This reduction in event frequency and scale is perhaps most outwardly heartbreaking for die-hard fans, but ultimately they soldier on - engaging with the content they can get hold of for now, whilst crossing their fingers for some semblance of sporting ‘normality’ to return in the second half of 2021. Ultimately, it’s unlikely that the strength of their fandom or interest in associated content will change - and in fact it leaves them a little more hungry and receptive than usual! Instead, it’s likely casual or emerging fandoms will have suffered more in the past 12 months, and moving forward. Due mostly not to the reduction in event frequency, but a reduction in the socialisation around sports and events.
Drawing from personal experiences: I’m not a huge football fan, but I would regularly talk about Man United (my family team) and watch their games in person with family and friends who are committed fans. I got a lot of recent news and knowledge from these interactions, and I even downloaded the Man United app so I could try to stay one step ahead! It was these positive bits of social interaction around football that maintained my casual Man United fandom - and I perhaps enjoyed it more than the football itself (don’t tell my Dad!)
However, opportunities to meet-up in the past 12 months have been infrequent at best, and so has the socialisation around sports. So where do I stand at this point? I haven’t seen a live football game since last year; my phone has uninstalled the Man United app as it hadn’t been opened in months; and I likely couldn’t hold a conversation on recent football news for more than 10 seconds!
Even when we were permitted to watch live events together, some of the ‘magic’ had been taken away, as stands stood empty and the passion usually generated by attending fans was noticeably missing. Some of this silence was deafening and had the tendency to leave events feeling like you were watching a glorified training session - not something fans were watching on the edge of their seats.
For someone who needed a bit of this fan interaction to help drive excitement, events often felt a little flat. Of course, organisations did their best to foster a sense of community spirit around live events - for example, the EPL gave fans the option to watch games alongside artificial crowd noises - but this didn’t quite have the same effect. And so, a lack of close proximity sharing, coupled with the fact that sporting events themselves were less exciting and much less frequent, will have, in some cases, dampened and constricted fandoms until only the most zealous followers remain.
A bit like me and football, younger children often don’t have the drive to self-direct fandoms either - and so it's their family and friends who are the key to creating and maintaining them.
For sports, from the earliest of ages (sometimes before we are even born), the teams, athletes or organisations we will follow and cheer for into adulthood have already been set in stone because it’s who our closest family members follow and cheer for too. The most applicable example in the UK is again football. Our research with Liverpool FC uncovered that, compared to children in the UK, those in the US and China, where football (or soccer) isn’t as socially prominent or family orientated, team affiliations began much later in life and were generally less committal (e.g. children would support or follow multiple EPL teams, or were prone to switching if their current team loses).
Young children in the UK watch games with their family and cheer and chant when crowds do, and they meet with friends at school and local clubs to practice their skills and talk about their favourite players. This keeps their love for football alive. Having regular socialisation around football from an early age is important for creating dedicated fans. However, not a lot of this has been happening over the past 12 months - at least not in the same way as it has before.
It will be interesting to see if the social changes brought about by Covid-19 have any long term effects on children’s enduring sports fandoms. Particularly for something like the Olympics, which happens very infrequently, will a potential lack of excitement and community spirit around this years’ leave a cohort of prospective athletes behind because it didn’t capture their attention?
For most, including myself, a future return to sporting normality will likely mean a return to my casual sports fandom - or the development and maintenance of stronger ones in the case of children. However, we don’t yet know what sporting normality will actually look like in the near or extended future - and it may be that fandoms around sports both struggle to get off the starting line and keep running.