • The American Football League merged with the National Football League (1966) just in time for Broadway Joe Namath to personally guarantee and back up a NY Jets victory in Super Bowl III (1968) 
  • The “M&M Boys” – Micky Mantle and Roger Maris – played for the NY Yankees and terrorized opposing pitchers, including a historic 1961 season in which Maris broke Babe Ruth’s single-season HR record. 
  • The New York Knicks won their only two NBA Championships (1970 & 1972), while the Boston Celtics collected twelve titles in this period alone. 

Sports served as a common place for people to retreat to when the pressures of war were simply too much to bear.  Yet at the same time they embodied many of the social story lines that came to engulf the daily narrative of this era.   

For example, two of the athletes above – Cassius Clay and Lew Alcindor – converted to Islam early in their playing careers.  As a result, they were no longer eligible for the draft.  For Clay in particular this was viewed with an enormous level of vocal disagreement and criticism as a “draft dodger.  He would be stripped of his titles and lose his boxing license and many years of his prime – going without a fight from March 1967 through October 1970 or ages 26 to 29. 

The NFL took the flip side, at least publicly, by embracing the war and patriotism at large and featuring American Flag and Air Force Jet displays during pregame ceremonies.  That said, behind closed doors, NFL team owners would use their clout so that players could avoid the draft by joining local reserve units instead.  Perhaps the owners were still traumatized by the shape their league had been in during WWII. 

Source: Wikipedia & Slate 

9/11 | 2001 

The single deadliest enemy attack on US soil happened September 11th, 2001.  If you’re reading this, I’m sure you remember the details.  The damage: almost 3,000 lives lost; over 25,000 injuries; and $10 Billion in infrastructure damage caused. 

Many teams and leagues were immediately faced with a tough decision – to keep playing and let sports unite people in the wake of tragedy, or let the country mourn and grieve without distraction. 

Here is a brief look at the decisions some of these organizations made: 

  • The MLB called off games through September 16th of that year.  The Yankees would go on to the World Series but lose to the Arizona Diamondbacks. 
  • The NFL postponed that weekend’s games and tacked them onto the end of the regular season.  As a result, the Super Bowl was pushed into the first week of February for the first time, a position it now holds with regularity.  The Patriots would go on to win the Super Bowl over the Rams that year for Tom Brady’s first ring. 
  • The 2001 Women’s U.S. Cup – an international soccer tournament – was outright cancelled. 
  • NCAA Football cancelled games scheduled for that weekend, and while some were rescheduled for later in December, many were never made up.  Miami would go on to beat Nebraska in the Rose Bowl for the National Championship. 
  • The PGA Tour cancelled the World Golf Championship event at Bellerive Country Club in Missouri.  This was the first time in five years that the Tour would cancel an event.  

The above is just a small sampling of the cancellations.  While on the flip side, sports maintained their truly unique ability to bring people together.  ESPN has put together a great video collection of marquee moments that do a fantastic job illustrating the impact the sports world had during this traumatic time.  Click here to access it. 

Covid-19 | Present Day 

As we sit here today, the sports world is in uncharted territory.  Traditional sports as we know them are nonexistent without any remarks for when they will resume.  For the first time ever, we do not have sports to carry us through. 

And sports fans around the world are chomping at the bit, getting by with replays of classic games and NFL free agency news that would otherwise be stale within a 24hour news cycle.  Heck… the Washington Wizards and Capitals are simulating what was left of their respective seasons via NBA 2k and NHL20 video games so that they can stream live broadcasts of the newly created content.  SportsTechie reported on this here and has included other updates detailing how the sports world is evolving right now. 

Speaking of video games, many thought eSports would be exempt from the current state of things given their ability to be played remotely.  Unfortunately, the NBA 2k league has suspended operations, and many other prominent leagues and tournaments entered a brief hiatus of play.  These groups, like traditional sports, rely on in-person audiences to buy tickets, merchandise, and food/beverage.  In short order a few organizations were able to figure out how to redesign their leagues and become “online only” — with the Overwatch League, a prominent team-based first-person shooter game, set to resume their season this weekend.  For what it’s worth, Best.Day.Ever. will be launching our proprietary gamification software into the eSports world this weekend as well.  Contact us for more details if you’re interested. 

 

These are tough times with a lot of loss felt across the globe.  For all the good sports embody by bringing people together, the cost of continuing to hold competitions certainly outweighs the positives.  And we at Best.Day.Ever. commend the leadership of all the organizations that made the right call when faced with a difficult decision to play or not to play. 

But we will get through this.  And just like in the weeks following 9/11, sports will have a new meaning when they are able to resume.  We look forward to that day and hope the anticipation for sports as we have never experienced them before carries you through this time. 

Stay safe everyone.

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