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At Large | 2020 is a year to forget, with lessons to remember

The past year has brought difficulties few could have imagined but there have still been signs of resilience, ingenuity and dedication. They can get sport through the challenges ahead.

by Eoin Connolly
At Large | 2020 is a year to forget, with lessons to remember

We can be upfront about this. 2020 is not a year many of us are eager to relive.

There have been moments where living in the past held a certain appeal. This has been the year of the archive, the retrospective, the rewatch. When everything stopped, the only way to look was backwards.

This column argued even before the pandemic that sport has unrealised potential in its back catalogue, and that nostalgia is a rising, looping commercial trend. I’ve probably written about it this year as well. Repetition is kind of an occupational hazard just now.

Still, you get the odd hint of innovation in these cycles. Late last week, Adidas put out a video trailing the reissue of a replica first team shirt worn by Arsenal 30 years ago, part of a new line under its Originals label. It was a strange and distinctive and frankly pretty brilliant spot, including zero footage of anyone from that era actually playing in the kit. 

Instead, it offered a stripped-down and hyper-stylised impression of 1990, featuring Arsenal squad members who were mostly not born when the jersey appeared first time round. It briefly made a world for them to play in, the time of which is both specific and irrelevant. A song from a 2010 movie plays over the top. Ian Wright chunters at a digitised twentysomething version of himself. It’s a continuum, not a moment.

The message is clear. This is not aimed at those remembering a title-winning season way back when. This is for later generations to discover as their own, like digging up an old song to cover or sample or just appreciate. Of course, it’s also a part of the club’s heritage being packaged up and resold for 60-odd quid a pop – stocks are limited so it can be a collectible all over again. But it all allows another set of fans to join in, to share and enjoy a bit of history. 

Adidas is good at this type of thing. So are Nintendo, and Lego, and a smattering of other brands who have found the knack for reanimating memories – and remonetising them in the process. There is a burgeoning economy in it, from digital media to physical products.

Think back to the biggest sporting event of the early pandemic. The weekly release schedule of episodes of The Last Dance, at one point, was the closest thing we had to a fixture list. And when you were done watching, if you were so inclined, you could read the reaction pieces online, or tune into the podcasts, or pit Chicago Bulls teams of a generation ago against the heroes of a suspended season on NBA 2K. Air Jordan sales spiked. 

Yesterday has been reclaimed and repurposed. For the most part, it is happening digitally but that is not the only way. In November, Mike Tyson, 54, met Roy Jones Jr, 51, in a boxing ring in Los Angeles. Snoop Dogg commentated at ringside, and people paid to watch. The plan is that this becomes a regular thing.

Sometimes the past is what you make of it. You can imagine, in some not so distant decade, that parts of the pandemic experience will take on their own kitschy allure as a given cohort – you know, idiots – get ironic kicks out of Zoom cocktail hours and homemade sourdough and rationing toilet paper.  

But most of us will find more valuable ways to reflect on 2020.

The thing is – in a more practical sense, and despite what recent evidence would suggest – time only moves in one direction. The Chicago Bulls didn’t get an invite to the National Basketball Association (NBA) restart in June as they were already out of playoff contention. Retired boxers get older, not younger. Two days after that Adidas video dropped, Arsenal lost a fourth home league game in a row for the first time since 1959. Talk about retro.

There is still a present to live in and its challenges are stark. 

This has been a tense, miserable, agonising year. And I say that as one of the lucky ones. Covid has taken lives, it has taken livelihoods and has broken the connections we depend upon. 

That is as true in sport as anywhere else. This industry has been hollowed out. Venues emptied. Dreams deferred. It is not a game, when it comes down to it. Jobs have been lost and difficult decisions have been taken. More lie ahead.

The next few months, at least, remain about getting through this emergency, tinkering and pivoting in response to the public health reality. The scale of the damage will not be clear for a while.

For all that, there has also been a sense of what is possible. There is so much to commend in the responses to the Covid-19 pandemic, in the resilience and ingenuity that have kept events happening, somehow, and kept communities together.  

The significance of technology, with its extraordinary capacity to close distances, has been inescapable. From the acceleration of remote production to the advent of physical-digital crossovers, worldwide virtual marathons and on-screen cycling races, new categories of events and new methods of delivery can be sighted. The progress of 5G and AR, the billions of investment in connected fitness, and borrowed ideas from gaming and entertainment will create more points of convergence. But there will always be plenty that makes sport unique.

Managing the change to come will be the next step. Suspended animation has given us a long look at sport’s imbalances. The lack of coordinated leadership has been felt. Cash is flowing in from new sources in search of efficient value and compromise. That will present some exacting choices.

There is promise, nonetheless. Venture capital investment and broadcast rights income will be less evenly distributed than before but with imagination and focus, new models can be found. Partners and rights holders, communicating with their fans, can find them. Value can be protected and grown together.

When the Covid crisis ends, the climate crisis will linger, its biggest dangers another year closer. 2020 began with Australia’s bushfires and a warning about how far extreme weather conditions have already encroached. This is the time to act. There is likely another age of radical adaptation to come, but that brings the chance to do things better.

There were urgent conversations this year that found their way into the arena, even with no fans present to take part in them. Sport, ironically, does not exist in a bubble. It has responsibilities to the communities that sustain it. This business will have to change to represent those communities as it should.

Yet that also demonstrated sport’s power to reach people. There were athletes who found their voice and their purpose. There were teams who stepped up for the most vulnerable around them, and became part of an unprecedented public health effort. Sport has shown its social, cultural and economic value over and over again, both when it couldn’t be there, and when it could. The means are there to make its case with confidence, with nuance, and with numbers. 

This is the last of these columns in 2020, as SportsPro heads into the festive break. The first posed 20 questions about the 12 months ahead. One or two got an answer. Others might in 2021. Some will be reframed in a startling context; a handful will never be relevant again. The last one asked if there would be a moment we would look back on as the real start of this new decade. I think we know what that was now. 

There are memories I have of the opening weeks of the year that seem to belong to another life altogether: planes and trains and passports and minor breaches of personal space. Fragments of a more spontaneous existence. 

An Atlanta traffic jam worth every bumper for the night of basketball that followed. An ankle twisted running for a train on the way to a game with a late winner. An even later defeat, after extra time, over too late to find anywhere open for an evening meal. It’s funny, the things you miss.

Those times will come again. We have the work of brilliant people to thank for that, and we can thank them with brilliant work. We might soon get back to normal. But we aren’t going back to life before the pandemic. We’re moving on to life after it, with all that entails. 

I, for one, cannot wait.

This too shall pass. See you then. Take care.