The world has changed significantly in the past two months, with sports being one of the things most affected. The entire sports landscape has been turned upside down--players are without jobs, some fans are left without closure, and networks are without content.
One of the most interesting subplots to the COVID-19 pandemic is how networks are filling the time slots that were meant for games or other canceled content. For example, according to ESPN, nearly $12 billion in revenue could potentially be lost--and that doesn’t include the two biggest moneymakers: the National Football League and college football.
Sportswriters at various sites have faced the same problem: how do we continue to come up with content, when our content is based on something that is not happening? It has inspired hundreds of unique stories, ideas, and content to be published that we would probably not have seen if we have sports currently. I was asked a simple question: What do sports mean to the world? This is my answer.
When Kobe Bryant passed away in February of this year, the shockwaves that were sent through the sports world were ones we have never seen before. It is one of those “I will always remember where I was when it happened” moments. (Yes, I do remember where I was when I heard the news: I was getting ready to do commentary for a high school hockey game, and found out hours before we were supposed to go on air).
One of the greatest basketball icons that the game has ever seen was gone too soon, and his death single-handedly stopped the basketball world for a good 24-48 hours. ESPN can handle impromptu/holy bleep moments like these better than any other network. I personally remember the night boxing legend and world icon Muhammed Ali died. It happened later in the day at around 10-11 PM, and the coverage kicked off shortly after in Bristol. ESPN had amazing coverage, led by Bob Ley and Jeremy Schaap, who carried the entire program. They interviewed guests about Ali throughout the night and did not sign off-air until 4 a.m. The following days up until his funeral were unprecedented. We had never seen anything quite like this and everyone all around blew it out of the water with their coverage of such an unprecedented event.
When Kobe passed away, it was no different. The tragic news started to trickle out at around 1:30 p.m. EST, and ESPN brought on coverage starting around 2 p.m, led by “The Jump” host Rachel Nichols, who like Bob Ley and Jeremy Schaap, carried the program for hours, interviewing guests and getting their perspectives on not only Kobe Bryant the basketball player, but Kobe Bryant the person. One thing I remember from ESPN’s coverage, was Stephen A. Smith being vulnerable and breaking down on air discussing Kobe and his daughter, Gigi.
Kobe passed away on a Sunday, and Ernie Johnson and the “Inside the NBA” crew were able to quickly pivot from a regularly scheduled Tuesday night game between the Los Angeles Lakers and Los Angeles Clippers to a full-fledged show interviewing the likes of NBA commissioner Adam Silver, and NBA legend Jerry West. Once again, an overall great production.
The coverage surrounding Kobe’s passing spoke volumes as to how much he meant to not only the sports world but to the casual fans, or to those who do not even watch basketball. That is what sports mean to the world. One person’s ability to bring together a mass number of people from different backgrounds, sports fans, and non-sports fans specifically, shows that the world is dependent on sports.
Another reason as to what sports mean to the world is to take a look at what is going on in the world right now. The NBA was the first major professional sports league to officially cease operations, followed in some order by the NHL, NCAA, MLB, and MLS. Once sports went away, one by one, and were no longer on television, it felt like there was a greater appreciation for sports. There is an old saying, “you do not know what you have until it is gone.”, and that is true. In my case, sports were my around-the-clock, 365 days a year go-to for whenever I needed an escape from the real world. In the fall, it was the baseball postseason, to go along with NFL, NHL, and NBA starting up. In the winter, it is all of the above (minus baseball of course). The spring brings March Madness, NHL, and NBA playoffs, and summer is the greatest sport of them all, baseball, by itself--how it should be.
Once sports were canceled, many people were scrambling to find stuff to do, and I am sure many found new hobbies and interests, but none of them is probably as entertaining as sports were, and that is what makes sports great, too. Different people have different interests that are intertwined in the sports world as well: some people may be interested in hockey and the beauty of a tiny black puck sliding across the ice more than others, much like some people may be more interested in watching baseball and hearing the crack of the bat, or the snap of the glove more than others. Sports appeal to numerous demographics, which brings us back to Kobe.
While Kobe Bryant played basketball, he was not just a basketball player, which is why his reach extended into the entertainment world. Kobe won five championships, made 18 all-star game appearances, won a Most Valuable Player award, and scored well over thirty-three thousand points during his 20-year career with the Los Angeles Lakers. The final ribbon on his career came when he was posthumously elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame this past March. That résumé to a basketball junkie is quite impressive, no doubt. However, to some, the greatest accomplishment on his résume was winning an Oscar in 2018 for his role directing the animated short “Dear Basketball”, which was a poem based on his (at the time) pending retirement.
Often, most things are taken for granted. Life, people, memories, the list goes on. One thing I learned was how much I took sports--being able to turn on a game on any given night and be entertained for hours upon hours--for granted. I miss everything about sports, the storylines, the drama, the endless amount of statistics, to name a few. One thing that is not spoken about enough are the heroes--speaking in sports lore, of course--that we will not witness because of sports being canceled. I’m looking at you, March Madness. The unsung hero that nobody ever saw coming, not even his own team, is the greatest part of the NCAA Tournament. From the walk-on who averages over 20 points in the tournament when he barely saw the floor during the regular season, or the teams like UMBC, who rally together for one common goal: to shock the world. Even folk heroes like Sister Jean, who become lovable icons for representing their school during the tournament. For some, it propels their career, or even life, further than expected, and for the fans, it provides them with lifelong joy and memories.
I was asked what sports mean to the world, and my answer was simply Kobe. He is the perfect metaphor for how much sports mean to the world. Despite him being a basketball player, he brought countless joy, love, and appreciation for all things off the court too. To me, being able to entertain people and bring joy into their lives, because you never know when someone needs it, is the definition of what sports mean to the world.