When COVID-19 stopped the world as we knew it, sport became a very obvious signpost that everything had changed.
Sports were played in mostly empty arenas and stadiums, the Olympics were postponed and Australia’s two biggest football codes had to strive to continue.
Sport became a very obvious signpost that everything had changed. Image: Getty Images
But these changes stretched beyond the field of play and extended to the ethos and principles of the sports industry – from racism and systemic abuse to the challenges fans face.
We asked three University of Melbourne experts for their insights into some of the changes we’ve seen on and off the field in 2021.
Jack Anderson is Professor and Director of Sports Law at Melbourne Law School; Professor Karen Farquharson is Head of the School of Social and Political Sciences and Dr. Jordana Silverstein is a Senior Research Fellow at the Peter McMullin Center on Statelessness (and a football fan).
Is the sport sidelined?
PROFESSOR JACK ANDERSON
COVID-19 remained a player in the sports business even in 2021.
Sports organizations realized that they were overly dependent on three main sources of income – ticketing, sponsorship, and broadcasting.
In search of alternatives for the post-pandemic era, sports organizations in Australia have been seduced by private equity financing.
Private equity raises important regulatory questions about the source of such funding, the due diligence that must be done prior to adoption, and the reasons private equity might invest in sports – from commercial returns to allegations of sports lingerie.
American gymnast Simone Biles was one of the stars of the Tokyo Games. Image: Getty Images
The more immediate impact of COVID-19 has been the postponement of major events.
The contractual and logistical machinations behind the Tokyo Olympics were enormous, as was the budget – it was one of the most expensive summer games in history. Australia is now entering a decade of hosting a number of international sporting events culminating in Brisbane’s third Olympic Games in 2032.
American gymnast Simone Biles was one of the stars of the Tokyo Games.
The symbolism of the Olympic Games
The impact convicted abuser Larry Nassar had on Biles and hundreds of others, and the resulting focus on child protection, will be an athletic and legal legacy from 2021 that all of us who love sports must face.
PROFESSOR Karen Farquharson
The second year of the COVID-19 pandemic has been challenging for Australian sports.
The sports industry has been disrupted from grassroots to professional levels, with competitions being canceled and delayed, players playing in “bubbles”, many being separated from family and friends, and professional games being played without spectators.
The sports industry was disrupted from the grassroots to the Olympics. Image: Getty Images
Nowhere was this more blatant than at the Tokyo Olympics, which took place a year later than intended and without the presence of supporters.
But a central issue that has come to the fore this year is racism in sport.
Racism in sport has many facets and ranges from fans who racially denigrate players to players who experience racism from teammates to the racist structuring of sports opportunities that exclude non-white players from a career after playing in sport.
Racism in Sports: So Where To?
The year started with the release of the Do Better report. This report, commissioned by Collingwood Football Club, found that the club had problems with systemic racism, players and fans had experienced racism, and Collingwood’s responses to racist incidents were at best ineffective, and sometimes made the situation worse.
The report exposed racism in Collingwood in an unprecedented way and brought the issue up for other clubs and other sports. Its effect remains to be seen.
Meanwhile, racist acts continued elsewhere, including on the AFL when Adelaide Football Club star Taylor Walker vilified an indigenous player at a game.
The Do Better report, commissioned by Collingwood Football Club, found that he had problems with systemic racism. Image: Getty Images
Elite basketball player Liz Cambage pointed to a lack of diversity in promotional photos surrounding the Tokyo Olympics, and racism in international cricket was highlighted by West Indian cricket legend Michael Holding when he described his experience of racism while playing games.
This year, players were expected to show symbolic solidarity with the #BlackLivesMatter movement and those who did not, like South African T20 player Quinton de Kock, have been accused of racism.
DR. JORDANA SILVERSTEIN
For many of us, 2021 began by participating in the AFL Women (AFLW) Games.
Footy is back, but times have changed
Out on the grass in Casey Fields, under the shelters in Moorabbin on a rainy Saturday, or sitting with friends in the stands in Princes Park, the opportunity to watch in person had returned and the cheer for your team was palpable.
It would prove to be short-lived, however, and soon those of us living under lockdown would be watching all sports on TV again.
But this was a year that still rewarded the sports watcher, creating communities around the world of spectators, fans, and viewers forced to find new ways to enjoy their sport.
In fact, watching sports, and especially the Olympics, made the lockdown more bearable for many people.
For many people, watching sports and especially the Olympics made the lockdown more bearable. Image: Getty Images
During the Olympics, people had multiple screens set up to see as much as possible. Important moments were marked on social media, viewers tuned in at the right time or took the opportunity to marvel at sports they hadn’t seen before.
With the increase in streaming, we had instant access to more sports and more control over what we were watching than ever before.
Similarly, the Men’s AFL Grand Final became an opportunity for those who would not normally see it but were at home under lockdown and curfew to participate.
Football, history and a changing Australia
In many ways, sports viewing became more widespread throughout 2021. Sitting at home alone or with immediate family, roommates, or a bubble buddy is very different, but watching on social media has created new ways to connect, while podcasts like The Outer Sanctum and The Final Word brought in fan bases together.
I know I am not the only person looking forward to seeing live sports live again without the seedy fake crowd noises we had on TV.
But I’m also h -py to know that in these COVID lockdown years, watching sports may have become a little more possible and interesting for a few more people.
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