The future of live sport: exclusive and unworkable

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Marc Gasol of the Raptors challenges the kickoff with Derrick Favors of the New Orleans Pelicans in the first half of an NBA game at Scotiabank Arena on October 22, 2019 in Toronto.

Vaughn Ridley / Getty Images

The Miami Dolphins have a plan to welcome fans to games starting in September.

There won’t be as many – around 15,000 admitted to the 65,000-seat Hard Rock Stadium. They will be given entry times, which means that ticket holders will have to plan their arrival as a military maneuver. They will have to wear masks.

They will have to order their hot dogs online. Once the game is over, they will have to wait their turn to leave so that, as Dolphins general manager Tom Garfinkel says, “not all people congregate in a herd at the same time.”

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Do you know how long it will take to get 15,000 people out of a room if they have to leave one row at a time? Hours.

Where is the bathroom in this model? One person at a time? Will someone disinfect the dresser between uses? Or does everyone have to bring their own bucket?

This new vision of live entertainment is not only unachievable. It also seems deeply uncertain. It’s the equivalent of paying for airport security to and fro for six hours.

More than any of its competitors, the NFL does not need fans present to run its economy. TV contracts and league marketing agreements cover bills and more. Whatever the drop in income, it will be passed on to players. As long as there is football, club owners will continue to get richer.

But the NFL remains tied to the sports fan model because, well, because that’s how it has always been done. Now let’s try it the other way.

Before the world turned on its head in March, one of the favorite buzzwords of sports leaders on the corporate side was “experience”. You haven’t watched a game anymore. You discover a product of holistic fun that has more in common with Disney World than the local ice rink.

You no longer just buy tickets. You buy tickets in the section at will. You play interactive games in the lobby. You sign up for a new credit card. You drink craft beer. You buy a monogrammed jersey via the app in the arena and have it delivered to your seat.

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Most people are marketed for free all day. Athletes pay for this privilege.

It’s no longer enough to sell tickets and beer and be satisfied with the return. The arena is too expensive and must be rebuilt every 25 years, we are constantly told.

Real money from the door is made through private boxes and plush thrones. Everyone is there to balance the noise levels. Even then, the cost of any kind of seat became prohibitive for large sections of the population.

Going to a game is no longer a highlight of most childhoods. It has become a status marker reserved for elites. If you can get tickets for a Leafs or Raptors playoff game, people will know you know people. You are someone. It is more fun to tell friends that you went to the game than to actually go to the game.

This must be the reason why people are willing to pay impious sums to look at the sport in a lesser way.

In person, you get shock and fear. The scale of production, the size of the building, the number of people, the sound they make. It is exciting. But then the game begins.

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Often you cannot see exactly what is going on. When something happens, you’re not exactly sure what it was. You were too busy tying a bag of popcorn.

There is a fun game I like to play in the press box called Who’s on their phone ?. Around the middle of the second period or the start of the sixth round, just about everyone.

This is one of the ironies of our time – that people pay to watch the game live so they can watch it on a much smaller TV than the one they have at home. Or maybe they’re texting friends to let them know they’re at the game they’re not watching.

Paradoxically, sport is more immersive when viewed from your sofa. You have advertisers who tell you what’s going on. There are reruns and reminders of what is what and who is who. There is a fridge nearby and no queue for the toilet.

Television is the real “experience” of sport because it offers more than what your eyes can see a few hundred meters away.

This experience is so much better now than it was 20 years ago that the two cannot be compared. Affordable home theater has changed everything.

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In 20 years, we assume that we will wear virtual reality glasses and watch the football game from a quarterback perspective or something like that. Why would you choose a seat in the ionosphere at the top of the stadium over it?

The main advantage of being there is the community. There is something magical about watching sports in a crowd when the game is important and everyone is in it.

But last year’s Raptor championship showed that the community and the atmosphere can be replicated anywhere. Night after night, the real buzz at the Scotiabank Arena took place outside, in the fan zone of Jurassic Park. Waiting in line for hours to get in has become a badge of honor above the rating on your mom’s law firm tickets.

In years, a generation of Canadian children will tell stories about “being there” when Kawhi directed The Shot. They were simply not inside the building, nor even in the city.

Despite the best intentions of the Dolphins and others, we will try a version of this idea outside but still in place for the next moment. We do not know when the pandemic will end. We continue to operate on the principle that it is finished and all we have to do is harden it for a few difficult months. It is not at all certain. We could be there, or a variant of that, for years.

If so, the traditional model of sports viewing is over.

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Two trends would then accelerate. The first is that watching live play becomes accessible only to the wealthy. The easiest way to reduce your audience to one-fifth of what it once was is to charge five times more. All of a sudden, everyone gets the experience of the private box.

The other is that the rest of us – the big unwashed ones – get used to the idea that sport is purely virtual. We all know a fan who lives and dies with Arsenal or Juventus and who has never been to London or Turin. Is a Montreal hockey fan less so if he has never attended a Canadiens game? Once, you would have said yes. But not anymore.

If things continue in this direction long enough, the teams will reconsider how to fit their glasses. They may no longer need a billion dollar headquarters that is obsolete soon after it ends. Instead, they can build a cheap soundstage, respond to everything to broadcast considerations and generate the atmosphere by computer. Maybe they will invite a few hundred big cats to watch the series recording for unpleasant sums.

Likely? Not yet. Possible? Absolutely. Everything is on the table now.

If the pandemic lasts long enough, it will be the end of all kinds of things that we are used to. Which means we can start whatever comes next.

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