‘Am I desperate enough to watch illicit ultimate fighting?’: diary of a sports obsessive in lockdown

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With TV sport firmly on the bench, can Zoom darts, Ukrainian table tennis and backyard basketball help armchair fans get their fix?

For fans of televised sport, there will always be that golden Sunday, in July last year, when the broadcast of a topsy-turvy Wimbledon final overlapped with a British Grand Prix and England’s blockbuster victory in the Cricket World Cup. Oh my Djokovic: an unimprovable time to be an armchair spectator, an afternoon of channel-hopping and ad-dodging, hurrying wees and tea brews, juggling screens and streams and replays till we sweated like athletes ourselves.

Unthinkable, then, that 10 months on, the sport schedules would be empty. Wimbledon 2020 is off. The cricket season has been picked apart. Everything from motorsport to football to darts has been put on hold while the world deals with coronavirus.

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For fans of televised sport, there will always be that golden Sunday, in July last year, when the broadcast of a topsy-turvy Wimbledon final overlapped with a British Grand Prix and England’s blockbuster victory in the Cricket World Cup. Oh my Djokovic: an unimprovable time to be an armchair spectator, an afternoon of channel-hopping and ad-dodging, hurrying wees and tea brews, juggling screens and streams and replays till we sweated like athletes ourselves.

Unthinkable, then, that 10 months on, the sport schedules would be empty. Wimbledon 2020 is off. The cricket season has been picked apart. Everything from motorsport to football to darts has been put on hold while the world deals with coronavirus.

What are we left with? How are fans, broadcasters and sportspeople themselves coping with the dearth of live competition on TV? On a recent Sunday evening, the hero of last summer’s Cricket World Cup, Ben Stokes, agreed to take part in a virtual grand prix that was broadcast at primetime on Sky. It was a kind of high-end Mario Kart that, with some squinting, looked almost as good as the real thing. But it was fatally devoid of risk. The seriousness of the contest never fully recovered after a restless Stokes started speeding backwards around the track, colliding with drivers coming the other way. One of the cars was piloted by Liam Payne. I decided then that virtual sports were not going to cut it for me.

Ben Stokes taking part in a virtual grand prix in April. Will he catch Jenson Button? Photograph: F1 Esports

For a while I managed my cravings for sports programming – 15 hours a week, pre-pandemic – by taking in a diet of football documentaries, season-in-review DVDs and YouTube clips of outrageous or obscure goals from years gone by. A striker for Brighton, I remembered, vaguely, had scored a last-minute goal with his penis in 2019. I watched the clip several times.

The documentaries were more nourishing, especially the multi-hour Netflix series Sunderland ’Til I Die that charted, in immaculate turn-by-turn detail, the fortunes of the north-east club as it moved between the lower leagues. Viewers were introduced to fans for whom watching footie was more than just a diversion, it was a crutch. I was especially taken by a diehard called Michelle Barraclough who hadn’t missed a Sunderland game in years.

I called up Barraclough, one afternoon, to ask how she was coping. She’d watched something like 20 hours of live sport a week, before the lockdown, and had now gone a fortnight without. The country’s response to the coronavirus, she told me, had made her question her hero-worship of footballers in the past. “Football feels very small in the grand scheme of things,” she said. “People can’t see their families. I haven’t seen my five-year-old granddaughter since the lockdown started. If I told anyone, ‘Oh, I’m missing the football,’ they’d probably give me a slap.”

There was a pause. But are you missing the football, I asked? “Oh God, yeah,” she said. “Massively. Massively.”

I was, too. I’d heard there were armchair fans out there who were looking east for their fix. Leagues had been suspended in England, Scotland, France, Germany, Italy and Spain. But not in Belarus, where the Premier League season kicked off in late March. A team from the outskirts of Minsk called Energetik (they’d been rechristened to honour the Belarusian state energy company) won the opening game of the season 3-1. Energetik then went on to beat the incumbent league champions and had a chance to go top of the league, if they could beat their local rivals, Minsk.

‘An afternoon of Ukrainian table tennis was like watching events from space.’ Illustration: Gym Class/The Guardian

I watched the derby live. Energetik scored in the first half. They had a player sent off in the second. They won the game in injury time, their goalie running the length of the pitch to celebrate with his teammates while, at my end, in my bedroom in London, I gave my laptop a celebratory waggle and clicked to close the small pop-up window I’d been watching in. One of the gambling websites, Bet365, held streaming rights to the Belarusian league and this was the only way to watch along: a square of video the size of a couple of postage stamps, surrounded by flashing sports odds and gaudy ads for an Irish-themed casino game called Spin O’Reely.

Production-wise, it wasn’t quite what I was used to: there was no commentary, only the sound of huffing players and (crystal clear) the Energetik coach screaming angry criticism at his players and the ref. Even so, I found myself looking forward to the next round of fixtures, in a week’s time.

“You’re watching football from Belarus? Getting your hit wherever you can find it, eh? You’re like someone who’s run out of single malt whiskey and has started drinking hand sanitiser.” This was James O’Brien, the LBC radio presenter, who I’d called up at home. O’Brien, who used to watch about eight hours of live sport a week, was one of the first to wonder aloud what its absence would be doing to the nation’s mental health, and I was curious to know how he was managing. “I’m not watching Belarusian football, no,” said O’Brien, “but there is a massive gap that’s been left and nothing is quite filling it.”

Energetik take on Minsk in the Belarus Premier League in March. Photograph: Sergei Grits/AP

On his radio show, he said, he was hearing from dozens of people every day as they described their lives in this strange and unsettling period. “And this has really come across to me, speaking to people, how hard it has been to find moments of mental space. I see now that sport was one of those doorways to a clear mind. I realise what value it had, emotionally. Because there was the distraction of the sport itself – but, almost as important, there was the comfort and reassurance that the sport was there.” He said he still found himself flicking to “the 400s” – the sports channels on Sky – just in case.

What else was still showing live on TV and online? There was Australian horse racing, but it didn’t start till the middle of the night. Malaysian volleyball? Russian ice hockey? I settled, in the end, for an afternoon of Ukrainian table tennis, following the progress of a pale and furious young player called Vadim Smetenko, who happened to be on a winning streak that day. The physically distanced players squeaked around a leisure centre, footage of the matches shot using a fixed camera above the table, the sound coming in and out, and the feed occasionally rippling with distortion. It was all a little like watching events from space.

Soon it was time to watch Energetik play their next fixture. It was a bleak affair, and not only because they were beaten 2-0 by a team called Torpedo. “I’m not sure,” O’Brien had said, “that Belarusian football is a market you want to be supporting at the moment. What, have they discovered something about coronavirus the rest of us haven’t?” He was right. Belarus was currently the only country in Europe with an active football competition. The country did not seem to have any special handle on the problem of coronavirus; its sports administrators had just decided to carry on regardless. The country’s president, Alexander Lukashenko, made the questionable claim that sport should not only be allowed to continue but that it “is the best anti-virus remedy”. The chief of Fifpro, the world footballers’ union, had described the situation as “not comprehendible”. Wishing Energetik well, I decided to let the Belarusian Premier League carry on without me.

Watching sport, you can be irrational, or elated, or fuming angry, or goosebumpy. And that’s why we need it

A handful of other hold-out sports bodies had been refusing to bow to the pandemic. The Ultimate Fighting Championship, a mixed martial arts competition based in the US, was preparing to build a ring on a remote private island, in order to avoid stay-at-home orders and continue staging bouts. The pro-wrestling federation, WWE, had somehow secured “essential” business status from a sympathetic governor in Florida and would thus be able to continue some degree of live broadcasting. Other sports sought to push through the lockdown in a milder way, embracing the challenges posed by the moment and tweaking their rules and settings to become isolation-friendly.

They were putting on internet darts, for instance. A group of top players had agreed to play from their homes, with a webcam pointed at their dartboards, earpieces telling them when to throw, a tablet showing the scores, and two referees watching along on Zoom. The results were broadcast in split-screen on YouTube.

And I tried to love it. I so admired internet darts, for the effort involved, and the example being set. But all I was really watching was a pair of physically distanced dartboards and the jerky appearance of arrows that had been thrown by an invisible hand.

Meanwhile I’d been learning a lot about the anatomy of a sports obsession. To be properly compelling, I knew now, sport had to be live. It had to have consequences. And it had to be human. I wanted to watch human achievement, but more than that I wanted to watch humans achieving.

Perhaps I would find what I was missing in the world of basketball. The sport’s governing body, the NBA, had organised a stay-at-home free-throw competition, with male and female pros competing against each other from their gardens and driveways while a studio host kept score. They leapt about. They chuntered and teased each other, completing nifty, unlikely throws from all angles until one of them triumphed. I didn’t have the right subscription channel to see the action as it happened, so I found the replays online and followed along as if they were live – squinting where necessary to avoid accidentally discovering the results in the page furniture, and eventually leaning a book against the bottom of my screen to hide the absolute spoiler pit that was the comments section.

‘Perhaps I would find what I was missing in the world of basketball.’ Illustration: Gym Class/The Guardian

Epiphany! If I could enjoy a backyard basketball competition (watched on delay, cowering from spoilers, simulating live conditions), why not a historical sporting contest with some more meat on the bone? I messaged friends whose knowledge of American sports went anorak-deep. What had I missed in recent seasons? What was out there, online, that I was ignorant of and could watch as if it were live? We put together a bill of fare, plucking the better games from three major American sports. A starter of ice hockey (Maple Leafs v Flyers), a main of basketball (Raptors v Warriors), baseball for pudding (Nationals v Astros). It took hours to consume all this hand-picked good stuff. There was an epic penalty shootout. Two celebratory confetti showers! But something was off.

When I knew to expect grand drama, I was impatient for it, and I started fast-forwarding for the sexy bits. Any thrills did not feel earned, and it occurred to me for the first time that one of the perverse appeals of live sport might be the obligatory waiting – all that hanging around for a result to land, worrying it might wind up being a hideous waste of time.

“Sport speaks to the drama of the unknown,” the president of Eurosport, Andrew Georgiou, told me. “We hope for something. But we don’t know we’re going to get it.” At the outbreak of the crisis, as sport wound down and stopped, Eurosport lost something like 2,500 hours of planned-for live footage for the spring. Georgiou and his team had to hustle to fill the gaps with archive material and virtual sports. “I’m looking at my calendar for the week,” he said, “and everything’s planned. I know exactly what I’m doing every minute of the week. Live sport allows you to escape from the predictability of [that] and get into untold drama… The very reason I watch sport is because of that massive unpredictability.”

I agreed, and I found myself drifting back to the Ukrainian table tennis. Smetenko had won three thrillers in a row. There was something about knowing he was out there, swearing, squeaking in his trainers, that made him a more compelling watch than all the confetti-showered basketballers and baseballers put together.

Taiwanese baseball. Tajik football. The search continued. I had to ask myself the serious question: if the UFC was successful in staging a brutal ultimate fight on a private island, would I be desperate enough to pay to watch? Katherine Brunt, a World Cup-winning England cricketer and former devourer of TV sport (12 hours a week), told me she had been wondering the same thing. She had always been a fan of mixed martial arts in her former, sport-watching life. The prospect of a fresh, live bout would be hard to resist.

World Cup-winning England cricketer Katherine Brunt (centre) celebrates the men’s victory last summer. Photograph: Alex Davidson/Getty Images

Brunt was an armchair fan who favoured multiple screens, she said: a big TV and a couple of laptops was the ideal. I heartily agreed. Like gourmands reminiscing over some old, closed-down restaurant, we traded memories about that golden Sunday of TV sport last summer. While Stokes led the England men’s team to glory, Brunt said, she had been watching on a TV with her teammates, after a match of their own. “We’d just played Australia. Absolutely spanked them.” But do you know what, Brunt added? Watching the men’s team win on TV was almost better.

“When you’re playing, you can’t let your emotions get the best of you. You have to almost turn your real feelings down a bit. When you’re watching sport, though, you can let it all out.” There happened to be a photographer on site that day, and he captured Brunt, in a moment of spectator-sport bliss, overturning the nearest chair. “Watching sport, you can be irrational, or elated, or fuming angry, or goosebumpy,” she told me. “And that’s why we need it.”

She said goodbye. Off, maybe, to watch some fight clips on YouTube. I had a choice to make myself, between Swedish horse racing and the next round of internet darts. It’s going to be a long summer.

Illustration: Gym Class/The Guardian

Howzat! Where to get your sporting fix

American football There are full-game replays of big-match encounters at youtube.com/nfl. Check out the 2018 barnstormer between the Kansas City Chiefs and the Los Angeles Rams.

Basketball For the duration of the US lockdown, the NBA has opened up its archive of matches from the 2018/2019 season (sign up for access at watch.nba.com). The Horse competition is on YouTube (youtube.com/nba).

Ice hockey The season was halted halfway through when the pandemic broke out. Watch the games that have been played so far with a free archive pass (at least while the lockdown lasts) at nhl.com/tv.

Darts The isolation-friendly Modus tournament concluded in late April but can still be watched on YouTube (search for Modus Darts TV). Start with the when-legends-collide encounters of Raymond “Barney” van Barneveld and Martin “Wolfman” Adams.

Baseball The American competition the MLB has opened its archive for locked-down sports fans at home (mlb.tv). Check out Game 5 of the series between the Washington Nationals and the LA Dodgers, played in early October.

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