For the most part, the reboot of sports in America with nary a fan to be seen has been a disappointing mess. Like 3.2 percent beer in Utah, it’s better than nothing, but not much better. By and large, it’s just all a bit off. It has every bit of the dullness of preseason with none of the hope of better things to come.
But there has been an exception. The NHL has managed to do it right, and is on an island as the only televised sport that feels real.
Part of the reason for the NHL’s success is no doubt that it went straight into playoff hockey, which is frankly the only kind that a lot of Americans watch. Knowing that elimination looms for teams who lose three games gives urgency to each game, each period, and each shift. Even without a crowd, that tension comes through the TV’s fourth wall.
But even the round-robin games played by teams who essentially have a bye have been more compelling than any other sporting events on television. It may have to do with the way hockey is shot and presented. The view of the ice has never focused very directly on the crowd, who are behind glass anyway. Sure, the close up of a hard check has traditionally featured rabid fans eager for blood, but for most of the gameplay they don’t figure into the overall feeling very much.
Watching Major League Baseball, on the other hand, has been absolutely brutal. The modern camera angle for baseball from centerfield over the pitcher’s shoulder constantly reveals the empty seats behind the plate filled with bizarre cardboard cutouts of “fans” with humongous heads. This is normal for Tampa Bay Rays fans, but jarring for fans of even sad teams like the New York Mets or Baltimore Orioles. In the 1950s, baseball was televised from an angle above home plate, which might actually be better today. But home runs would still land in a sea of sad, empty seats.
The NBA is a little better, but it still suffers from the lack of crowd. After all, celebrity fans like Jack Nicholson and Spike Lee are staples of the coverage. The courtside seats put fans much more in the action and their absence is extremely noticeable. Basketball players themselves, without helmets or partitions between them and the crowd, also seem to react more to crowd noise. It’s just a bigger part of the overall game and experience.
But there is something else. The NHL has tipped its skates to the current controversial racial moment in America with a few signs saying things like “We Skate For Black Lives,” but they aren’t beating us over the head with it. It also isn’t using the phrase “Black Lives Matter,” which vacillates between being a general statement of support for black lives and a Marxist organization promising to destroy the nuclear family.
The NBA plasters “Black Lives Matter” on the court in huge letters, and the players are wearing jerseys with social justice slogans emblazoned on their backs instead of their names. Major League Baseball has a reverse BLM logo on the mound. It’s just a constant reminder of our nation’s strife while we watch an event meant to be an escape.
The NHL seems to get this. It understands that sports matters to us because we share it regardless of our politics. It asks nothing of us but to enjoy the performances.
Maybe it makes sense that the least popular of the four major sports, and the one in which players are paid the least, is the most electrifying in Covid times. Of all the sports, hockey has maintained a “play for the love of the game” attitude. I mean, half of these guys lose their teeth to it. They also literally fight, which frankly is odd, but these days I’ll take it.
Whatever the reason for it, this casual Philadelphia Flyers fan is grateful for some sports that don’t feel like a sad consolation prize, and not just because my boys made the Boston Bruins look like fools in their first game. I’ve enjoyed watching all the games, even Arizona versus Nashville, which, I mean, why those places have hockey times is still a weird mystery.
If you haven’t tuned in yet, give it a shot, or a slapshot, or whatever. For a few hours, you might just forget that the world has gone crazy and you aren’t allowed to do anything. In this day and age, it’s about the most refreshing thing on TV. And Go Flyers!