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On sport without spectators

The somewhat weird experience of watching televised sport being conducted behind locked doors and without spectators has become a leading symbol of the Covid-19 era as Governments the world over wrestle with the seemingly contradictory imperatives of protecting populations against the virus and ‘getting business – and life – back to normal’.

The famous ongoing Rust debate as to whether the experience of actually going to watch sport in the flesh is a superior experience to that of watching it ‘live’ on television has become not quite the stark black and white issue that it was when it began.

Both sides of the argument originally took it as a given that the ‘being there’ experience not only involved a packed, if not absolutely full, ground or stadium but also the prospect of ‘a full day out’ – in other words, the anticipatory thrill in the days leading up to the game or event; the waking up on the morning in question; the travelling to the venue, whether solo, in a group or in a mass ant-like herd, whether on foot, in a car, or possibly  a train or bus; the ‘community’ feel amongst supporters and fans of belonging to one team or another; the competing chants, anthems and banter; the crowd’s reactions to the ebb and flow of the action; in summary, the overall sense of ‘being part of the spectacle’.

Trying to get a considered grip on the issue in the round, I took to reflecting upon the days before ‘television’ [a term that in 2020 covers live free-to-air broadcasts, pay-per-view and live ‘streaming] existed.

Going back to the images and moving footage (if any) of historically famous sporting occasions I began with the FA Cup Final of 1923, the first ever played at Wembley, Bolton Wanderers’ 2-0 victory over West Ham United on 28th April 1923.

Rusters will recall that it was attended by a crowd estimated at nearly three times the official capacity of 125,000 and became known as the ‘White Horse Final’ because of the colour of one of the police horses deployed on the day to clear the crowd from the pitch before the start which had to be delayed by 45 minutes for the purpose.

Next sport to come to mind was boxing.

Here my memories – again, I hasten to add, gained from black and white photos and grainy moving footage not personal experience(!) – were of legendary world heavyweight title fights battles between Jack Johnson and former champion Jack Jeffries on 4th July 1910 in Reno, Nevada and Jack Dempsey versus then champion Jess Willard on 4th July 1919 in Toledo Ohio.

The Johnson/Jeffries fight in front of some 30,000 fans – dubbed at the time as “The Fight of The Century” and dripping with racial undertones because of Johnson’s unpopularity (Jeffries was labelled “the Great White Hope” and had been involuntarily saddled with the task of winning the title back for the white race) – was pretty one-sided and ended with a knockout for Johnson in the 15th round.

The Dempsey/Willard clash in front of 91,000 was even more one-sided. Willard, 34, a six feet six former cowboy weighing 235 pounds was outclassed and bludgeoned mercilessly by the six feet one inch (187 pound) younger man who, of course, went on to become one of the all-time greats.

Willard took seven trips to the canvas in the first round, one of the earliest after a tremendous left from his challenger which shattered his jaw. Game as he was, Willard failed to come out for the start of the fourth round, having by then also suffered a broken cheek bone and broken ribs.

My point is that both these fights took place before technology made live broadcasts even possible.

To be able to pronounce years later “I was there” with any veracity, you really did have to be.

These days, of course, one does have the choice. Not that those on either side of the Rust argument would have contemplated our current circumstances post which – hitherto at least – it has become no longer a case of “one or the other”. For the foreseeable future it has become one of “live action, no crowds” or zero.

To finish, I’ll mention a couple of impressions of my sports-viewing as it is.

After taking a while getting used to it, I am now really quite enjoying watching “no crowd” football on television. Whether I’ve become seduced by the recorded crowd reactions being played out over the PA systems or not, after the early ‘weirdness’ of the situation, my sense is that over time both viewers and those involved on the day – players, managers, officials – have adapted reasonable well. When it’s all you’ve got, I guess you have to.

Similarly, the two boxing promotions I’ve seen on BT Sport worked fine.

The three ‘sports’ that ironically would never ‘do it’ for me without spectators – probably as much because, unless someone paid me, I wouldn’t watch them in person or on television anyway – are motor racing, darts and snooker.



About Tom Hollingworth

Tom Hollingsworth is a former deputy sports editor of the Daily Express. For many years he worked in a sports agency, representing mainly football players and motor racing drivers. Tom holds a private pilot’s licence and flying is his principal recreation. More Posts