Here’s hoping sport remains locked down on the nation’s calendar

The tradition of sport having a relaxing effect is not a new one. On Christmas Day in 1914, a simple game of football was able to bring together fighting German and British troops for a temporary ceasefire. Nothing captures quite how transformative sport can be quite like that does.

Therefore, today, as we live through this pandemic, it is fair to say that the broadcasting of high-level sport has a huge impact on people’s mental health across the globe.

In the first lockdown, sport around the world was cancelled at amateur and professional levels and, while this may have seemed unimportant to some, for the many like me who live and breathe sport, it left a gaping hole in everyday life. As legendary manager Arsène Wenger put it, ‘a day without a football match seems empty to me’. Live sport has a unique power to captivate with its drama, passion and excitement.

Football was the first live sport to return to our screens, with the Premier League restarting behind closed doors and although the lack of crowds admittedly leaves games often seeming like training exercises, football’s return gave a much-needed lift to the national mood. Cricket followed closely and as an audience we felt as close to the action as we possibly could.

Thankfully, although lockdown prevents us from playing sport, at least we can still watch it. Sports fixtures are something to look forward to in otherwise depleted calendars. Not only that, but sport also stepped into the political vacuum to reflect important issues in wider society.

Post-lockdown, sport has provided an important platform for conversation on social injustice. Players kneel in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. On her way to the US Open title, Naomi Osaka wore masks showing the names of black victims of violence.

The Milwaukee Bucks of the NBA led an almost complete boycott of the sport, citing the systemic racism in the US as their reason for doing so. Lewis Hamilton, the only Black Formula 1 driver, capped an outstanding year in his sport by winning the BBC Sports Personality Award; in his acceptance speech, Hamilton called for greater diversity in the sport and in STEM subjects, to encourage more Formula 1 engineers to emerge from diverse backgrounds.

I know I am fortunate to have the facilities to have access to Netflix and Sky to watch sport and those outrageous additional charges for sporting events thankfully went away.

In cricket, the debate over having live cricket available to more people on terrestrial television has revived. This same debate could easily be used for football. Organisers have always been keen to maintain crowd sizes in grounds by not showing 3pm games on a Saturday but now that fans are still barred from the stadium, a larger number of people would be able to watch their team play every week if it was shown on free-to-air channels? I would support that.

The summer of 2016, in which the Olympics, Euro 2016 and Wimbledon were aired on terrestrial television saw higher viewing numbers than any subscriber-only sports events. Sport must ensure that it remains the lifeblood of the country as a whole.

Of course, many of the closest people around me just cannot understand why I would choose to have sport all of the time. But it is not just me. Sky has reported a rise in viewing figures. Sport is essential for the morale of a nation reeling from the pandemic effects.

In so many ways, sport captures both hearts and minds.  For centuries, sport has provided a distraction from all hardships. Despite the sometimes obscene amounts of money in professional sport, there is a reason for the correlation between great sporting teams and their economically deprived geographic roots. Sport is a great equaliser, nothing else has the power to bring people together from all walks of life in the manner that it does.

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Oscar Ress

February 2021
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