Stacy Warner, East Carolina University & Tiesha R. Martin, Radford University
In the wake of the COVID-19 crisis, sport fans, athletes, and sport managers are navigating an unprecedented time. The most comparable event many of us in the United States have witnessed is likely the aftermath of the September 11th terrorist attacks in 2001. While that was a much shorter duration without sport, similar to the COVID-19 pandemic, that event disrupted our sport systems.
Minor league baseball canceled their playoffs for the first time since World War II (Kraus, 2003) and the other major sport leagues stood still for a few days. That year, one of the authors was working as an NCAA Division I Basketball Championship intern at the NCAA Headquarters in Indianapolis and vividly recalled watching news updates regarding the planes that hit the Twin Towers in a colleague’s office. Although months away from the major basketball tournament and March Madness, administrators had to make changes.
Savvy college basketball fans may recall NCAA administrators implemented the “pod system” for the first time during the 2002 tournament, with the goal of reducing travel and increasing regional play for teams. This was a direct response to the 9-11 attacks. Others may recall the quick advances in stadium security or watching then-President George Bush throw out the first pitch in Yankee Stadium (MLB, n.d.). What we were missing then as individuals was the feeling of safety.
Our U.S. sport system reacted in a manner that provided fans and athletes with a sense of safety, nationalism, and togetherness. We may not have realized then how much we craved this togetherness as a nation.
We will concede it is still the feeling of safety that must be provided by sport systems, but more so than ever we argue that it is the togetherness that will be fundamental to the recovery of the sport industry. Our goal is to highlight the role and importance of sport fostering community from the youth and adult participatory levels to professional and amateur spectator sport.
To aid in the successful recovery of our sport systems, we must first acknowledge what fans and athletes have been missing because of the COVID-19 pandemic. We hope that sport managers will recognize that the most successful sport systems are those that create a healthy community and attachment for participants (Berg et al., 2015; Putnam, 2001; Warner, 2019).
As scholars across various disciplines have continued to note the benefits of experiencing togetherness or a sense of community, sport scholars have demonstrated that the sense of community derived from sport continues to be a primary benefit and justification for sport (Warner, 2016; Warner & Dixon, 2011, 2016).
When sport organizations were faced with cancelling seasons and postponing events due to the Coronavirus pandemic in the Spring of 2020, the importance of the sense of community developed around sport was especially highlighted. The tagline “We’re all in this together” has echoed throughout commercials, has trended on Twitter, and been reiterated by professional athletes across the globe. It is evident that the intrinsic need for community and togetherness is at the forefront of many minds.
Youth Sport Response
Even with reports that youth are less vulnerable to contracting COVID-19, youth sports, like many other things, shut down in the wake of the pandemic. Why is that important? Among the many benefits of youth sport is that it gives children the opportunity to develop deep, meaningful connections to others, which gives them a greater sense of being a part of the community (Lin et al., 2016; Warner & Leierer, 2015).
This can lead to youth feeling a sense of purpose and belonging (Anderson-Butcher et al., 2014). While adolescents can experience increases in the felt sense of community in even short-term sport programs (Warner & Leierer, 2015), researchers also have demonstrated that we should not overlook the positive benefits to youth sport parents, as well. Youth sport is an important site for parents to meet others in the community and build parent-peer relationships (Dorsch et al., 2015; Misener, 2020)
Youth sport can be a vital site for social change in a community whereby life quality is enhanced through increased sense of community.
Though potentially counter-intuitive, it is essential to focus on both the parent’s and child’s experience rather than just the child’s experience, as both are important to building a sense of community. (Warner, Dixon, & Leierer, 2015, p. 59)
Without youth sport during the COVID-19 pandemic, children do not have a gathering place to interact with their peers, and youth sport parents are suddenly missing this opportunity for community. This lack of social interaction with peers through sport could lead to feelings of social isolation or even social analgesia for youth and parents (Begen & Turner-Cobb, 2014).
While youth sport will inevitably resume, the long-term impact of the COVID-19 crisis is still highly uncertain. The recovery could mean an opportunity or major crisis in making youth sport more accessible across racial and economic divides, thereby promoting or denying both children and parents the sense of community often found in youth sport. From 2008 to 2018, the percentage of children aged six to 12 that played team sports regularly dropped from 45% to 38% according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association.
With the economic recession that has accompanied the pandemic, this downward trend is expected to continue (O’Neal, n.d.). A recent poll indicated “49% of parents believe their children will be less likely to participate in youth sports due to financial circumstances” (Baker & Tracy, 2020). Because of this, private club sport organizations may not be an option for some young athletes.
Additionally, community youth sport may be at risk. According to a national parks and recreation survey administered in late April 2020, 90% of parks and recreation departments across the country reduced their spending during the pandemic and 31% planned to make budget cuts for the 2020-2021 fiscal year (Solomon, 2020).
Furthermore, a survey of 290 youth sport organizations throughout the country indicated that 46% of those organizations were in danger of shutting down due to the pandemic (Silverman, 2020). Leagueside is predicting youth sport participation rates could drop to 18% as a result of the pandemic (Brandoff, n.d.).
Given 85% of parents believe sports are key for their kids to make friends (Baker & Tracy, 2020) and the noted benefit for parents to connect with their peers, our youth sport systems must keep children and their parents connected. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued considerations for returning to play for youth sports.
These suggestions include maintaining social distancing among players and coaches, decreasing shared equipment, limiting the number of players on teams and spectators, and limiting travel (CDC, 2020). It is unclear whether these practices will affect young athletes’ and parents’ ability to realize a sense of community though sport, but it is clear that any increases in social isolation could negatively affect one’s overall well-being (Berg et al., 2015; Berkman et al., 2000; Warner, 2019).
In addition to youth sports, adult sport leagues across the nation were forced to suspend their spring seasons due to COVID-19.It is well established that sport participation rates sharply decline into adulthood. Roughly 40% of 18-25-year-olds play sports; this then drops to 26% for 26-49-year-olds. Participation rates continue to drop, with only 20% for adults aged 50+ still playing sport.
However, researchers (i.e., Berg et al., 2015; Warner, 2019) found that the opportunity for social interactions was a primary benefit participants sought in leisure-time physical activity programs (the other benefit was hedonic rewards). Further, researchers have shown that involvement in sport was associated with feelings of social connectedness among adults (Hoye et al., 2015). This indicates the important role that sport plays for adults in helping connect to others. Adult sport leagues have attempted to foster this desire for social connectedness by offering additional ways for athletes to interact with each other, such as post-game happy hours and socials.
Warner (2019) and Warner, Sparvero, Shapiro, and Anderson’s (2017) research demonstrated how these sport connections relate to positive health outcomes and healthy behaviors, respectively. Thus, considering the cancellation of adult sport due to COVID-19, the negative health implication of not being able to connect with others through participatory sport should not be overlooked. Some sport organizations have tried to try to connect to participants through social media, but the COVID-19 crisis has made the impact and benefits of the community developed around participatory sport even clearer.
As with youth sports, how and when adult participatory sports resume could affect the fostering of a sense of community through sport. Adult sport leagues may also experience financial uncertainty considering the imminent economic recession. Returning to play will probably come with recommendations for social distancing and limited contact and interaction among athletes, which would have a negative impact on the benefits of sport for participants.
Finally, professional and amateur spectator sport also has been tremendously impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. In March 2020, the NBA announced it would suspend its season indefinitely after players tested positive for the virus. This started a domino effect with the NHL and the NCAA following shortly after, suspending all activity.
Like other sports, professional and amateur athletics were halted and once again, the potential for sport to help foster a sense of community was impacted. Scholars have credited sport fandom in the form of spectatorship as a mechanism for social interaction and the building of community (Fairley & Tyler, 2012; Wann et al., 2017; Warner et al., 2011).
Specifically, Warner and colleagues (2011) found that college sport fandom was associated with college students’ retention and satisfaction. Sport fans connect with each other based on their common interests. Fairley and Tyler found that this creating of social ties could lead to fan loyalty, while Inoue et al. (2015) and Sparvero and Warner’s (2018) work noted the potential health benefits of these ties for sport spectators.
Sport organizations recognize the importance of a sense of community among their fans. In their statements regarding the shutdown due to COVID-19, many organizations have encouraged fans to download the team’s mobile app or follow the team on various social media platforms in order to “stay connected” and to “keep in touch with other fans.”
Cianfrone and Warner’s (2018) work put forth that social media managers and marketers can strategically develop sporting communities online by placing an emphasis on: Conscientious Outreach, Emphasis on Shared Goals, Equitable Policies, Contests and Rivalries, Fan Leadership Opportunities, and Social Spaces. This work concluded that, “any strategies that can foster greater engagement will help fans better identify with and build relationships with a sport organization” (p. 17).
While this would provide a temporary solution, sport industry leaders have suggested that resuming sport competition could be paramount in allowing people to celebrate and unite in the country’s healing. This speaks to the power of sport to connect individuals, especially in times of crisis.
Professional and amateur sports have plans to resume following the lifting of state and federal regulations. However, many are expecting resuming with limited spectators or without spectators all together (Bumbaca, 2020). NBA commissioner, Adam Silver stated, “While the COVID-19 pandemic presents formidable challenges, we are hopeful of finishing the season in a safe and responsible manner based on strict protocols now being finalized with public health officials and medical experts.” While safety is the primary justification for this return stipulation, organizations will have to find innovative ways to engage supporters and aid in the social interaction among fans.
Fairley and Tyler (2012) suggested that sense of community can be built among sport fans without actually attending the sporting events in person. Further, they indicated that providing sites for fans to view the game with other fans outside of the stadium can be used as a means to create social ties. Thus, teams may consider sponsoring off-site watch parties for a limited number of fans until they can return as in-person spectators.
Where do we go from here? It is vital that sport organizations continue to find creative ways to connect their participants and fans. We can no longer just assume social ties and connections will be made as a result of sport. Rather, we must intentionally design sport to build community (see Warner & Dixon, 2011; 2016; Cianfrone & Warner, 2018 for a review).
In an effort for our sport systems to successfully recover from the COVID-19 crisis, sport managers must address first and foremost what has been missing and lost during the pandemic. The ability for sport to be used as a tool to build community and bring individuals together cannot be overlooked. Sport managers must do better in providing this primary benefit participants and fans seek.
It is evident that the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted sports worldwide—from youth and adult participatory sport to professional and amateur spectator sports. At a time when people are required to social distance due to state and federal guidelines, the social togetherness and sense of community provided by sports are clearly missing.
The well-documented innate need to belong or experience a sense of community is associated with numerous positive outcomes including but not limited to improved mood, mental health, physical health, and overall well-being (Warner, 2016; 2019). It is important that our sport systems react to the pandemic in a manner that will continue to foster community. This is critical to the sport experience and is needed for many individuals to thrive during this time.
Thus, as sport fans, athletes, and sport managers are navigating this unprecedented time, we must not lose sight of the impact our sport systems play in creating community. Sport has been and will continue to be a much needed outlet for many. It is not a trivial activity, but rather one that has proven to be an integral part of many lives and communities.
How our sport systems react will be key to demonstrating, justifying, and legitimatizing just how fundamental and important sport is to individuals’ overall well-being, health, and everyday life. Thus, the COVID-19 crisis can and should be viewed as an opportunity for sport fans, athletes, and sport managers to validate the role and power of sport to positively impact society.
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